Living History: Peter Jackson’s THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD (Warner Brothers 2018)

If you like history as much as old movies, Oscar-winning New Zealander Peter Jackson has a treat for you – THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD, a World War I documentary utilizing 100+ year old footage from the Imperial War Museum (most of it never viewed outside there) to tell the story of the British Empire’s infantry during The Great War. Jackson was given access to hundreds of hours of actual film and audio and commissioned to create something “unique and original”, and with the aid of modern technology he certainly succeeded in his mission.

Jackson’s narrative is told through the eyes of the young men and boys (some as young as 15) as they go through enlistment and boot camp, training to kill the enemy, then follows them to the Western Front, where they encountered not only battles in the trenches, but dysentery, rats gnawing at their fallen comrades, lice infestations, and other horrors. World War I also introduced the planet to such military practices as using tanks, bombs, flame throwers, and deadly gasses to gain an edge in slaughtering thousands of young soldiers, over nine million of whom were killed in this “War To End All Wars” (as WWI was unironically called back then).

Filmmaker Peter Jackson

The screening I saw featured another interesting treat – a 30 minute “making of” documentary with Jackson explaining how he went about turning all that ancient footage into something that would appeal to the modern audience’s eye. Much of it was shot at different speeds, and Jackson and his crew painstakingly set about to slow things down and present the cameramen’s original intent. Intricate cleaning processes were used to erase scratches (some, not all) and brighten the footage to show a clearer picture, and matte painting, rotoscoping, and CGI were used to bring the antique silent footage to vivid life. Colorization was added for the bulk of the narrative, for as Jackson says, the soldiers “saw a war in colour, they certainly didn’t see it in black and white”.

Besides the arduous computerized restoration, the soundtrack features actual voices of survivors of the war, recorded a half-century later for posterity by the BBC. These are the men who were there on the battlefront, telling what it was like through their eyes; sometimes humorous, sometimes chilling, always shocking. THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD allows them to tell their own story, and is a dazzling cinematic experience that’s now in theaters around the world, but due to Academy rules on release date (the film premiered December 17 in limited release), it was not eligible for Oscar consideration – nor will it be in 2019. But don’t get me started on THAT subject. I don’t want to distract from the power of Jackson’s marvelous film, both as an achievement in what can be done to bring historical film footage back to life, and as a monument to those brave souls who endured the horrors of life during wartime.

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Pre Code Confidential #25: The Stars Are Out for a Delicious DINNER AT EIGHT (MGM 1933)

After the success of 1932’s all-star GRAND HOTEL, MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer kept his sharp eyes peeled for a follow-up vehicle. The answer came with DINNER AT EIGHT, based on the witty Broadway smash written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Mayer assigned his newest producer (and son-in-law) David O. Selznick, fresh from making hits at RKO, who in turn handed the director’s reigns to another MGM newcomer, George Cukor. Both would have long, prosperous careers there and elsewhere. Frances Marion and Herman Mankiewicz adapted the play to the screen for the studio with “more stars than there are in heaven”, and those stars truly shine in this film (in the interest of fairness, the stars will be presented to you alphabetically):

John Barrymore as Larry Renault 

The Great Profile plays aging, alcoholic former silent star Larry Renault in a role that surely hit close to home. Barrymore’s star was certainly on the decline at this juncture of his career, yet he gives a magnificently poignant performance as an actor who doesn’t know (or doesn’t want to believe) he’s washed up. His ‘final solution’ scene is heartbreaking and will haunt you long after the final reel.

Lionel Barrymore as Oliver Jordan

Though Lionel’s part of the financially and physically ailing shipping magnate Jordan isn’t as flashy as brother John’s, he’s the film’s moral center, trying desperately to keep a stiff upper lip for his wife Millicent’s big social bash while suffering inside. Lionel’s been accused of sometimes overacting, but he definitely underplays it here. In fact, I’ve never seen him give a bad performance!

Wallace Beery as Dan Packard

Beery , on the other hand, frequently sliced the ham thick onscreen, and as the crude Packard, he mugs it up with the best of them. Whether berating Jordan’s offices (“Say, who put up this building – Peter Stuyvesant?”) or battling with his peroxide blonde wife Kitty (and we’ll get to HER later), Beery brings an overbearing, obnoxious presence to this dinner… just the way the part was written, and he’s a perfect fit!

