#8 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
John Ford knew he was getting old. You don’t make this kind of movie if you think you’re young. The story of a long serving mayor of “a New England city” and his latest run for re-election, it’s about looking back at a full life full of both friends and enemies and finding some kind of peace in a world that’s changing all around you. Anchored by the wonderfully affable performance of Spencer Tracy that ends up giving surprising gravity to the film in the end, The Last Hurrah is a vivacious and heartfelt film.
Mayor Frank Skeffington (Tracy) is facing two major candidates in his re-election for mayor. There’s the long standing city councilman Charles J. Hennessy (Wallace Ford), portrayed as a bit of a crank on the sidelines who runs all the time, and Kevin McCluskey (Charles Fitzsimons), a young political neophyte with the right kind of background that sounds good backed by the powerful newspaper editor Amos Force (John Carradine). Working for Force is Frank’s nephew Adam Caulfield (Jeffrey Hunter) who works the sports beat and has no real interest in politics. When Frank invites Adam to follow his campaign, just as an observer of how things are in the campaign, Adam accepts and tags along.
An interesting element of the story, based on the novel by Edwin O’Connor, is that the actual politics have been drained completely. There is no mention of political parties or policy beyond Frank wanting to level a slum (where he grew up) and replace it with something nicer, something the bankers of the city are denying the city the money for until Frank is out of office. Politics in this movie is a personal, team based exercise, as Frank explains to Adam. Force’s antipathy against Frank probably has as much to do with some event between Frank’s mother and Force’s father when she worked for him as a servant and stole something decades ago as with any policy. This seems to do one thing at first: eliminate any potential rancor from the audience when bringing up politics in a film. However, it becomes obvious by the end that it’s actually for a different reason.
The key is that Frank loses the race. After all of the old fashioned work he puts into the race, going to the wake of a local no-good old friend and turning it into a de facto political meeting with the added benefit of demonstrating to the grieving widow that her husband was well-loved, a pleasant fiction for her in her time of sorrow. It’s the kind of hands-on approach he has taken for years which contrasts with how McCluskey runs his campaign, through Force’s newspaper and on television. There’s a sequence where McCluskey gets interviewed in his home, and it reminded me of Fellini’s later Ginger and Fred. Both were made by men well-versed in the visual language of film, and both seemed somewhat confounded by the rise of television. Fellini’s take focused on the variety show, and Ford’s focuses on the obviously fake televised interview meant to imply intimacy with someone. McCluskey rented a dog that won’t stop barking that he looks at with complete disdain. His wife has to read off of cue cards and does it very badly. After having described the children as being just put down to bed, Mrs. McCluskey invites them in, and they’re all dressed in their finest little suits and dresses. It’s kind of hilariously inauthentic, and we watch flabbergasted that this could ever work on anyone.
Maybe it was the inauthentic television interview, and maybe it was how Frank strong-armed the bank to give the city the loan before the election that led to the bank owner promising unlimited funds to defeat Frank that led to a flurry of advertisement for McCluskey, but whatever it was, Frank’s election headquarters goes from elated to defeated over the course of an hour or two as the results come in. His closest advisors are panicked. Adam is sorry for his beloved uncle. Frank’s son, Frank Jr. (Arthur Walsh), is completely oblivious with a pretty girl on his arm. Frank goes home, has a heart attack, and ends up bed ridden with about half an hour left in the movie.
With a stinging political defeat and a crippling heart attack leaving him in bed, it becomes obvious where this movie’s point is, and it’s not about politics. Frank came into power during a time of change, when the Irish were first gaining political power in the Northeast, and that power seems to be waning. The new change is how politics is done, mostly through television, and that change is what ends up pushing Frank out of power. He’s had a long life, and on his deathbed both friends and enemies see the humanity in the man who had been vilified for decades by the other side. The most touching is when the Cardinal Martin Burke (Donald Crisp), who grew up with Frank in the slums, comes to his side and wants to explain why he had never supported Frank politically. Frank waves off the concern, implying that their friendship is deep enough to not need that kind of explanation.
There’s real emotion as the movie closes. Frank was a good man in a hard profession, a northeastern version of Judge Priest, but his time is past. There’s always been an element of nostalgia for lost times in Ford’s work, and it’s particularly potent here with the added twist of acknowledging that the time is gone. With that time gone, what can we do but move on as good men?
The anchor to all of this is Spencer Tracy. Playing what seems like himself, markedly different from the previous work with Ford on Up the River, Tracy is a fount of humanity but is talented enough to never let the film go saccharine through his performance. He’s tough edged like in his meetings with the bankers, and quick witted like his dealings with Force. It’s also nice to see John Carradine in a Ford picture again, not having been cast in one since The Grapes of Wrath. Jeffery Hunter also gives a surprisingly subtle performance with some real emotion as he essentially functions as the audience’s eyes in the film.
The Last Hurrah is the work of an old man in the best of ways. Looking back over a lifetime of successes and failures, friends and enemies, good times and bad, Spencer Tracy’s Frank Skeffington feels like a John Ford placeholder saying goodbye to the world that he loved but seems to be rejecting him. It’s ultimately a touching film, a real winner of a picture from an old master.