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!

Halloween Havoc!: Peter Lorre in MAD LOVE (MGM 1935)

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I mentioned in my review of Body Parts that it was a variation of THE HANDS OF ORLAC, a 1920 novel by French author Maurice Renard. The book was first adapted to film in a 1920 silent starring Conrad Veidt. The story has been retold many times, in many different ways, but none have surpassed the 1935 adaptation MAD LOVE. This film really doesn’t get its due as one of the top horrors of the 1930s. Director Karl Freund (THE MUMMY) uses his background in German expressionism and, together with cinematographer Gregg Toland, gives us a Grand Guignol thriller that’s hard to resist.

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Peter Lorre makes his American film debut as Dr. Gogol, a brilliant surgeon obsessed with beautiful actress Yvonne Orlac. Yvonne is married to concert pianist Stephen Orlac, and rebuffs the strange looking doctor. Returning to Paris via train, Orlac sees the convicted knife-throwing murderer Rollo board, heading for the guillotine. The train is derailed, and Orlac’s hands are crushed in the wreckage. Yvonne pleads with Gogol to restore her husband’s hands. The doctor says he can do nothing at first, then has an idea. He grafts the hands of killer Rollo onto Orlac. The operation is successful, but Orlac cannot play piano the wat he once did. He has, however, gained a peculiar proficiency in knife throwing.madlove3

American reporter Reagan is trying to get a story about Rollo. Gogol was given the body, but won’t let Reagan or anyone else see it. You see, the doctor hasn’t told Orlac his hands once belonged to Rollo. Gogol then devises as scheme to drive Orlac mad by “power of suggestion”. He kills Orlac’s step-father, then tries to convince the pianist he did the deed himself. Gogol costumes himself as Rollo, telling Orlac his head was grafted back on, like Orlac’s hands. Orlac is arrested, but Reagan suspects Gogol’s up to no good. The ending finds mad Doctor Gogol about to strangle Yvonne when Orlac throws a fateful knife and saves his wife from certain death.

Lorre is wonderful as Gogol. With his shaved head, bulging eyes, and fur collar, Gogol is second only to Hans Beckert in 1931’s M as Lorre’s creepiest character. Whether reading poetry to a wax effigy of Yvonne, or dressing as a man with a head transplant. Lorre gives a rich portrayal of a man driven mad by unrequited love. He’s particularly effective in the end scene, laughing hysterically at his misdeeds, believing Yvonne’s statue has come to life (“My Galatea!”), and finally striking out to kill what he loves most. Out of all Lorre’s long career, Gogol is surely his most frightening portrayal.

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Colin Clive is sympathetic as Orlac. Clive is best known to horror buffs as Dr. Frankenstein in Universal’s classic film and its sequel, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Frances Drake is also familiar to horror fans for her role in THE INVISIBLE RAY, with Karloff and Lugosi. Ted Healey, former Three Stooges boss, is the comic relief as reporter Reagan. Killer Rollo is familiar heavy Edward Brophy. Other supporting stars are Charlie Chan’s Number One Son, Keye Luke, Sara Hayden, Billy Gilbert, and Ian Wolfe.

Freund’s artistry gives MAD LOVE that expressionistic look and feel. Freund was cinematographer on 1920’s THE GOLEM and the Fritz Lang gem METROPOLIS. He was behind the cameras for 1931’s DRACULA and 1932’s MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE. Winning an Oscar for 1937’s THE GOOD EARTH, Freund continued to work his magic on pictures like GOLDEN BOY, UNDERCURRENT, and KEY LARGO. Making the switch to television in its infancy, Freund was a pioneer of the 3-camera set-up, filming most episodes of I LOVE LUCY. Gregg Toland was a fine cinematographer in his own right. Besides MAD LOVE, Toland was behind the camera for such classics as DEAD END, CITIZEN KANE, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, and THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, winning his own Oscar for 1939’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS. MAD LOVE is a true classic of horror cinema, with a chilling performance by Peter Lorre as the deranged Dr. Gogol. Add this one to your Halloween watch list!

