A lack of simultaneousness plagues American political films, which often follow a protagonist in an elected position who neatly handles one self-contained crisis after another, in succession per the necessities of a narrative that’s engineered to impart a moral lesson. In actuality, politicians are endlessly bombarded by varying factions, conflicting loyalties, and unresolvable issues. In this context, John Ford’s The Last Hurrah is a refreshing anomaly, a rare film to wrestle with the ongoing rhetorical tap dancing that’s necessary to keeping a public career afloat.
The film follows a “New England city” mayor, Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy), as he tries to win a fifth and final term. Skeffington is an Irish American with working-class roots, and his position of power rankles the Protestant bankers and Catholic bishops who represent the “old money” at the root of our country’s foundation. Ford and screenwriter Frank Nugent establish a dense network of rivals for Frank, elucidating how religion intersects with economy, class, heredity, and show business to insidiously forge a communal identity.
Frank’s most vivid opponents are Amos Force (John Carradine), a newspaper editor who can be counted on to print propaganda for Frank’s opponents, and Norman Cass (Basil Rathbone), a banker who controls Frank’s ability to fund a new housing project for the poor. Storming into a posh club to which Amos and Norman belong, Frank contemptuously swears that he can breathe the original air from the Mayflower, and he promises that the housing project will reach fruition on St. Patrick’s Day. The Last Hurrah is rich in such anecdotes and details, reveling in Frank’s ability to bulldoze through classist euphemism.
A love of elegantly blunt, air-clearing rhetoric is common of Ford’s films, the overt political dramas as well as the westerns and melodramas, as Ford understands the United States as being founded on mythology, with the most influential politician or historian often being revealed to be the best bullshitter. Yet Ford is a mythologist himself, and this irony gives his films an ambiguous, unresolved double edge. Ford’s films are also riven with other conflicts, namely between progressive and reactionary world views—a conflict which is said to have dominated the filmmaker’s personal life.
For instance, Ford’s later production, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, is one of the greatest of all political films partially for its movingly unreconciled complicity with both James Stewart’s progressive politician and John Wayne’s traditionally American man of violence. Ford seems to feel that both men are necessary for brokering a functional vision of American society, with a good dollop of storytelling—a.k.a. bullshit—serving as an insuring social lubricant.
Frank Skeffington suggests what might happen if James Stewart and John Wayne’s characters from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance were rolled into one, which allows for fascinating contradictions. One of Frank’s clear strengths with the public is his working-class appearance; he’s the Irishman made good, with a big, stocky body that seems born for the construction yard. And Tracy, in one of his greatest performances, allows one to see how Frank subtly calibrates said body to suit any occasion. In the country club, Frank’s an iron colossus; with a random voter, he’s softer and humbler. Frank even adjusts his Irish-ness on cue, laying on the slang when he’s with an elder at a funeral, and toning it down when he’s doing battle in his office.
Politically, Frank appears to be more or less liberal, favoring the “working man,” though he doesn’t hesitate to blackmail a funeral director into giving a widow a steep discount, or in strategically humiliating Cass’s son. Ford doesn’t pretend to abhor these actions, as he openly enjoys them, respecting Frank as someone who understands that politics is war. Frank is the progressive as barroom brawler, utilizing his blue-collar cunning to bend “old money” infrastructure to suit his will, and Ford’s open complicity with this character gives The Last Hurrah a wicked comic energy that renders most earnest political dramas deadly dull by comparison. (A scene in which Frank’s rival is humiliated by a dog is among the most uproarious in Ford’s canon.)
Ford’s love of drunken revelry has been often celebrated as well as criticized, as he loves to linger on his stock company players as they indulge in bits of behavioral business. Indeed, these scenes can sometimes allow Ford to lose sight of a film’s through line, though The Last Hurrah finds the filmmaker in peak command of balancing a narrative with the spontaneous textures that allow a Ford production to come to life. Every setting in The Last Hurrah is understood to be a stage, primarily for Frank, but also for hangers-on who either affirm Frank, nip away at him, or both. The film’s dialogue is a rich tapestry of quotable, classic jabs and aphorisms—Frank says that Amos quit the Ku Klux Klan because of the membership dues, which could drive any man to tolerance—which are complemented by compositions of intricately multi-planed gorgeousness that allude to the many other stories that are playing out parallel and perpendicular to Frank’s own.
The Last Hurrah is sentimental in a certain fashion though, as it’s another of Ford’s requiems for a simpler age, even if he understands said age to be founded on lies. Throughout his work, Ford often seems less offended by lies than by the methods they’re proffered. Frank kisses babies, breaches corrupt meetings, and works the streets—in short, he’s a hands-on manipulator—and even his misdeeds are intimate and ultimately naïve and harmless compared to the nihilism of modern politics. Beginning with radio but intensifying exponentially with television, multimedia would broaden politics into a less personal corrupt circus, signaling Frank’s demise as well as the end of an age in which a politician might still bother to stab you directly in the back.
This transfer from Twilight Time boasts a beautiful and vibrant image, with particularly sharp foregrounds that emphasize the textures and movements of the characters' faces. Throughout, blacks are rich and lustrous, and the whites have a crisp vitality. The English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio Surround track informs the dialogue with rich, varied tenors, which are nimbly balanced with the supporting sound effects to offer a subtly vibrant soundstage.
In a superb audio commentary, film historians Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo, and Lem Dobbs discuss John Ford's artistry while confronting his legendary eccentricities and abuses of power—particularly his bullying and attitudes about class and race. The historians also draw resonant parallels between Ford's stock company of actors, the characters in this and other films, and Ford's family. Meanwhile, a fascinating debate runs through the commentary, particularly between Kirgo and Dobbs, as to whether The Last Hurrah is charged with youthful vitality or is weighed down by the sagging energy of Tracy and maybe Ford himself. (Dobbs and Kirgo are both right, as the film is a vital work of art about depletion, which is only one of its many contradictions and mysteries.) This slim but substantial package is complemented by an essay by Kirgo, the original trailer, and an isolated musical track.
The disc offers a beautiful transfer of a neglected film, with a commentary that serves as a valuable resource for cinephiles and casual viewers alike.