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!

Forgotten Horror: THIRTEEN WOMEN (RKO 1932)

I pride myself on having seem almost every horror film made during the 1930’s, though once in a while an obscure title comes along whose attention has escaped me. But how on Earth did I miss THIRTEEN WOMEN, especially with a cast headlined by Irene Dunne (of all people!) and Myrna Loy ? This fast-paced thriller involving hypnosis, astrology, and serial murder is downright nasty, and has been cited as a precursor to the “slasher” genre… not to mention a whole lot of fun!

We begin with circus performer June Raskob receiving a letter from the mysterious Swami Yogadashi with her horoscope attached, predicting impending doom in the stars for her. But it’s her sister who dies, plunging to her death during their trapeze act (shown in gruesome detail), and poor June goes hopelessly insane. The scene shifts to exotic half-caste Ursula Georgi, who has the Swami under her hypnotic spell and uses him as a pawn in her game to get revenge on her St. Alban’s sorority sisters who ostracized her because of her race. Lovely Hazel Clay is next: she stabs her hubby to death with a butcher knife and is given the chair!

Skeptical Laura Stanhope gathers the remaining girls to calm them down, but when the Swami’s prediction of his own demise comes to pass (under Ursula’s dark influence) and schoolmate Helen Frye commits suicide aboard a train, even Laura comes to believe – she’s recently received her own letter warning “something dreadful” is about to happen to her young son Bobby. Police Sgt. Clive, investigating Helen’s death, finds Laura’s address on Helen’s baggage, and begins to dig up the facts. Then the unthinkable: Bobby gets a package of candy in the mail, and worried Laura has it analyzed at police headquarters. The verdict: poison! When that fails, chauffeur Burns (also under Ursula’s power) buys the tyke a bouncy ball for his birthday, an explosive bouncy ball! This all culminates in a train ride to hell, where Laura is confronted by Ursula, with Clive and his men in hot pursuit, and the ultimate end of the she-devil  exactly the way Swami Yogadachi predicted she would die.

Myrna Loy was specializing in exotic roles at this juncture in her career, and her evil-eyed Ursula is one of her scariest – though I can’t blame her for the way she was treated because of racism among the other girls, cold-blooded murder isn’t the best way to make things right! Irene Dunne was already a star for films like CIMARRON and BACK STREET, and she makes a good woman-in-peril here, suave Ricardo Cortez pours on his usual charm as Clive, and the cast is made up of Familiar Faces like Florence Eldridge, Jill Esmond, C. Henry Gordon (The Swami), Kay Johnson , and Edward Pawley.

Peg Entwistle (1908-1932)

This was the only screen appearance of Peg Entwistle, in the small role of murderess Hazel. Miss Entwistle is better known for her tragic death than her acting: in 1932, she climbed to the top of the Hollywood sign, and jumped from the letter H, a suicide at age 24. Her death was played up all in the papers and scandalized the film community, later rehashed in Kenneth Anger’s book HOLLYWOOD BABYLON, along with a topless pic of the late actress (which I refuse to reproduce here, not because I’m prudish, but I feel it exploits a tragic situation).

THIRTEEN WOMEN draws from elements of the murder mystery, psychological thriller, and occult practices to create a horror movie begging to be rediscovered. Myrna Loy is a sultry villainess, and director George Archainbaud uses some neat camera tricks, like an animated star after some of the deaths to segue into the next scene.  If you’re a horror buff like me, you’ll definitely want to seek out this forgotten gem.

Pre-Code Confidential #13: Wallace Beery in John Ford’s FLESH (MGM 1932)

Long before his John Wayne collaborations, John Ford had worked to perfect his own style as a filmmaker. Even though the cranky, idiosyncratic Ford, who directed his first film way back in 1917,  had his directing credit removed from 1932’s FLESH, it is credited as “A John Ford Production”, and one can tell this is definitely a “John Ford Picture”.  The man himself thought the film was lousy, and most critics agreed, but I’m in the minority opinion. I think it’s worthy of reappraisal for film lovers to get a glimpse of some vintage Ford, with solid performances by Wallace Beery, Karen Morley, and Ricardo Cortez. Plus, as a long-time pro wrestling buff, the grappling game setting appeals to me, as do the many Pre-Code themes and moments.

Beery once again is a good-natured lug, a German wrestler named Polakai who doubles as a waiter in a rowdy beer garden, toting a keg on his massive shoulders. Morley is  Laura, an American just released from prison with no visible means of support. She runs up a hefty tab and is unable to pay, so Polakai takes care of it. Later, Laura is walking the streets and spotted by a local polizeibeamte. The smitten Polakai takes her in, giving this stranger in a strange land a place to stay, much to the shock of his neighbors.