Billie Burke as Millicent Jordan

Dithering Millicent is oblivious to everything going on around her except her precious dinner party, and nobody could’ve done justice to the role the way Burke does. The character would have been unsympathetic in lesser hands, but the veteran actress makes one feel sorry for her onscreen plight. Offscreen, Miss Burke’s real-life husband, Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, died before the film was competed, making her performance even more amazing, considering what she was going through.

Marie Dressler as Carlotta Vance

Out of all the cast of pros, Marie Dressler unquestionably steals the film as the down-on-her-luck former stage star Vance. Dressler is an absolute delight as the once celebrated Carlotta, now “flat as a mill pond, I haven’t got a sou”. She also gets off the best lines (“If there’s one thing I know, it’s men. I ought to, it’s been my life’s work”), including that now-classic final exchange with Kitty Packard, which features one of the greatest double-takes in movie history!

Jean Harlow as Kitty Packard

While John Barrymore was on his way down, Jean Harlow’s star was shooting skyward, and DINNER AT EIGHT is the film that put her over the moon. Vulgar Kitty makes her husband, the rough-hewn Dan, look like an English Lord, and she’s a total scream as the social climbing sexpot. Her battles with Beery are more than just acting – the two despised each other, despite MGM costarring them in three films together. Jean sparkles and shines as she bickers with Beery, and their dialog together is priceless. Of course, the final scene, where Kitty tells Carlotta, “I was reading a book the other day”, will live forever in the annals of great movie moments!

Madge Evans as Paula Jordan

She may not have been as big a name as the others, but Madge Evans, who made her film debut as a child way back in 1914, holds her own as the spoiled teenage daughter Paula Jordan, who’s having a clandestine torrid affair with Barrymore’s much older Larry Renault (the two appeared together on Broadway in 1917, when Madge was eight!). Evans played in several Pre-Codes, including THE GREEKS HAD A WORD FOR THEM, HALLEUJAH I’M A BUM, THE MAYOR OF HELL , and BEAUTY FOR SALE, as well as another all-star film, 1935’s DAVID COPPERFIELD, before retiring in 1939 after marrying playwright Sidney Kingsfield.

Edmund Lowe as Dr. Wayne Talbot 

Paula Jordan’s not the only one fooling around in this picture, as Kitty Packard has taken up with her married physician Dr. Wayne Talbot, played by he-man Edmund Lowe , another veteran of the silent screen. Lowe was still a name in 1933, and though his part is secondary to all the commotion going on, he gives a dynamic performance as the philandering husband of Karen Morley – who’s part is even smaller!

Lee Tracy as Max Kane

Who else for the role of Renault’s fast-taking agent Max Kane than Hollywood’s fastest talker, Lee Tracy ! Tracy’s more subdued than usual as the agent desperately trying to get his has-been client a part in a play, but when he finally breaks down and tells Renault the truth, he lets him have it with both barrels, triggering the despondent actor’s tragic suicide.

There are other stars in minor roles, like Jean Hersholt’s producer Jo Stengel, Louise Closser Hale and Grant Withers as Millicent’s last-minute guests, and character actress Hilda Vaughn as Kitty’s avaricious maid Tina, and all get brief chances to shine. DINNER AT EIGHT is movie magic from start to finish, with enough going on to fill a dozen films! Those who have never seen it are missing not only one of the best Pre-Codes, but simply one of the best movies ever made, with a once-in-a-lifetime cast at their peak!