Spooky Screwballs: THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (Universal, 1940)

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THE INVISIBLE WOMAN usually gets lumped in with Universal Picture’s monster movies, but has more in common with BRINGING UP BABY or MY MAN GODFREY. In fact, it’s one of my favorite screwball comedies. There are no scares in THE INVISIBLE WOMAN, but there sure are a lot of laughs!

When rich playboy Dick Russell (John Howard) discovers his wild lifestyle has left him flat broke, he has to quit funding eccentric Professor Gibbs (John Barrymore).  The crackpot inventor takes an ad in the paper looking for a “human being willing to become invisible…no remuneration”. His ad is answered by Kitty Carroll (Bruce), a model always at odds with cruel boss Growley (perennial sourpuss Charles Lane). Kitty answers the “call to adventure”, and is given an injection, then placed in the professor’s invisibility machine (“It tickles!”)

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The experiment’s a success, and invisible Kitty seeks revenge on Growley for herself and all working girls in a hilarious scene. Meanwhile, mob boss Blackie Cole (Oscar Homolka), hiding out in Mexico, has got wind of the new invention. He sends three goons (Donald MacBride, Edward Brophy, Shemp Howard) to con the addle-brained inventor, but Kitty arrives in time to thwart them.

Russell and faithful butler George (Charles Ruggles, who has the best lines and takes most of the pratfalls) retreat to his hunting lodge. Gibbs and his invisible protégé’ soon follow, with Gibbs telling Russell his money worries are now over. Invisible Kitty imbibes too much brandy, and the alcohol has a strange reaction, causing her to remain invisible. Returning to Gibbs’ lab, they discover housekeeper Mrs. Jackson (Margaret Hamilton) locked in a closet and the machine gone! The gangsters have stolen it, but they forgot to take the formula. The inventor says “without the injection, that machine is apt to do strange things to people”.

The gangsters soon find out when boss Blackie makes deep-voiced henchman Foghorn enter the machine first, and he changes to a soprano! The other two thugs are sent back to retrieve Professor Gibbs, who’s given Kitty a reagent to turn her visible again. She’s warned to steer clear of booze (“When you dissipate, you disappear”). The goons grab Gibbs and Kitty after overpowering Russell and his befuddled butler, taking them to the Mexican hideout. Foghorn, angry at his falsetto fate, goes to Russell and rats his comrades out.

In the lab of Blackie’s Mexican scientist (Luis Alberni), Kitty spies a bottle of grain alcohol on a table and swigs it down, turning invisible again. She takes down the hoods single handedly, right before Russell and company arrive. Determined to make the playboy feel like a hero, she shoots at them and jumps in a pool, where Russell and Kitty finally embrace. They get married and have a baby in the film’s funny coda.

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Virginia Bruce is bubbly and beautiful as Kitty Carroll, giving a wonderful comic performance. Universal’s special effects wizard John P. Fulton does his usual splendid job, though Kitty’s shadow can be seen in the showdown with her and Growley. The comic cast is given lively direction by A. Edward Sutherland, who started in the silent era with Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops, later putting comedy legends like W.C. Fields, Mae West, Burns and Allen, and Abbott & Costello through their paces. Screenwriters Robert Lees and Fred Rinaldo were partners in hilarity for years, writing CRAZY HOUSE for Olsen & Johnson and many scripts for Abbott & Costello, including their best, A&C MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Sadly, both writers ended up on the Hollywood blacklist in the 1950s during the Communist witch hunts. Rinaldo’s last credit was 1952’s JUMPING JACKS starring Martin and Lewis. He died in 1992. Even more sadly, the 91 year old Lees was decapitated in his home by a drug crazed robber in 2004.

But let’s not end this on a down note. THE INVISIBLE WOMAN is a fast-moving, fun film with terrific acting from a great ensemble cast. Virginia Bruce never looked lovelier (when she’s visible, that is) in one of her best remembered roles. Don’t come looking for scares and shudders, but be prepared to laugh along with THE INVISIBLE WOMAN.