What Polakai doesn’t know is Laura is carrying a torch for her lover, the still incarcerated Nicky (Cortez), as well as carrying Nicky’s baby! Polakai catches her trying to lift his stash of cash, and she gives him a sob story about helping spring her “brother” from jail, so the naïve rassler insists on helping her once again. When Nicky is released, and finds out Laura’s pregnant, the rat drops her like a hot weinerschnitzel and skedaddles back to the states. This leaves Laura with little choice: convincing Polakai she’s carrying his child, the dumb brute does the honorable thing and marries her.

Polakai wins the championship of Germany while she gives birth to a son, then  takes his new family in tow and comes to America to compete for the World’s Championship. Now the roles are reversed, with Polakai the “stranger in a strange land”.  Slimy Nicky worms his way back into the picture and becomes Polakai’s manager, but when the big lug learns the American rasslin’ racket is fixed, he refuses to play ball and decides to return to Germany. Nicky, not wanting to lose his new meal ticket, smacks Laura around to force her to convince him otherwise. She achieves this by leaving him, backing Polakai into a corner, and the hulking grappler agrees to “wrestle crooked”. He discovers the effects of American bootleg whiskey and hits the bottle hard, unable to function on the night of his big championship bout. Nicky is steamed when the brute is unable to get out of bed and shoves Laura to the floor, angering the giant. She confesses everything to Polakai, who rises from his sickbed and strangles Nicky. Polakai is arrested shortly after winning the title, and Laura visits him in prison, stating she’s leaving town, but Polakai begs her to stay. Despite all that’s occurred, he’s still in love with his American liebchin.

Appropriately, since half the film is set in Germany, Ford utilizes an Expressionistic style in FLESH. The director had worked alongside F.W. Murnau on the Fox lot, and Murnau’s SUNRISE (1927) was an eye-opener for Ford. He considered it a masterpiece of filmmaking, and it heavily influenced Ford’s silents FOUR SONS (1928) and HANGMAN’S HOUSE (1928), as well as his later, more “arty” films like THE INFORMER, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, and (to a certain extent) THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Ford’s signature doorway motif shows up, as do some marvelous overhead shots, and the use of shadows give FLESH even more of an “Ufa” feel.  Though everybody knows Ford called the shot selections on his films, DP Arthur Edeson was no slouch; Edeson was the man behind the camera for such classics as FRANKENSTEIN, THE INVISIBLE MAN, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, THE MALTESE FALCON, SERGEANT YORK, and CASABLANCA , and surely must’ve had some input into the look of the film.

A whole host of writers worked on the screenplay for FLESH, both credited and uncredited. Film director Edmund Goulding is credited with the story, adapted by writers Leonard Praskins and Edgar Allan Woolf. Moss Hart wrote the dialog, while William Faulkner, John W. Considine Jr. and Hanns Kraly made uncredited contributions. Faulkner’s participation inspired the Coen Brothers to parody him “writing a Wallace Beery wrestling story” in their 1991 film BARTON FINK.

Beery goes for pathos as the dim-witted but kind-hearted bear Polakai, although even John Ford himself couldn’t restrain the actor completely from mugging for the camera (this would be their only film together). Karen Morley (Laura) is superb in a difficult role, as she was in the Pre-Codes SCARFACE, THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, DINNER AT EIGHT, and King Vidor’s excellent 1934 OUR DAILY BREAD. Morley was a fine actress whose career, along with husband Lloyd Gough, was ruined by HUAC in 1947. Ricardo Cortez is vile as ever in the part of Nicky; the former “competitor” to Valentino’s Latin Lover crown made a career out of playing low-down snakes in 30’s films before turning to directing. Familiar Faces rounding out the cast are Vince Barnett , Herman Bing, Ed Brophy , Jean Hersholt, Wilbur Mack, John Miljan, and Frank Reicher . Ford favorite Ward Bond   plays one of Beery’s early sparring partners, and ex-wrestler Nat Pendleton  is cast as (what else?) a wrestler. The film also features an appearance by real life heavyweight champ Wladek Zbyszko, who fought such greats of the era as “Strangler” Ed Lewis and Joe Stecher.

I’m unsure why Ford chose to pull his name from the director’s credit. FLESH isn’t a bad movie by any means, and in fact is quite entertaining. It’s been said he felt constricted working at MGM, and didn’t work at the studio again until 1945’s THEY WERE EXPENDABLE. By that time, John Ford had already won three of his record four directing Oscars, and was a force to be reckoned with in cinema. FLESH offers viewers a chance to see the master in an early, experimental stage, and for that reason alone deserves to be seen.

