John Ford directed a lot of good movies in his time, but even his best movies were flawed by his penchant for scenes that are corny and silly. He probably thought of those scenes as providing comic relief, but none of them ever made me laugh. Instead, they usually made me wince. The Last Hurrah is no exception. In fact, it has an excessive amount of such silliness.
Also in excess is the sentiment. Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy) is running for a fifth term as mayor of an unspecified New England city, probably Boston, and he is an old-style Irish politician who uses political muscle to do good things for the people of the city, especially those who are needy. Too much goodness, however, can get on your nerves. After a while, we begin to wish for some hint of corruption, that maybe he lined his pockets once in a while. But this is not a subtle movie, where characters have both good and bad traits. The characterizations are simplistic and there are no deviations from type.
There are flaws in Frank’s character actually, but they don’t count because the movie doesn’t want us to think of them that way. For example, when we first meet Frank’s son, Junior, he is portrayed as a worthless playboy who cares so little for his father that he did not watch his father’s speech on television, but rather was out on the town with a couple of beautiful women. Frank is disappointed with his son’s lack of interest in his campaign, and the movie wants us to be disappointed with Junior too. And just to help us out, Junior is played by Arthur Walsh, a dorky-looking actor. But there is no reason why Junior should be interested in politics. He has his own interests and is entitled to live his life the way he wants. Frank is in the wrong for thinking his son has an obligation to be interested in what his father does for a living.
As a substitute, there is Frank’s nephew, Adam Caulfield, who is the son Frank wishes he had, someone who is willing to follow him around and listen to his speeches. And just to make sure we regard this as admirable, Adam is played by the good-looking Jeffrey Hunter. It would have been more interesting if Arthur Walsh had played Adam, while Jeffrey Hunter played Junior, but John Ford wasn’t taking any chances.
Another flaw in Frank’s character that the movie wants us to admire is revealed during a wake. Frank is critical when he sees the expensive coffin. And then we find out that the entire funeral is quite elaborate, involving limousines and a choir as well. Through the conversations, we find that the deceased did not arrange for such a funeral while he was alive, and what is more, the mortician admits that he did not discuss it with the widow either. And since the widow is destitute, the mortician is depicted as being irresponsible for making such decisions as to the obsequies. And so, when Frank threatens to have the mortician’s license revoked if he does not reduce the charge to a pittance, we are supposed to admire Frank for this.
But this is preposterous. Undertakers do not simply make arrangements without talking to anybody about them. In fact, they typically get some family member to sign a contract stating the nature of the funeral, stating its cost, and requiring payment in advance. And so, when Frank puts pressure on the mortician to charge significantly less than what somebody must have approved of, he is simply being virtuous at someone else’s expense. Just because a man is an undertaker with a creepy personality, that does not mean he is not entitled to make a profit just like other businessmen. But the movie apparently wants us to think otherwise.
The editor of a newspaper, Amos Force (John Carradine), refuses to say why he hates Frank so much. Frank tells Adam that his mother, Adam’s grandmother, was a servant in Amos’s house, and he fired her when he caught her stealing a few pieces of fruit (excusable because she was underpaid), after first humiliating her in front of the other servants. And now Amos just can’t stand it that her son became mayor. The fact that we never hear Amos’s side of the story is characteristic of the entire movie: it is completely one-sided in every way.
For just a moment, it looks as though the movie might become interesting. Another of Frank’s adversaries is a banker, Norman Cass, who is played by Basil Rathbone. Norman comes across as an intelligent man, in complete control his passions, capable of acting in a cold, calculating manner. He and other bankers refuse to approve the loans needed to improve the housing conditions of the poor, probably for the simple reason that the bankers are afraid the loans will not be paid back. But as with the mortician, making a profit in this movie is an unworthy motive, which must give way to the public good. In any event, we look forward to how things will develop between Frank and Norman.
But then the movie takes another dive into silliness. Norman has a son, another Junior, who is even more simple-minded and dorky-looking than Frank’s son. Frank threatens to make a laughing stock out of Norman’s son by offering him a position as Fire Commissioner. As a result, Norman agrees to approve the loans for Ward Nine in exchange for getting back the absurd photographs and having Frank agree not to go ahead with the appointment.
Finally, an important theme of this movie is that the old ways are obsolete and must give way to the influence of television in future political campaigns. And then Frank is defeated by a politician who looks even worse on television than he does in real life. No one would vote for such an obvious phony. And since Frank, played by Spencer Tracy, is nothing if not telegenic, his losing the election because of the influence of television makes no sense at all.