And now for that Famous Final Scene:

More in the “Pre-Code Confidential” Series:

LADY KILLER – KONGO – MAKE ME A STAR – THE MASK OF FU MANCHU – HOLLYWOOD PARTY – THE SECRET SIX – PLAY-GIRL – BABY FACE – BLONDE CRAZY – CLEOPATRA – THE MALTESE FALCON – DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE – FLESH – THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH – THE MAYOR OF HELL – RED DUST – BED OF ROSES – FIVE STAR FINAL – SHANGHAI EXPRESS – SAFE IN HELL – DIPLOMANIACS – GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE – BLONDE VENUS – THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE

Dark Valentine: THE LOVES OF CARMEN (Columbia 1948)


Love takes many strange forms, none more strange than the obsessive love Don Jose has for the Gypsy temptress Carmen in THE LOVES OF CARMEN, Columbia Pictures’ biggest hit of 1948. The film, based on Prosper Merimee’s 1845 novella and Georges Bizet’s famous opera, reunites GILDA stars Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford with director Charles Vidor, and though it’s in glorious Technicolor and set in 1800’s Spain, it’s got a lot of film noir elements going for it: there’s the protagonist caught in a rapidly moving downward spiral, the amoral femme fatale, crime, murder, and a bleak, downbeat ending. Think I’m stretching a bit? Let’s take a look…

Young nobleman Don Jose arrives in Seville with a dragoon squadron, a corporal with political ambitions and a bright future ahead of him… until he meets Carmen, a gorgeous red-haired Gypsy who is an expert manipulator. Jose is enchanted by this free-spirited beauty, even though she steals his watch when first they meet. Carmen gets into a street fight with a “respectable” citizen, slashing her face with a knife, and is arrested. Don Jose is put in charge of bringing her to jail, but allows her to escape.

Punished for his actions by his Colonel, Jose discovers his superior has designs on the Gypsy woman himself. He’s forced to stand sentry duty at a party, looking on forlornly as Carmen dances and clicks her castanets for the Colonel and his guests. She entices Jose into breaking his restriction, and when the Colonel later finds Jose at Carmen’s humble abode, a sword fight breaks out, and Carmen trips up the officer, who falls onto Jose’s sword, dead. The two head for the mountains, Jose now a deserter wanted for murder.

An old Gypsy woman has predicted “one love” who’ll bring death for Carmen, but the unfettered girl refuses to listen. The Gypsies in the camp have raised bribe money to free their leader, the lusty bandit Garcia… who also happens to be Carmen’s husband! Jose is subjected into joining Garcia’s highwaymen, with Carmen teasingly out of reach. She takes up with the bullfighter Lucas while scouting potential victims along the roadside, and after Jose kills Garcia in a knife fight (adding more blood on his conscience),he becomes leader of the bandits, not allowing Carmen to join in on the robberies. She refuses to sit around camp and be a simple esposa, taking off for a few days to dally with Lucas. The film culminates with Jose tracking down Carmen to Lucas’s estate and, finally realizing she’s no good, plunging his knife into her as Lucas shoots him in the back. The cursed lovers fall on the steps in a final death embrace.

Now if that’s not a film noir plot, I don’t know what is! Rita Hayworth, who was born for Technicolor, is stunning as the seductress Carmen, a woman who’s “bad all the way through… a liar, a thief, and a cheat”. Carmen cares about no one but Carmen (“No one tells Carmen’s eyes where to go or how to behave”, she declares), treating men like lace handkerchiefs to be used and discarded. We first meet her eating a juicy piece of fruit, tantalizingly licking her lips while Jose approaches, and there’s no doubt of the symbolism! Rita scorches every scene with her sex appeal; she’s the ultimate CT, and a femme fatale for the ages.

Glenn Ford’s Jose is a well-bred, ramrod straight soldier until he succumbs to his lust for Carmen. Jose is unworldly, in sharp contrast to the been-around-the-block Gypsy, and though some have criticized his performance, I found him to be more than up to the task. Victor Jory gets the plum part of bandit leader Garcia and runs away with it; I think it’s one of his best roles. Others in the cast are Luther Adler, John Baragrey (Lucas), Wally Cassell , Arnold Moss, Ron Randell, Phil Van Zandt , and Margaret Wycherly as the old Gypsy who predicts Carmen’s doom. Rita’s father Eduardo Cansino helped choreograph the Spanish dances for his daughter (whose production company was responsible for the film).