 

Pre Code Confidential #11: THE MALTESE FALCON (Warner Brothers 1931)

Everybody knows the 1941 Humphrey Bogart/John Huston classic THE MALTESE FALCON, but only true film fanatics watch the original 1931 version. Since I fall squarely into that category, I recently viewed the first adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s seminal private eye yarn. The film, like it’s more famous remake, follows the novel’s plot closely, with the added spice that Pre-Code movies bring to the table.

Cortez is no Bogie, but he’ll do

The odds are six-two-and-even if you’re reading this post, you don’t need a plot recap. What I intend to do is go over some of the differences between the two versions. Let’s start with Sam Spade himself, the prototype hard-boiled detective. Suave, slick-haired Ricardo Cortez  interprets the role as a grinning horndog who’s never met a skirt he didn’t like. We meet Spade in the opening shot, clinching a dame in silhouette at the door to his office. Then the door opens and the camera pans down to the girl’s gorgeous gam, hitching up her stocking, so there’s no doubt that more than just business was being conducted behind that closed door. This sets the tone for Cortez’s character, an amoral man completely out for himself. We later discover he’s been banging his partner Miles Archer’s wife Iva (and as she’s played by the lovely Thelma Todd  , who could blame him?!?). He’s also got a thing going on with secretary Effie ( Una Merkel , another Pre-Code cutie). Cortez made a career playing shady types, and though his Spade differs from the more cynical Bogart , he does well in the role of less than honorable gumshoe.

Bebe in the bathtub/la-dee-da-dee-dah!

Bebe Daniels plays opposite Cortez as the lying, duplicitous Ruth Wanderly, enacted in the Huston film by Mary Astor. Miss Daniels, a star in the silent era, was more closely associated with early musicals (DIXIANA, 42ND STREET), and is no match for Astor in the dramatic department. However, she does get to strut her Pre-Code stuff more freely than Astor did ten years later. There’s a scene where Ruth and Sam are passionately kissing while a record comes to an end; the scene changes to Daniels asleep in his bed the next morning. Sam answers the door to find Iva, who spies Ruth peeking through the bedroom door… in her kimono! Later, when a thousand dollar bill goes missing from an envelope, Sam orders Ruth to “take off your clothes” so he can search her… and she does! Though she’s no Mary Astor (let’s face it, few actresses were), Bebe Daniels does fine in the pivotal role of Ruth Wanderly.

Diggs & Frye… more than just friends?

The villainous trio of Casper Gutman, “Dr.” Joel Cairo, and the gunsel Wilmer Cook are portrayed with no ambiguity about their homosexuality. Right off the bat, Effie tells Sam a “gorgeous new customer” has arrived, and in walks the effeminate Dr. Cairo (Danish actor Otto Matieson). Gutman (Irishman Dudley Diggs) sports feminine curls and is more than fond of his hired goon Wilmer, played by none other than Dwight Frye. It was a very good year for Frye, as he appeared in both FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA for Universal in 1931. There’s also some homophobic slurs tossed by Spade at the homicide dicks Dundy and Polhaus (Robert Elliott, J. Farrell McDonald), as he teases Dundy with the sobriquets “sweetheart” and “darling”, much to their chagrin.

When Warner Brothers wanted to re-release the ’31 version in 1936, the then-in-place Hayes Production Code had a fit, claiming it was too “lewd” and unacceptable to be put on the Silver Screen again. Warners then commissioned a remake, retitled SATAN MET A LADY, changing some things around and starring Warren William and Bette Davis in the Cortez and Daniels roles. The new film was a bomb (Davis hated it), and Hammett’s story sat untouched until John Huston got ahold of it in 1941, and the rest is film history. The Huston/Bogart MALTESE FALCON remains the definitive version, and is still my favorite, but this  Roy Del Ruth  1931 Pre-Code take has a lot to offer. While not nearly as atmospheric or influential as the later film, this MALTESE FALCON is at least the stuff that Pre-Code dreams are made of!

