Monday, July 13, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: The Last Hurrah (dir. John Ford, 1958)

The John Ford of the 1950s was looking for new subjects. Between Rio Grande (1950) and The Horse Soldiers (1959), he made only one Western, The Searchers, but ten non-Westerns - and because he is so stereotypically associated with Westerns, many of these are neglected and underrated films.

Ford was feeling the call of Ireland strongly, making The Quiet Man and The Rising of the Moon on location there, and taking up Irish-American themes in his wonderful political drama The Last Hurrah, based on Edwin O’Connor’s best-selling 1956 roman a clef about Boston Mayor James Michael Curley. 

The Last Hurrah is a big, rich, yeasty film. It is said that Ford wanted his friend Orson Welles to play the lead, but I think he was better off with the actual casting of Spencer Tracy. To say that the role of Frank Skeffington is in Tracy’s wheelhouse is an understatement: He owns it. I can’t imagine anyone else so well embodying a larger-than-life figure with a common touch, and his sheer pleasure in politicking. Like a Bill Clinton, Skeffington seems to be a scoundrel and a decent relatable guy simultaneously. Since in both these cases, the man’s demonizers focus on the first quality and miss or underrate the second, it’s no wonder they can’t get a real handle on him.

Curley served four non-consecutive terms as Mayor of Boston, plus a few as a U.S. Representative and one as Governor of Massachusetts. Like his real-life counterpart, an aging Skeffington goes for a fifth term as Mayor – his “last hurrah,” a phrase that Edwin O’Connor contributed to the language – but is done in, as Curley was in his 1950 bid, because his old-school style of ward politics is no longer adequate to new postwar realities.

As in All the King’s Men or The Great Gatsby, there is an observer figure whose role is to register the sheer spectacle of personality – in this case Skeffington’s nephew, played by Jeffrey Hunter, whom the Mayor invites to watch the last hurrah unfold (but also to be the son his own frivolous grown boy cannot be). Hunter works well as a fringe figure here because he is so unobtrusively acceptable wherever he goes – the late Fifties model of the handsome, charming, altogether regular young man who is bound to make a success of himself, but will never become the “character” his uncle is.

Ford surrounds Tracy with a wonderful crew of actors – among Skeffington’s supporters, Pat O’Brien (oddly, the only time that O’Brien and Ford worked together), James Gleason, and Ricardo Cortez; among his enemies, John Carradine, Basil Rathbone, and Willis Bouchey; as local clerics, Donald Crisp and Basil Ruysdael. Jane Darwell gets a hoot of a single-scene role at a funeral. The atmosphere of backslapping and back rooms, rallies and election night tallies, is perfectly conveyed, and does indeed capture an older style on its way out.

The most poignant of the minor characters is the man who has lost his name, Skeffington’s somewhat dim-witted but eminently useful operative “Ditto” (Edward Brophy), who tries to copy his boss’s lead in everything down to his choice of hat, and doesn’t even realize that his nickname is a cut. (An obvious although seldom-mentioned source for Rush Limbaugh’s Dittoheads!)

Ford follows O’Connor’s lead in ending the narrative not just with Skeffington’s political defeat, but with his protracted actual death following a heart attack. Some commenters on the film have felt this 20-minute coda to be labored, but although it has a few forced moments, I rather like Ford’s characteristic fearlessness with respect to sentiment (and its displays). The key point of this final sequence, I feel, is that the men who have worked for Skeffington are going to be deader than he is, after he dies – his memory will continue to throb strongly, at least for a while, but they will have no function.

The final shots remind me of the ending of Ford’s great World War II picture They Were Expendable (one of the least sentimental titles ever). The last plane with John Wayne and Robert Montgomery has taken off from the Philippines, and we know that the men left behind are doomed (not just to death, but in all likelihood to the Bataan Death March). We see them walking away from us along a twilit beach, their long shadows falling on the sand – the sort of signature shot that Ford was so brilliant at.

In The Last Hurrah, the team waiting downstairs in Skeffington’s mansion has gotten the word from upstairs that he has passed, and as they trudge up the majestic curved staircase to pay their respects, their shadows fall on the wall to the right. They are goners. Last of all, slower than the rest, is the pitiable Ditto, a shadow casting a shadow. The era is over.

The Last Hurrah

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