So while THE LOVES OF CARMEN may not fit neatly into anyone’s idea of film noir (which, let’s be honest, is a genre open to interpretation), a case can certainly be made for this dark tale of “delusion, idealism, and love gone wrong”. It’s the perfect anti-Valentine’s Day movie for those who’ve been burned by love, and a film that deserves a little more love itself from classic film fans out there. Now excuse me while I go eat a box of chocolates…

Happy Valentine’s Day from Cracked Rear Viewer

One Hit Wonders #24: “Oh, Babe, What Would You Say” by Hurricane Smith (Capitol Records 1972)

Ok, so it’s 1972. Rock music dominated the airwaves, until a nearly fifty year old English gent named Hurricane Smith blew into America with a British Music Hall-styled #1 hit called “Oh, Babe, What Would You Say” (take it away, Johnny Carson!):

Who was Hurricane Smith, you ask? Well, first of all, his name isn’t really Hurricane, but Norman Smith, born in 1923. Young Norman served in the RAF during WWII as a glider pilot, and upon war’s end set out to make a go of things as a jazz musician, without much success. By 1959, Norman found steady employment working as a sound engineer for Britain’s EMI Records, located on London’s Abbey Road.

In 1962, EMI signed four lads from Liverpool who had some potential. The Beatles recorded “Please Please Me”, and the song took the U.K. by storm:

The Beatles became a phenomenon in America two short years later, and along with producer George Martin, Norman was instrumental in shaping their early sound. He became friends with the Fab Four personally as well, with John Lennon giving him the nickname ‘Normal’. Norman did the sound engineering on The Beatles’ first six LP’s, from “Please Please Me’ to “Rubber Soul”, but as they gained in confidence and became more experimental musically, friction between Lennon and McCartney caused the sessions to no longer be fun for Norman.

EMI promoted him to full producer, and among his first tasks was producing the first three albums for another British band who achieved success home and abroad, Pink Floyd:

Another milestone came in 1968, when Norman produced The Pretty Things’ LP “SF Sorrow”, a psychedelic excursion that’s considered the first ‘Rock Opera’, predating The Who’s “Tommy” by five months:

Norman had written a song titled “Don’t Let It Die” that he wanted his friend Lennon to record, but when he played the demo for fellow producer Mickie Most (The Animals, Herman’s Hermits, Donovan, etc), Most urged him to record the tune himself. The tune, released under the name Hurricane Smith, became a surprise hit in England, reaching the #2 spot on the charts:

Then came “Oh Babe”, and Hurricane Smith had himself a hit on both sides of the Atlantic (and by the way, that’s Norman’s old RAF mate Frank Hardcastle performing the memorable sax solo). The hits stopped coming after that, but Norman Smith continued working behind the scenes with artists as varied as Barclay James Harvest, Stevie Wonder, The Spinners, Denny Laine, and Little Richard. He wrote an autobiography of his decades in the music biz, JOHN LENNON CALLED ME NORMAL, which was published in 2008, the year he died at age 85. If ever there was a One Hit Wonder with a musical pedigree as prestigious as Norman ‘Hurricane’ Smith, you’d be hard pressed to find him!

More ‘One Hit Wonders’ on Cracked Rear Viewer!:

The Night Chicago Died – One Tin Soldier (Theme from BILLY JACK) – Long, Lonesome Highway – Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye – DOA – Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl? – Why Can’t We Live Together – They’re Coming To Take Me Away Ha-Haaa! – In The Year 2525 – Summertime Blues – Little Girl – (We Ain’t Got) Nothin’ Yet – I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night) – The Ballad Of The Green Berets – Smell Of Incense – In The Summertime – The Safety Dance – Lies – Hot Smoke & Sasafrass – I Fought The Law – Seasons In The Sun – Heartbeat – It’s A Lovebeat – Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)

 

 

Necktie Party: Alfred Hitchcock’s FRENZY (Universal 1972)


Alfred Hitchcock’s  previous two films, TORN CURTAIN (1966) and TOPAZ (1969) weren’t well received by critics, who claimed The Master of Suspense was too old-fashioned and had lost his touch. One wag even suggested that, after fifty years in films, it was time to put Hitch out to pasture! But Hitchcock wasn’t quite ready for a life of tea and crumpets in the garden, and came back with 1972’s FRENZY, complete with all the blatant sex, nudity, gore, and profanity of other early 70’s auteurs, proving he could not only keep up with the times, but surpass them by giving us the blackest of horror comedies.

