The End of an Era: THE LAST HURRAH

Though slightly overlong, John Ford's The Last Hurrah, starring Spencer Tracy, and available through Twilight Time, is buoyed by the talents of all involved.

Current impressions will often skew or shape one’s perception of a classic film. It’s hard, forexample, to look back at a historical moment in time and not draw associations between that period’s politics — the tactics and personalities, the jargon and propaganda — and the features of today’s contemporary climate. Take John Ford’s 1958 feature, The Last Hurrah, with its enduring relevancy to America’s present partisan practice.

As noted by Julie Kirgo, in her Twilight Time commentary, which she shares with Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman, there are still the same contentious talking points: immigration, corruption, financial influence, etc. There is also still the demographic pandering, the prejudiced connotations brought forth by the mere mention of Planned Parenthood, and the proliferation of influential fat cats, corporate lackeys, and blindly obedient yes-men (most of whom are, indeed, still men; white men at that). But there are differences, too.

Today, a quote like “an Arab would have a better chance of becoming Mayor
of Tel Aviv” now stings with a new succession of sociopolitical undertones, and the presence of a candidate who is historically conscious and concerned with precise linguistic phrasing seems as antiquated as a candidate wearing a Homburg hat. So, while the times have changed in many ways, in other significant instances, they haven’t much at all. In The Last Hurrah, at any rate, there is the overriding sense of an era nearing its end, an era embodied by Spencer Tracy’s vociferous Mayor Frank Skeffington.
Running for his fifth term, Skeffington is the last of a dying breed. Thanks largely to Tracy’s relaxed, confident performance, he is savvy but not sleezy. He views politics as a spectator sport and knows exactly how to play. He’s got the technique down cold, his strategies have been thoroughly honed and time-tested, and he knows the score — or at least he behaves like he does (which can frequently be the same thing in politics). The wrinkled, gray-haired Tracy, whose debut feature, 1930’s Up the River, was also directed by Ford, suggests a man well-seasoned and subsequently wise in the ways of regional government. About to embark on his last campaign, Skeffington swiftly maneuvers as needed, taking lunches with influencers and putting in banal public appearances, expressing a contagious joy in the process. But still, he’s no innocent. He’ll manipulate those around him, including his constituents, he’ll blame a seemingly oppositional press, and he’ll casually drop an appalling insinuation about a rival whether it’s true or not. Alas, indeed, some things haven’t changed at all. And yet, because it’s John Ford and because it’s Spencer Tracy, nailing down Frank Skeffington isn’t so simple. Humbly chiding an undertaker for deceiving a recent widow, he’s also quick to call for a close-up when television cameras start to roll.
The son of a maid, Skeffington relishes his up-from-the-bootstraps underdog reputation, while his own son (Arthur Walsh), a jazz-mad, girl-crazy layabout, an apple that fell far from the tree, can’t even remember to vote for his own father. Skeffington pauses each morning under a portrait of his late wife, but he gleefully raises the ire of the district’s Irish Catholic foundation, as well as the stuffed shirts who comprise the local country club set. Yet in disappointment and defeat, he is nothing if not dignified. He is, in other words, a character ripe for the likes of genial Tracy, who had by this point won two Oscars out of five nominations, with four more to follow, though amazingly not for The Last Hurrah. (Also odd, given how ideal Tracy is, the part of Skeffington was originally offered to both Orson Welles and James Cagney.)
Written by Frank S. Nugent, writer of some of Ford’s finest films,The Last Hurrah was based on Edwin O’Connor’s 1956 novel of the same name, which was itself inspired by the life of former Boston mayor James Michael Curley, a colorful, somewhat notorious figure who later sued the film’s producers, unsuccessfully, for “invasion of privacy,” which presumably means there’s some truth to the film’s diplomatic prodding. Cast alongside Tracy are stellar supporting players and several members of Ford’s accustomed stock company. Skeffington’s “lovability factor,” as Kirgo writes in an essay accompanying the Twilight Time disc, “is only magnified by his entourage: a selection of frankly adorable actors, some of whom are longtime Ford faves, others of whom are simply cherished Hollywood character actors.” This includes John Carradine as the calculating newspaper publisher Amos Force, Basil Rathbone as devious banker Norman Cass, Donald Crisp as the local Catholic Cardinal, Charles B. Fitzsimons as Skeffington’s primary opponent, Kevin McCluskey, Jeffrey Hunter as Adam Caulfield, a sportswriter who, much to the chagrin of his father-in-law, takes to Skeffington’s common-man appeal, and Edward Brophy as “Ditto,” a simpleminded Skeffington devotee. With so many characters and so many diverse stars, the acting is perhaps an inevitably mixed-bag; some are on the far end of the over-acting spectrum and others, like Hunter, are to the other side of a colorless, superficial characterization. Dobbs is especially hard on Hunter, whose naïve outsider does seem hopelessly and unusually overwhelmed by the political mechanism in motion.
Taking place in “A New England City,” the specific setting of The Last Hurrah
isn’t itself as important as its elements of antique design and, far more significantly, its fundamental Irish assembly, which was ideal for Ford, who has just recently returned from his beloved Ireland after filming 1957’s The Rising of the Moon (and that not long after his glorious ode to The Emerald Isle, 1952’s The Quiet Man). But unlike these scenic sensations, The Last Hurrah is a predominantly interior picture, heavily dependent on Charles Lawton, Jr.’s resourceful photography and Ford’s inimitable eye for composition, something often overlooked beyond the realm of a traditional western landscape. In Caulfield’s newspaper building, an exceptional set-piece, Ford and Lawton produce scenes of remarkable depth and detail, shooting through glass planes separating individual offices but leaving wide open the view into these detached rooms of constant commotion. The same holds in the funeral parlor, which is abuzz with central characters and sideline extras, all packed tight into the constricted frame (the widow sadly thinks the crowd is a tribute to her husband when it’s really just the draw of Skeffington). Throughout the film, extended takes and floor-to-ceiling wide shots add brilliant visual variety to Nugent’s rather talky screenplay.
By all accounts, The Last Hurrah was a leisurely, amiable shoot, with familiar faces and easygoing expectations. While noting certain autobiographical parallels between director John Ford and Skeffington — their paternal qualities in particular — Kirgo and Dobbs differ in their evaluation of the film’s energy, with her argument being (correctly) that it’s more vigorous than not. They agree, however, that the film does suggest a gentler version of the sometimes-belligerent filmmaker, who was, after all, approaching the relative end of his career (albeit an end with seven features still to come). Although it would ultimately lose money on its initial release, The Last Hurrah remains a rich, nostalgic movie, insightful and amusing in its depiction of political pretense and the façade of those giving the speeches and the submission of those lapping them up. It even tackles the absurdity of television publicity, an invaluable medium now inexorably linked with the election process; a waggish scene at McCluskey’s home has his wife unknowingly bend over in front of the camera — “The posterior for posterity,” one character muses. Though slightly overlong with pacing issues near the middle and at the very end, The Last Hurrah is buoyed by the talents of all involved. It’s occasionally flat but never dull, occasionally sentimental but always worth watching.

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