The 2015 TCM Summer Under The Stars Blogathon presents: Virginia Bruce in THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (Universal, 1940)

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Once again, I’m taking part in the 2015 Summer Under The Stars Blogathon hosted by the lovely and talented Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film. Today’s star is Virginia Bruce, starring in one of my favorite 40s flicks. THE INVISIBLE WOMAN usually gets lumped in with Universal Picture’s monster movies, but has more in common with BRINGING UP BABY or MY MAN GODFREY. In fact, it’s one of my favorite screwball comedies. There are no scares in THE INVISIBLE WOMAN, but there sure are a lot of laughs!

When rich playboy Dick Russell (John Howard) discovers his wild lifestyle has left him flat broke, he has to quit funding eccentric Professor Gibbs (John Barrymore).  The crackpot inventor takes an ad in the paper looking for a “human being willing to become invisible…no remuneration”. His ad is answered by Kitty Carroll (Bruce), a model always at odds with cruel boss Growley (perennial sourpuss Charles Lane). Kitty answers the “call to adventure”, and is given an injection, then placed in the professor’s invisibility machine (“It tickles!”)

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The experiment’s a success, and invisible Kitty seeks revenge on Growley for herself and all working girls in a hilarious scene. Meanwhile, mob boss Blackie Cole (Oscar Homolka), hiding out in Mexico, has got wind of the new invention. He sends three goons (Donald MacBride, Edward Brophy, Shemp Howard) to con the addle-brained inventor, but Kitty arrives in time to thwart them.

Russell and faithful butler George (Charles Ruggles, who has the best lines and takes most of the pratfalls) retreat to his hunting lodge. Gibbs and his invisible protégé’ soon follow, with Gibbs telling Russell his money worries are now over. Invisible Kitty imbibes too much brandy, and the alcohol has a strange reaction, causing her to remain invisible. Returning to Gibbs’ lab, they discover housekeeper Mrs. Jackson (Margaret Hamilton) locked in a closet and the machine gone! The gangsters have stolen it, but they forgot to take the formula. The inventor says “without the injection, that machine is apt to do strange things to people”.

The gangsters soon find out when boss Blackie makes deep-voiced henchman Foghorn enter the machine first, and he changes to a soprano! The other two thugs are sent back to retrieve Professor Gibbs, who’s given Kitty a reagent to turn her visible again. She’s warned to steer clear of booze (“When you dissipate, you disappear”). The goons grab Gibbs and Kitty after overpowering Russell and his befuddled butler, taking them to the Mexican hideout. Foghorn, angry at his falsetto fate, goes to Russell and rats his comrades out.

In the lab of Blackie’s Mexican scientist (Luis Alberni), Kitty spies a bottle of grain alcohol on a table and swigs it down, turning invisible again. She takes down the hoods single handedly, right before Russell and company arrive. Determined to make the playboy feel like a hero, she shoots at them and jumps in a pool, where Russell and Kitty finally embrace. They get married and have a baby in the film’s funny coda.

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Virginia Bruce is bubbly and beautiful as Kitty Carroll, giving a wonderful comic performance. Universal’s special effects wizard John P. Fulton does his usual splendid job, though Kitty’s shadow can be seen in the showdown with her and Growley. The comic cast is given lively direction by A. Edward Sutherland, who started in the silent era with Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops, later putting comedy legends like W.C. Fields, Mae West, Burns and Allen, and Abbott & Costello through their paces. Screenwriters Robert Lees and Fred Rinaldo were partners in hilarity for years, writing CRAZY HOUSE for Olsen & Johnson and many scripts for Abbott & Costello, including their best, A&C MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Sadly, both writers ended up on the Hollywood blacklist in the 1950s during the Communist witch hunts. Rinaldo’s last credit was 1952’s JUMPING JACKS starring Martin and Lewis. He died in 1992. Even more sadly, the 91 year old Lees was decapitated in his home by a drug crazed robber in 2004.

But let’s not end this on a down note. THE INVISIBLE WOMAN is a fast-moving, fun film with terrific acting from a great ensemble cast. Virginia Bruce never looked lovelier (when she’s visible, that is) in one of her best remembered roles. Don’t come looking for scares and shudders, but be prepared to laugh along with THE INVISIBLE WOMAN.