Hitchcock had returned to his native England before to make a few films, but always with actors who had box office appeal in America (Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten in UNDER CAPRICORN, Marlene Dietrich and Jane Wyman in STAGE FRIGHT). This time around, he uses an All-British cast of superb actors to tell his grisly little tale of a psycho sex killer on the loose in London, and an innocent man accused of the crimes. Anthony Shaffer (SLEUTH, THE WICKER MAN) adapted Arthur LeBern’s novel GOODBYE PICCADILLY, FAREWELL LEICESTER SQUARE and added some macabre humor to the gruesome goings-on, which fit right in with Hitchcock’s playful style.

We begin with a woman’s nude body found floating in the Thames (and an early cameo for Hitch!), and learn she’s yet another victim of ‘The Necktie Killer’, a “criminal, sexual psychopath” that rapes and murders his prey. We then meet Dick Blaney, an ex-RAF pilot and unlovable loser who’s just been fired from his job as a barman. Dick’s a bitter, angry young man who seems to blame everybody else for his problems, including his ex-wife Brenda, now a successful “matrimonial agent”. Dick’s prone to drinking heavily and violent outbursts; despite all this, his girlfriend Babs remains loyal.

In contrast, Dick’s friend Bob Rusk is the charming, outgoing, and successful owner of a wholesale produce company. Bob’s the type of guy you’d like to left a few pints with down at the pub… so naturally, he turns out to be the Necktie Killer that’s been terrorizing London! When Bob brutally rapes and strangles Dick’s ex Brenda in her office, Dick is spotted in the area by her secretary. Finding her boss’s dead body, she tells Scotland Yard that Dick was in the office just the other day, arguing and carrying on, pointing the finger of suspicion on him, and from there, circumstances go rapidly beyond Dick’s control…

Jon Finch (Dick) was no stranger to horror, having previously been in Hammer’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN. Even though Dick’s a shit, you can’t help but feel sorry for him, and that’s due in large part to Finch’s acting. Barry Foster (Bob) is charming on the outside, but creepy as hell when he’s in a “frenzied” state. Hitchcock had seen Foster in the 1968 horror TWISTED NERVE, and cast him for the part after Michael Caine turned it down (I know, hard to believe Caine turning something down, right!). The solid supporting cast includes Anna Massey as the doomed Babs, Barbara Leigh-Hunt as the doomed Brenda (just doesn’t pay to get involved with Dick!), Alec McCowan as Inspector Oxford and Vivien Merchant as his wife, and Bernard Cribbins, Jean Marsh (UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS), and Billie Whitelaw.

Those famous “Hitchcock Touches” are still around, including the magnificent overhead shot of the Thames River in the opening by DP Gilbert Taylor . There’s a long, slow tracking shot down a winding staircase onto the street, a Hitchcock trademark. The scenes between McCowan and Merchant, an amateur gourmet chef serving her hubby the vilest-looking food while they casually discuss the case, are gems, as is the “potato truck” scene where Rusk frantically looks for his tie-pin, grasped in Babs’s dead hand inside a sack of spuds. Alfred Hitchcock showed his critics he was far from being washed up, and while FRENZY may not rank as his greatest (there are just so many to choose!), it’s an effective, gripping thriller that’ll grab you by the necktie and not let go until the end – and what an ending it is,  a deliciously twisted shocker that I’m not going to spoil for you. You’ll have to watch and see for yourselves!

This post is part of The Third Annual Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. To read more entries on The Master of Suspense’s movies, just click on this link! Thanks for having me again, Maddy!

 

Big, Bad Mama Monster!: GORGO (MGM 1961)


When Melanie at The Film Detective offered me the chance to watch and review GORGO for them, I immediately said yes! GORGO was one of my favorites growing up as a little Monster Kid, a Saturday afternoon staple on Boston’s Channel 56, and the opportunity to see it without all that UHF “snow” was too much to resist (and if you don’t know about The Film Detective, I’ll clue you in a bit later).

