Last Hurrah, The (1958): John Ford’s Political Satire, Starring Spencer Tracy

John Ford directed The Last Hurrah, a political satire based on the 1956 novel by Edwin O’Connor, starring Spencer Tracy as a veteran mayor preparing for yet another election campaign.

Praised for imbuing his iron-fist character with warmth and humanity, Tracy was nominated as Best Foreign Actor by BAFTA and won the Best Actor Award from the National Board of Review, which also presented Ford the award for Best Director.

Tracy plays Frank Skeffington, a sentimental but strong Irish-American who is the powerful mayor of unnamed New England city.

His nephew Adam Caulfield follows one last no-holds-barred mayoral campaign. Skeffington and his top strategist, John Gorman, use all means to defeat a candidate backed by civic leaders such as banker Norman Cass and newspaper editor Amos Force, the mayor’s foes.

Skeffington, a former governor, is running for fifth term as mayor. He rose from poverty in Irish ghetto and is skilled at using the power of his office and an enormous political machine of ward heelers to receive support from his Irish Catholic base and other demographics. Rumors of graft and abuse of power are widespread, however, and the Protestant bishop Gardner (Basil Ruysdael), newspaper publisher Amos Force (John Carradine), banker Norman Cass (Basil Rathbone), and other members of the city’s traditional elite who the Irish Catholics replaced oppose Skeffington; so does the Catholic cardinal Martin Burke (Donald Crisp), Skeffington’s childhood friend, and other Catholics. Skeffington’s opponents support the candidacy of Kevin McCluskey (Charles B. Fitzsimons), a young Catholic lawyer and war veteran with no political experience.

Adam Caulfield (Jeffrey Hunter) is a sportswriter for Force’s newspaper, and Skeffington’s nephew. His father-in-law, Roger Sugrue (Willis Bouchey), is among those who oppose Skeffington, even though Sugrue grew up in the same tenement as Skeffington and Burke. The mayor invites Caulfield to observe in person what will be his last election, his “last hurrah”, to document urban politics before radio and television fully change campaigning. Skeffington prefers old-fashioned, hands-on politics, and attends numerous rallies, luncheons, dinners, and speeches. His influence is such that when Skeffington attends an unpopular old friend’s wake, hundreds rush to be present. Disgusted at how the wake becomes another political event, Caulfield leaves; one of the mayor’s men explains to him, however, that Skeffington attended to attract mourners to cheer the widow, to whom Skeffington has secretly donated $1,000.

After Cass’s bank turns down a loan for the city to build a housing development, Skeffington invades the exclusive Plymouth Club to confront him, Force, the bishop, and other members of the elite. The mayor threatens to publicly embarrass Cass’s family by appointing his unintelligent son as fire commissioner. The banker is forced to approve the loan, but vows to contribute large amounts of money to defeat Skeffington. McCluskey’s campaign arranges for a series of television advertisements, but his ineptness disappoints both the cardinal and bishop.

On election night Skeffington’s men expect another victory, but McCluskey unexpectedly defeats the incumbent and his machine. As his men argue over why their usual tactics involving large amounts of “money” failed, Skeffington chastises them as if he were unaware of their actions. He confidently states on television that he will run for governor, but suffers a heart attack that night, and a large crowd comes to pay respect to the invalid.

After Skeffington’s last confession, cardinal Caulfield, Sugrue, and the mayor’s men are at his bedside.

When Sugrue suggests that the patient would relive his life differently, Skeffington regains consciousness to reply, “Like Hell I would,” before dying.

The role of Mayor Frank Skeffington was first offered to Orson Welles, as he recalled: “When the contracts were to be settled, I was away on location, and some lawyer — if you can conceive of such a thing — turned it down. He told Ford that the money wasn’t right or the billing wasn’t good enough, something idiotic like that, and when I came back to town the part had gone to Tracy.”

Most critics pointed out that Tracy bears a certain physical resemblance to James M. Curly, former mayor of Boston, in his political prime.

On Sep. 11, 1958, Curly withdrew his suit to prevent the showing of the movie, which he had contended was a biography of him and thus constituted “invasion of his privacy.”

Spencer Tracy as Mayor Frank Skeffington
Jeffrey Hunter as Adam Caulfield
Dianne Foster as Maeve Sugrue Caulfield
Pat O’Brien as John Gorman
Basil Rathbone as Norman Cass, Sr.
Donald Crisp as Cardinal Martin Burke
James Gleason as “Cuke” Gillen
Edward Brophy as “Ditto” Boland
John Carradine as Amos Force
Willis Bouchey as Roger Sugrue
Basil Ruysdael as Bishop Gardner
Ricardo Cortez as Sam Weinberg
Wallace Ford as Charles J. Hennessey
Frank McHugh as Festus Garvey
Carleton Young as Winslow
Frank Albertson as Jack Mangan
Bob Sweeney as Johnny Degnan
Edmund Lowe as Johnny Byrne
William Leslie as Dan Herlihy
Anna Lee as Gert Minihan
Ken Curtis as Monsignor Killian
Jane Darwell as Delia Boylan
O.Z. Whitehead as Norman Cass Jr.
Arthur Walsh as Frank Skeffington Jr.
Charles B. Fitzsimons as Kevin McCluskey
William Forrest as Dr. Tom
James Dime as Man at Campaign HQ.