Frank Skeffington is the longtime mayor of a big New England city, never named but maybe Boston. The title refers to the final campaign of his political career, but also to fundamental changes occurring in American politics. Edwin O'Connor's 1956 novel, which the movie closely adapts, has Skeffington pitted against a carefully groomed, aspiring young politician loosely based on John F. Kennedy (though the character in the film is a clueless putz). The movie predicts that seminal game-changing Nixon-Kennedy debate soon after, which changed all the rules.
Ford wanted fellow hard-drinking Irish-American Spencer Tracy to play the story's protagonist. Amazingly, Ford and Tracy had worked together only once before, on 1930's Up the River, Tracy's first film (and, coincidentally, Humphrey Bogart's). Tracy loved the script but turned it down repeatedly, and for a time Ford considered James Cagney and, intriguingly, Orson Welles, but eventually with Katharine Hepburn acting as a go-between, Tracy finally agreed to do it. Both Ford and Tracy abstained from drinking during the shoot, and apparently everyone had a grand time making it, and Ford even brought it in underbudget.
The two-hour film is mostly a character study. Having risen from poverty, Skeffington enjoys four terms as mayor, aided by a well-oiled political machine of lawyers, campaign advisers, ward healers, and allies in the Irish-American-dominated fire and police departments, including close associates John Gorman (Pat O'Brien), "Cuke" Gillen (James Gleason), Jewish attorney Sam Weinberg (Ricardo Cortez, born Jacob Krantz), and, for Skeffington's own amusement, devoted but dim-witted "Ditto" Boland (Edward Brophy).
However, the conservative elite (and mostly Protestant) of the city, including banker Norman Cass (Basil Rathbone) and newspaper publisher Amos Force (John Carradine), have shrewdly backed a young Irish-Catholic lawyer-war hero, Kevin McCluskey (Charles B. Fitzsimons, Maureen O'Hara's younger brother) to oppose Skeffington.
The plot, such as it is, observes the campaign from the perspective of Adam Caulfield (Jeffrey Hunter), Skeffington's sports writer nephew, who at first is appalled by his uncle's near-dictatorial control over the city and its accompanying cronyism, benign and comparatively (unrealistically) uncorrupted though it might be. A key scene involves the old-fashioned Irish wake of a shady local man who leaves his widow (Anna Lee) virtually penniless, until Skeffington discreetly provides for her and reduces the cost of her husband's overcharged burial to virtually nothing. Soon, Adam is completely won over, providing a contrast to widower Skeffington's own son (Arthur Walsh), a playboy utterly disinterested when not oblivious to in his father's affairs and humanism.
Tracy, predictably, is wonderful, though the ensemble cast, dominated by talent from the late-silent/early-talkie period is especially fun, even joyous in late-career parts. Colorful roles are given to the likes of Wallace Ford, Jane Darwell, Edmund Lowe and many others, though the touching, funny relationship between Skeffington and clueless but earnest Ditto stand out, the role being Edward Brophy's last major part before his death in 1960. (Nonetheless, Brophy's former agent infamously lobbied director Stanley Kramer to cast Brophy in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, two years after his death!)
Filmed entirely on Columbia's soundstages and its backlot for exterior scenes - if I'm not mistaken, Skeffington's house later turned up as the home of Ben Bradlee in All the President's Men and still stands - The Last Hurrah looks nothing like Ford's other films from the period, yet the cast make it feel almost like a warm class reunion. It's a talky film, resembling a filmed stage play, and could easily be adapted to that medium.
Frank S. Nugent's screenplay and the book recognize the sea change about to happen in American politics, not just the growing importance of television but, more essentially, carefully groomed candidates financed by moneyed interests, this new breed of politician molded by polling rather than bigger than life personalities and ties to the local community. Skeffington is part of a dying breed, meeting his constituents one-on-one at his home, attending multi-denominational rallies, calling in favors based on relationships dating back to when the town's leaders were all living in poverty. McCluskey, by contrast, is as prefabricated as The Monkees.
Video & Audio
Shot for 1.85:1 widescreen and black-and-white, visually The Last Hurrah doesn't look all the different from Columbia's standard B-pictures of the late ‘50s. (The use of stock music adds to this feeling.) The transfer, however, is excellent, which helps viewers notice the subtleties (or broadness) of the performances when five or eight actors fill the frame at once, and the Columbia Ranch backlot scenes show a lot of detail. The mono audio is fine, and English subtitles are available and the disc, a limited edition, is region-free.
Supplements include an audio commentary with Lem Dobbs, Nick Redman, and Julie Kirgo; a trailer, an isolated music track, and Kirgo's liner notes.
I'd seen The Last Hurrah only once before, decades ago (on TV? Cable? VHS?) and didn't much care for it then. A better understanding of Ford's life and career arc, as well as a better familiarity with the cast helps, but for whatever reason the picture seems to play much warmer and sentimental (in the good sense) today. Highly Recommended.