Producers Frank and Maurice King were a pair of slot machine magnates turned low-budget movie moguls who had success with 40’s films noir like WHEN STRANGES MARRY (with Robert Mitchum), DILLINGER (making a star out of Lawrence Tierney), and the Joseph H. Lewis classic GUN CRAZY . When the stateside release of Japan’s Giant Monster Movie GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS proved a hit, the Kings decided to secure the American rights to another kaiju eiga epic, RODAN! THE FLYING MONSTER . Box offices across the country filled with more coins than any old slot machines, so the Kings set out to make a Giant Monster saga of their own, using the rubber suit and miniature set techniques of kaiju eiga, and throwing a touch of KING KONG into the script for good measure.

Salvage divers Joe Ryan and Sam Slade are searching for sunken treasure off the coast of Ireland when they’re rocked by a volcanic eruption. The upheaval has awakened the dormant Gorgo, a red-eyed, reptilian Prehistoric beast standing 65 feet tall! Joe and Sam hatch a plan to capture the giant, and succeed. Scientists want to study Gorgo, but Joe and Sam have other ideas, namely selling the monster to Durkin’s Circus in London and getting filthy rich! Gorgo is trussed up and hauled to Jolly Old England, where he’s exploited as a freakish main attraction – that is, until Gorgo’s Bigger, Badder Monster Mother emerges from the depths, a 200 foot tall behemoth who tracks ‘baby’ Gorgo to London demanding his return…

GORGO is a simple but effective Monster Movie that’s fast-paced fun for the whole family. The special effects of the pre-CGI era hold up surprisingly well, thanks to some clever editing and camerawork. There are plenty of shots of rampaging destruction (complete with panicked citizens running the streets and futile military retaliation), as London Bridge comes crumbling down, Big Ben gets toppled, and Piccadilly Circus gets blitzed by Mama Gorgo.

Director Eugene Lourie was no stranger to Giant Monsters, having helmed both THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH.  Stars Bill Travers and William Sylvester weren’t exactly household names, but both make fine leads. Travers starred in one of my favorite British comedies, THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH, and later achieved fame opposite wife Virginia McKenna and Elsa the Lioness in BORN FREE, while Sylvester headlined the British noirs HOUSE OF BLACKMAIL and A STRANGER CAME HOME before making his best-known appearance as Dr. Floyd in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Special mention should be made to child actor Vincent Winter as an Irish villager who stows away aboard Joe and Sam’s ship, and has a special bond with Gorgo.

As for The Film Detective , it’s a streaming service founded in 2014 specializing in hard to find films and TV, and can be viewed online, and on the SlingTV, Amazon Fire, Roku, and AppleTV platforms. GORGO can be enjoyed there beginning February 11th, and I highly recommend it to all you Giant Monster Movie Lovers out there. After watching, take a look around… you might discover some other hidden gems on The Film Detective!

 

Man of the People: John Ford’s THE LAST HURRAH (Columbia 1958)

This post has been preempted as many times as tonight’s State of the Union Address! 


John Ford’s penchant for nostalgic looks back at “the good old days” resulted in some of his finest works. The sentimental Irishman created some beautiful tone poems in his 1930’s films with Will Rogers, and movies like HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY and THE QUIET MAN convey Ford’s sense of loss and wistful longing for simpler times. The director’s THE LAST HURRAH continues this theme in a character study about an Irish-American politician’s final run for mayor, running headfirst into a new era of politics dominated by television coverage and media hype instead of old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground handshaking and baby-kissing. It’s not only a good film, but a movie buff’s Nirvana, featuring some great older stars and character actors out for their own Last Hurrah with the Old Master.

Based on Edwin O’Connor’s 1956 novel, the film opens with the superimposed words ‘A New England City’, but you’re not fooling us New Englanders, Mr. Ford… we know that ‘city’ represents Boston and it’s Irish-dominated political scene! We’re taken inside a stately manse, where we see Mayor Frank Skeffington emerge from his bedroom, dressed and ready to go. He pauses before a portrait of his late wife before going to meet with his political operatives to plan the next campaign.

