The country’s been in a respectfully funerary state of mind these past few days as giants in entertainment and governmental service have left us and been feted for their abiding legacies. When a frail, illness-racked John Ford died 45 years ago this weekend, many of long-time colleagues and friends of the monumental filmmaker who made their screen career journeys under his guidance, gathered around him at his Palm Desert, CA, home to pay homage. If it were a scene from a movie, it likely resembled, without meticulously arranged Hollywood soundstage production values, the final sequence of one of his quieter but no less effective and prescient efforts, the old guard-vs.-changing times political drama The Last Hurrah (1958), based on Edwin O’Connor’s prize-winning novel that was itself inspired by real-life New Englander James Michael Curley, who maintained a 36-year career in state (Massachusetts governor) and municipal (Boston mayor) politics, with two prison terms for corruption and mail fraud (the latter five-month incarceration while he was mayor). By then, Ford had already been in the movie business for over 40 years, bridging the silent and sound eras with movies of nearly every genre, and the book’s fictionalized lead character of the rascally and charming, but also ruthless and pragmatic Irish-American, immigrant-modeled, working-class political-machine candidate, embarked on what would be his final campaign for elected office, appealed to him as soon as he read the book and secured the screen rights. His commitment even extended to co-financing the project. Per Joseph McBride’s exhaustive biography Searching for John Ford: A Life: “Although John Ford Productions took a bank loan for half of the film’s production cost, Columbia had final cut. That caused Ford some problems. Shortly before the film’s release, he publicly decided that he ‘had hoped to make a controversial picture,’ but that Columbia executives removed about a reel and a half of material they thought was ‘just too daring. ‘It’s liable to offend people,’ they said….Everybody had to get in on the act and save the picture. In the end we put back in two reels, and it comes out the way I made it.’”
The way he made it, despite its classical form and sentimental feel, also included sharp observations on reactionary conservatism and the influence that television and media was starting to have on the shaping of politicians’ public personae, eclipsing the direct hands-on personal connection that officeholders forged with their constituencies. To play the fictional Frank Skeffington, McBride recounted, “such names as James Cagney, John Wayne, and even Ward Bond were considered. Perhaps thinking of Citizen Kane, with its chilling portrait of another American political figure, Ford made an offer to Orson Welles, whose Skeffington would have been less openhearted than [Spencer] Tracy’s. ‘When the contracts were to be settled, I was away on location,’ Welles told Peter Bogdanovich, ‘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.” Upon securing the venerated two-time Academy Award® winner, to whom Ford had given his start in movies with 1930’s Up the River, the director, after flirting with the idea of “importing several of the little-known Irish thespians from The Rising of the Moon  to play Skeffington’s cronies” and antagonists, instead decided to weave the film’s “most delightful and touching aspect,...[a] last grand reunion with many of Hollywood’s most beloved old character actors, including Pat O’Brien, Donald Crisp, James Gleason, Basil Rathbone, Frank McHugh, Edmund Lowe, Frank Albertson, and Jane Darwell,” along with Ricardo Cortez, John Carradine, Anna Lee, Edward Brophy and O.Z. Whitehead, plus two recent veterans of The Searchers (1956), Jeffrey Hunter and Ken Curtis, and Gideon of Scotland Yard (1958) alumna Dianne Foster. The Last Hurrah became all the richer and more moving for those choices, winning laurels from the National Board of Review for Ford’s direction, Tracy as Best Actor (for his double duty in this and The Old Man and the Sea), and as one of 1958’s 10-Best. Despite its studio-backlot production, it’s worthy of deeper probative study, as Marc Steir’s analytical Temple University Intellectual Heritage Program essay demonstrates here: http://www.stier.net/writing/other/Screens_Doors_Stairs.pdf. Featuring an absorbing Audio Commentary with screenwriter/historian Lem Dobbs and Becoming John Ford (2007) documentary writer Julie Kirgo and producer/director Nick Redman, The Last Hurrah proudly raises its banner September 18 on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray. Preorders open September 5.