The “Pre Code Confidential” Files:

  1. LADY KILLER
  2. KONGO
  3. MAKE ME A STAR
  4. THE MASK OF FU MANCHU
  5. HOLLYWOOD PARTY
  6. THE SECRET SIX
  7. PLAY-GIRL
  8. BABY FACE
  9. BLONDE CRAZY
  10. CLEOPATRA

Halloween Havoc!: Boris Karloff in THE WALKING DEAD (Warner Brothers 1936)

twd1

1936’s THE WALKING DEAD has absolutely nothing to do with the wildly popular AMC TV series. This WALKING DEAD stars Boris Karloff , making the first of a five-picture deal he signed with Warners, an interesting hybrid of the gangster and horror genres about an unjustly executed man who’s revived by science exacting vengeance on those who set him up. The result was a fast paced (clocked at 66 minutes) entry in the first horror cycle, and one of the last horror films made until their 1939 revival (more about that later).

twd2

Boris stars as John Ellman, newly released from a stretch in prison. A gangland cartel, looking to get rid of a law-and-order judge, set Ellman up as a patsy, hiring him to stake out the judge’s home, murdering the guy, and dumping the body in Ellman’s car. He goes on trial, defended by crooked lawyer Nolan, and sentenced to death by electric chair. Two witnesses, Jimmy and Nancy, saw the thugs put the body in Ellman’s car, but are too scared to say anything.

twd3

Jimmy and Nancy finally confide in their boss Dr. Beaumont, who’s been experimenting in reanimating the dead. Ellman’s body is sent to Beaumont and, with Strickefaden-like electrical equipment a-cracklin’, the dead man returns to life. The medical community is agog with this wonder of science, though Ellman has developed a wide streak of white hair and a zombie-like shuffle. Beaumont wants to know what it was like in the brief time Ellman was dead, but he can’t remember much. However, Ellman has begun receiving messages from “some supernatural power” about the men responsible for his death.

twd4

Ellman becomes an Avenging Angel of Death, confronting those who conspired against him. First to go is the hitman “Trigger”, quickly followed by Blackstone and Merritt (during an eerie thunderstorm). Ellman wanders to a cemetery, followed by Nancy, who’s followed by gangsters Nolan and Loder. “I belong here”, says Ellman, before the hoodlums shoot him down. Beaumont and Jimmy arrive, and Beaumont presses Ellman for the “secrets from the beyond”. “Leave the dead to their maker”, intones Ellman, “for the Lord God is a jealous God”, just as Nolan and Loder are involved in a fatal car crash and electrocuted themselves. Ellman expires, taking the secrets of what happens after death with him for good.

twd5

Boris is excellent as always, playing for pathos as the zombie-like Ellman. His mannerisms remind viewers of his FRANKENSTEIN monster, though Ellman still has a spark of intelligence. Perc Westmore’s makeup is more subdued than Jack Pierce’s job, with only a shock of white hair and an unflinching left eye to convey the horror of the living dead. Karloff acts mainly with his body, his shambling gait and crippled arm doing the work. It’s a restrained performance, and another fine addition to Boris’ Gallery of Horror works.

MARGUERITE CHURCHILL, WARREN HULL & EDMUND GWENN Character(s): Nancy, Jimmy, Dr. Evan Beaumont Film 'THE WALKING DEAD' (1936) Directed By MICHAEL CURTIZ 01 March 1936 CTW88169 Allstar/Cinetext/WARNER BROS **WARNING** This photograph can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above film. For Editorial Use Only.

The rest of the cast comes straight from Warner’s B-team. Edmond Gwenn is the scientist seeking the answers to life after death, years before his Kris Kringle in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. Marguerite Churchill’s (Nancy) brief film career included the Universal horror DRACULA’S DAUGHTER. Ricardo Cortez (Nolan) was a silent matinée idol who got typecast as a heavy in the sound era; he’s also the only actor to play both Sam Spade (1931’s THE MALTESE FALCON) and Perry Mason (CURSE OF THE BLACK CAT). Barton McLane (Loder) was usually a henchman; he costarred with Glenda Farrell in the Torchy Blane series and later became General Peterson on TV’s I DREAM OF JEANNIE. Warren Hull (Jimmy) is known to serial fans as The Green Hornet, The Spider, and Mandrake the Magician. Other Familiar Faces are Eddie Acuff, Joseph King, Henry O’Neill , Addison Richards, and Joe Sawyer.

Michael Curtiz was an old hand at horror, having directed Warner’s two early shockers starring Lionel Atwill . It must have been a slow week for Curtiz, as he was used to bigger budget vehicles by this point. Hal Mohr’s cinematography is appropriately spooky, especially in the cemetery scenes. Karloff had four more pictures to go on his contract, but the British horror ban and censorship issues put the kibosh on fright films beginning in 1937. After a few more 1936 releases (DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, THE INVISIBLE RAY, THE DEVIL DOLL, REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES), films with horror themes left the silver screen until 1939, when Boris returned to the role that made him famous, along with Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone, in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, beginning Hollywood’s second horror cycle. Can you imagine a world with no horror films? That’s the most frightening thought of all!