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!

Happy Birthday Frank Sinatra: SUDDENLY (United Artists 1954)

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Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra. The Chairman of the Board certainly had a long and varied career, beginning as a bobby-sox teen idol in the Big Band Era, then a movie star at glamorous MGM.  Hitting a slump in the early 50s, Sinatra came back strong with his Academy Award winning role as Maggio in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. His follow up film was the unheralded but effective noir thriller SUDDENLY.

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The title refers to the sleepy little California town where the film takes place. Suddenly was once a wild and wooly Gold Rush settlement, now just a peaceful suburb. Sheriff Todd Shaw (Sterling Hayden) is a stand-up guy, in love with local girl Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates), a war widow with a son, Pidge (Kim Charney). Ellen’s not ready to stop grieving her husband’s death, and to further matters she abhors guns. Her father-in-law Pop (James Gleason), a retired Secret Service agent, gets exasperated at the way Ellen overprotects Pidge and keeps turning Todd away.

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Todd receives some major news through the wires: The President of the United States will be arriving by train at 5:00pm for a stopover. The news is top secret, and Secret Service agents, led by Carney (Willis Bouchey), descend on Suddenly to secure the area. State police are summoned, streets blocked off, and shops are closed so the disembarkment will go off without a hitch. Three men arrive at the Benson home, which sits on a hill overlooking the train depot. John Baron (Sinatra) and two others (Paul Frees, Christopher Dark) claim to be FBI agents sent to protect the president. They set up shop at the Benson house, but Pop has some suspicions about the whole thing.

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Everything’s been secured except the house on the hill. When Carney finds out his old boss Pop Benson lives there, he goes up with Todd to say hello. They’re met at the door by Baron and his men, who gun down Carney and wound Todd. The truth is now revealed: Baron is a hit man assigned to assassinate the president! Todd and the Bensons are held captive while they wait for the train to arrive so ex-Army sniper and Silver Star winner Baron can do the dirty deed. Baron exerts his will over them all by threatening to kill Pidge first if anyone tries to stop him from his murderous task.

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The tension is unrelenting in SUDDENLY, and the ingenious ending will have you cheering the good guys on (I know I did). The role of John Baron is a total departure for Sinatra, and he pulls it off superbly. Baron is cool, calm, and collected one minute, a raging psycho the next. He’s completely lacking in empathy, his motto is “ace, deuce, craps, it don’t matter”. The only thing Baron’s ever been good at is killing, and he enjoys the power it gives him. A sociopath with no redeeming qualities, Baron brags about his kill rate in the war, and doesn’t hesitate to use violence to get his way. Sinatra nails the role of Baron like he did his many songs, and though he’s a real rat, it’s among his finest performances.

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Director Lewis Allen does a good job here. Allen made his feature debut with 1944’s ghostly THE UNINVITED, followed by a semi-sequel, THE UNSEEN. After making the 1951 bomb of a biopic VALENTINO, his career was up and down. SUDDENLY gives Allen a good showcase, but the rest of his filmography is uninspired. He ended in TV, including episodes of MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE and THE INVADERS. Screenwriter Richard Sale got his start in the pulps, and wrote such varied film fare as MR. BELVEDERE GOES TO COLLEGE, GENTLEMEN MARRY BRUNETTES (which he also directed), and the Charles Bronson starrer THE WHITE BUFFALO. His screenplay for SUDDENLY seems to have inspired another Sinatra film, 1962’s THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, with Frank as the hero and Lawrence Harvey the psycho-shooter. SUDDENLY was allegedly remade in 2013 by Uwe Boll. I’ve never seen any of Boll’s films and from what I understand, I’m not missing anything. I’ll stick to the original with this one.

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Frank Sinatra was always a saloon singer at heart, and my contribution to his 100th birthday bash wouldn’t be complete without a song. Here’s Ol’ Blue Eyes at his mid-60s peak doing one of my personal favorites. “That’s Life”. Cheers, Frankie!

 

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