Not Rated | 2h 1min | Drama, Comedy | 1958
Celebrated American director John Ford is probably best remembered for his excellent Westerns, such as “Stagecoach” (1939) and “Rio Grande” (1950). As a consequence, many of the non-Western films either have been underrated or flew under the cinematic radar.
For one such film, “The Last Hurrah,” Ford couldn’t have picked a more fascinating storyline. Based on a 1956 bestselling book of the same title by Edwin O’ Connor (and adapted by screenwriter Frank S. Nugent), the film is centered on a fictional Irish-American politician named Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy).
It is set in an unnamed East Coast city, where Skeffington has successfully served four nonconsecutive terms as mayor. As his “last hurrah,” the film begins as he has announced his intent to run for mayor for a fifth term. (He also served as a governor.) But times have changed. It’s true that Skeffington has a large cadre of political lackeys and hangers-on, including a veritable army of ward heelers. But a decline in ward-based politics, shifting demographics, and the rising popularity of television (something Skeffington isn’t quite comfortable with) are all elements that stand in his way.
Also, besides Skeffington’s up-and-coming mayoral rival, a war veteran named Kevin McCluskey (Charles B. Fitzsimons), numerous political enemies are arrayed against him. These foes include the Protestant Bishop Gardner (Basil Ruysdael), Catholic Cardinal Martin Burke (Donald Crisp), powerful banking head Norman Cass (Basil Rathbone), and highly influential newspaper mogul Amos Force (John Carradine).
A Fading Era
Skeffington wants someone to document his last ride out into the political sunset. But his son, Frank Skeffington Jr. (Arthur Walsh), is a ne’er-do-well who is more interested in fast women and nightclubs than his father’s career. Therefore, the elder Skeffington enlists his nephew Adam Caulfield (Jeffrey Hunter) to follow and observe his day-to-day political endeavors.
As the film progresses, we get insights into Skeffington’s inner circle, such as his ever-loyal lackey “Ditto” Boland (Edward Brophy), “Cuke” Gillen (James Gleason), and John Gorman (Pat O’Brien). Just like Skeffington, all of these men are older and products of a bygone political era. However, they are also fiercely loyal and very experienced in the game of politics.
“The Last Hurrah” is as much a character study as it is a political drama or satire. Through Tracy’s ample acting chops, Skeffington is revealed to be a multidimensional personality with sometimes contradictory characteristics.
For instance, when a wake is held for an unpopular friend of Skeffington’s at the local funeral home, Caulfield follows him there and begins to think that Skeffington is attending the wake for selfish, political reasons. But he finds out that Skeffington is there sincerely in recognition of his deceased friend. Indeed, we see Skeffington secretly give the widow (Anna Lee) $1,000.
Later, however, Skeffington confronts the funeral parlor’s hapless director, Johnny Degnan (Bob Sweeney), and threatens to manufacture some unfavorable press about the funeral parlor unless Degnan lowers the cost of the lavish funeral. These different elements of Skeffington’s character—sometimes a benefactor, other times a bully—are interesting to behold, and the film’s peppy comedic turns keep everything from becoming too dark.
While Spencer Tracy is in his usual top form, I never realized how Jeffrey Hunter’s acting was. Like many performers, Hunter’s life had a series of bad breaks and he died at the young age of 42. And although I love seeing Dianne Foster in any film, and she received third billing, she was shown in only a few scenes as Caulfield’s wife Maeve, unfortunately. The rest of the supporting cast is also a pleasure to watch.
Ironically, “The Last Hurrah” is one of John Ford’s last great non-Western films. (The excellent “How the West Was Won” came out just a few years later, in 1962.) It’s a fascinating film based on real-life former Boston mayor and Massachusetts Governor James Michael Curley, as well as a highly entertaining character study of a complex man.
‘The Last Hurrah’
Director: John Ford
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Jeffrey Hunter, Dianne Foster
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Release Date: 1958
Rated: 4 stars out of 5