Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Last Hurrah

"The Last Hurrah" (John Ford, 1958) It seems unlikely that two of the most prominent Irishmen in Hollywood—John Ford and Spencer Tracy—would make only two movie together.* Whatever the reasons (and Hollywood legend claims that this one nearly didn't happen**), the two drinking buddies seemed to spark great work from each other.

Frank Skeffington, former governor and current mayor of "an unnamed New England town," has decided to run for Mayor for an unprecedented fifth term.
Ably supported by his mostly Irish Mafia (although other burrough leaders are alluded to, the only one who has any speaking lines is Ricardo Cortez*** playing a Jewish bureau chief), and shunned and reviled by a WASP chamber of commerce (portrayed by veteran actors Basil Rathbone and John Carradine as cantankerous dried-up husks), Skeffington finagles and blarneys his way through getting his way (resorting to blackmail every once in awhile). But Skeffington isn't so full of hubris that he thinks he can go on forever. This campaign, he's decided, is his "last hurrah," and he wants his nephew, newsie Adam Caulfield (Jeffrey Hunter) to get a taste of the "old-style politics" of the glad-hand and the smoked film room before radio and television do away with the personal touch—a prescient idea if ever there was one!

Pointedly, veteran Jane Darwell has more zeal than youngster Jeffrey Hunter

The film ingeniously shows the passing of an era with its scenes of vibrant oldsters and shallow youth and of the personal touch versus the cathode ray tube (Ford has a grand time lampooning staged political broadcasts that are only slightly clumsier than the spit-polished productions of today, a neat summing up of '50's TV usage in politics—everything from Kennedy's carefully cherry-picked history to Nixon's "Checkers" speech). For Ford, approaching his twilight years, emboldened by the fearlessness of age and determined to speak truth, it seemed like a good bet to take on politics and the changing landscape that media played in that change. "The Last Hurrah," directed and produced by Ford, seemed a bit of a return to the old Ford films starring Will Rogers and the film is stacked, overstuffed, with character actors of Hollywood's past parading before the camera—specifically Ford's Hollywood past. Pat O'Brien, Donald Crisp, James Gleason, Jane Darwell, Anna Lee, John Carradine, Wallace Ford, Frank McHugh—all veterans of past Ford films—cast adrift by the failing studio system that kept them employed, in an era of the independent production company. It is not insignificant that a good deal of the film takes place at a boisterous wake.

"The Parade's Gone By" — Skeffington's walk home

Much is made of the long shot of Skeffington's walk home through the park after his election defeat, while in the background a loud celebratory parade for the opposition marches down the street in the other direction, it's klieg lights brashly blasting the camera on occasion. No one could miss that message. But more significant—and more indicative of the kind of deep visual poetry that Ford brought to the screen—is the carefully composed last shot of Skeffington's leaderless contingent, shadows of men, marching up the stairs to pay their respects, but, just as surely, following their leader heavenward.

* Those being "Up the River" (1930), which also featured Humphrey Bogart—I can't imagine Ford and Bogart getting along— and "The Last Hurrah" 28 years later. The two men were under contracts with competing studios until independents in the '50's made their second collaboration possible.

** Orson Welles claimed that John Ford talked to him about playing Skeffington (Welles and Ford were an intense mutual admiration society—their first fires across each others' bows is a story that will wait for another time), but while Welles was out of the country, his agent turned the offer down.

*** Ricardo Cortez played the original Sam Spade in 1931's version of "The Maltese Falcon." In fact, "The Last Hurrah" could be seen as a lot of last hurrah's for many veterans of Hollywood movies. This cast is so top-heavy with so many scene-stealing character actors you'd think you were watching a Frank Capra movie!

The boisterous wake scene for an unloved fellow—all the burroughs are heard from.
Ford might be talking about Hollywood's efficient (but artist-reviled) studio system.

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