Skeffington’s a wily rascal, a product of the slums who hasn’t forgotten his roots or from where his power comes, as he visits a local widow at her late husband’s wake and hands her an envelope of cash, telling her it was his own late spouse’s last wish, then strong-arms the undertaker into giving the Widow Minnihan a discount. Skeffington is not above using his office for blackmail, and rumors of graft surround him, especially among the city’s blue blood elite. That such a charming scoundrel is played by the great Spencer Tracy only adds to his likability. Tracy was one of the most extraordinary screen actors ever, Golden Age or current, a performer who relied on instinct rather than method. Watch any Tracy film; he plays his roles so natural, you can’t see the seems.

The film follows Skeffington as he runs his old-school campaign, in contrast to his telegenic Kennedyesque opponent Kevin McClusky, who’s backed by the Yankee Brahmin. It’s basically a series of vignettes as Skeffington’s nephew, local sportswriter Adam Caulfield, is invited to join in for an inside look at politics. Ford regular Jeffrey Hunter (THE SEARCHERS, SERGEANT RUTLEDGE) plays Adam, representing the new generation, and serving as a sounding board for Tracy’s Skeffington as he bemoans the loss of the old ways to media saturation and manipulation (though Skeffington’s no slouch in the manipulation department himself!). Tip O’Neill once said “All politics is local”, and that sums up Frank Skeffington in a nutshell.

LAST HURRAH, Edward Brophy, Spencer Tracy, Jeffrey Hunter, Ricardo Cortez, Pat O’Brien, 1958

THE LAST HURRAH is populated by a cast of veterans on both sides of the campaign trail. It seems like the entire “Hollywood Irish Mafia” is on hand for this one, with the exception of James Cagney (who refused to work with Ford again after their MISTER ROBERTS behind-the-scenes fiasco). Skeffington’s ward heelers include Pat O’Brien as his chief operative Joe Gorman, Ricardo Cortez representing the Jewish voters, James Gleason as pugnacious ‘Cuke’ Gillan, and Carelton Young as the blue-blooded Winslow, who’s crossed over to Skeffington’s side. But of all the mayor’s men, I absolutely LOVE LOVE LOVE Ed Brophy as Ditto, the dense but loyal ward boss who acts as court jester to Skeffington. Ditto lives for serving Hizzoner, down to wearing a duplicate of the mayor’s trademark Homburg hat (which he calls his “Grey Hamburger”). The undying affection Ditto has for Skeffington is palpable, and is reciprocated by the mayor. It’s Brophy who’s in the final shot, taking that long walk up the flight of stairs, head down, to pay respects to his boss, and Brophy gives a marvelous all-around performance.

The blue bloods are represented by Basil Rathbone as banker Norman Cass and John Carradine as publisher Amos Force, and with those eminent screen villains you just know they’re the bad guys, along with Basil Ruysdael as the Protestant bishop. Donald Crisp is the Catholic Cardinal, who grew up in the same slum as Skeffington but is on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Wallace Ford plays perennial candidate Charles J. Hennessy, who always runs and loses (there’s one in every town!), and Frank McHugh his ever-optimistic campaign manager. Among those who shine in smaller roles there’s Anna Lee as the Widow Minnihan, Jane Darwell in a comic cameo as an old lady who goes to all the local wakes (and there’s one of them in every town, too!), Willis Bouchey as Adam’s anti-Skeffington father-in-law, Ken Curtis as Monsignor Killian, Charles B. Fitzsimmons (Maureen O’Hara’s brother) as the vacuous McCluskey, O.Z. Whitehead as Cass’s equally vacuous son, and many more, some uncredited. Familiar Face spotters will have a good time with this one!

THE LAST HURRAH isn’t a Ford classic on a par with STAGECOACH , THE GRAPES OF WRATH, or others. It’s one of those smaller Ford efforts, despite the high-powered cast, a rumination on simpler times. The Skeffington machine gets outgunned by modern technology, allowing a pretty-boy puppet to replace the older, more experienced pol. This is progress? Whatever side of the political divide you fall on, you have to agree we need more charming rascals like Frank Skeffington, who actually care about their constituency, and less of those acrimonious, talking-point-repeating elitists who think they know what’s best for us unwashed masses and only serve to divide. But before I turn this into a political diatribe and piss half you Dear Readers off… just go watch the movie!