BR: Last Hurrah, The (1958)

November 5, 2018 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  September 18, 2018

Genre:  Drama / Political Drama

Synopsis: A big city mayor finds efforts to retire after one final term doesn’t go so smoothly.

Special Features: Audio commentary with film historian Julie Kirgo, historian-screenwriter Lem Dobbs, and historian-producer Nick Redman / Isolated Mono Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.

 


 

Review:

One of John Ford’s most atypical films arrives on Blu-ray via Twilight Time, and features an excellent commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo, Nick Redman, and Lem Dobbs, the latter having met Ford at age 10 when the elder Dobbs was commissioned to paint a portrait of the contradiction-steeped filmmaker.

Dobbs also shares his fascination for the director’s late career works, and notes The Last Hurrah, based on a 1956 novel by Edwin O’Connor, is a rare tale told by Ford in contemporary America rather than a western period piece with mountains and deserts as backdrops.

The setting is a thinly veiled version of Boston, and the last election of its aging mayor Frank Skeffington (Spncer Tracy) who’s supposed to be a shoe-in for a seat he’s held for several terms. A bully with a dedicated entourage of yes men (including Pat O’Brien, Ricardo Cortez, and Edward Brophy), Skeffington goes through the motions of the campaign and has no idea the green eared goofball running against him may gather momentum and ride the city’s hunger for change, putting an end to his firmly rooted position as boss mayor.

Skeffington was loosely based on Boston’s real-life boss mayor James Michael Curley, a Roman Catholic who lasted 4 terms as mayor, 1 term as governor of Massachusetts, and multiple terms in the U.S. House of Representatives – a heck of a political career. (He later sued the film’s producers and settled for an undisclosed sum.)

In the film version, Skeffington’s an aging widower with an idiot son (Arthur Walsh), and his operations and re-election campaign are presented through the eyes of nephew Adam Caulfield (Jeffrey Hunter), a city reporter who interviews, tags along, and observes the effects of creeping rust as a well-oiled empire starts to churn up grit.

The plotting is fairly straightforward – Skeffington launches his campaign as the Main Titles unfold, he handles a few crises, and experiences a radical change in the finale – but screenwriter / longtime Ford scribe Frank Nugent (The Quiet Man, Mister Roberts, The Searchers) focuses on fast banter, barbed wit, and extended scenes that show both the veteran mayor’s skills as a negotiator and bully, and sadness in realizing there’s a difference between respect earned through power, and intimate, person-to-person respect, notably with his flippant son.

It’s also a drama that encapsulates a period in which the Irish were not well regarded by the establishment, and banned from exclusive clubs who held the real balance of power in city and state matters. A key scene has Skeffington barging into an exclusive club to forcefully negotiate funding for a pet legacy project, and holds his own against snide class division among bankers and the religious establishment. The dialogue is sharp, and the cast reflects the film’s huge talent pool, which includes Donald Crisp (How Green Was My Valley) as the Cardinal, John Carradine (Stagecoach) as Caulfield’s blatantly racist city editor, and Basil Rathbone (The Hound of the Baskervilles) as a bank president. (The singular scene in which Rathbone, Carradine, and Tracy share barbs is pure gold, and fine work by the latter two, who’d later settle into exploitation films.)

The challenge for the director’s more cynical fans is whether the drama can survive Ford’s penchant for melodrama, and while it does, The Last Hurrah isn’t immune to scenes with characters waxing nostalgically, especially the rather epic funeral in which everyone’s bawdy and good-natured, respectful and cranky. Ford Stock Co. member Anna Lee (Fort Apache) is a devoted supporter, and Jane Darwell (3 Godfathers) has a lengthy moment as an umbrella-wacking mourner. The film’s final scene between Skeffington and his son does edge into a bit of bathos, but it’s held in place by earlier scenes where the father is clearly disappointed his son shares no interest in politics, and has no grasp of its importance to the father’s life, especially if it involves a potential ruin.

Dobbs and his fellow historians provide a steady yet conversational stream of production facts, with Ford being the dominant topic as a highly conflicted persona: a great director of multi-Oscar nominated and winning films, but a “nut” with self-loathing enhanced by booze binges, and a mean streak in which cruelty was often extended to an appointed whipping boy (a “goat”) on each of his productions.

If Last Hurrah lacks striking landscapes – most of the material seems to have been shot on sets, with the Skeffington manor a paste job of set + matte painting – there are some extraordinary moments in which the camera just holds on a spot and lets the perfectly timed motions of actors weave in & out of smokey shots. Charles Lawton’s lighting may seem a bit harsh, but the details from faces and bustling scenes comes out nicely in Sony’s HD transfer.

Although a sparsely scored film – most of the music is reportedly stock cues by Mischa Bakaleinikoff, Columbia’s longtime house composer George Duning (Picnic), Bernard Mayers. Cyril Mockridge (Where the Sidewalk Ends), Arthur Morton, and genre veteran Paul Sawtell (The Fly) – the lack of music emphasizes the steady banter which gave Hunter one of his best roles. Dobbs is a bit hard on the actor – Hunter was the latest in a series of striking leading young men who went through the studio system before navigating to lesser films and TV work in the 1960s – but a tete-a-tete between Adam and Skeffington in the latter’s office is tightly performed, and shows Hunter could hold his own against a veteran actor (Tracy was supposedly a generous colleague) and transcend an otherwise wan character.

Ford would return to westerns with The Horse Soldiers (1959), Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and Two Rode Together (1961), and remained active almost yearly until his feature film swan song 7 Women (1966).

Edwin O’Connor’s novel was remade as a 1977 TV movie starring Carroll O’Connor (who scripted the adaptation) and Dana Andrews, with direction from Hollywood veteran Vincent Sherman (Affair in Trinidad, The Garment Jungle, The Young Philadelphians).

Co-star Jeffrey Hunter had appeared in Ford’s The Searchers and soon achieved a bit of cult status playing Jesus in Nicholas Ray’s nutty King of Kings (1961) and Captain Pike in the original 1966 Star Trek TV pilot.

 

 

© 2018 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

 


 

External References:
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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