The sad predictions of The Last Hurrah (1958)

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

Skeffington begins his last campaign in John Ford’s The Last Hurrah.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The recent United States election has certainly been a memorable one. Asthe dust settles, it is an absolute certainty that films and TV shows will be produced on the Presidency of Donald Trump – if they are not already in production. Whatever people think of Trump, it is undeniable that he generates interest in whatever he does – and will continue to do so for many years. The TV network Showtime has already shown The Comey Rule depicting the relationship between Trump and FBI director Comey. Based on Comey’s book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, it focusses on their relationship, leading to his sacking by Trump. The political drama stars Jeff Daniels as Comey and Brendan Gleeson as President Donald Trump. Trump has such an over the top persona that actors will undoubtedly be queuing to do their intrepretation of him. Brendan Gleeson has had the first serious crack, but the mini-series highlighted that political drama done well could be engaging and popular. [1]

In the TV series, the FBI is depicted as an organisation that has to constantly balance out political pressure, while investigating crimes. Founding FBI director J. Edgar Hoover would barely recongise what his successors at the FBI were even doing. Hoover highlighted the Bureau’s role in catching gangsters, or identifying communists. The focus was on crime and treason. In the social media age, the FBI director’s working life seems consumed with emails from politician’s computers, along with the antics of Russian social media trolls. As well as dealing with tweets from the President, the media dominates all communication and Comey is even advised that he had been sacked by television.

The days of the FBI hunting criminals such as Dillinger are clearly over in The Comey Rule.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

While not predicting the future of media and politics, one film that certainly made some prescient observations about American politics was The Last Hurrah (1958). The film was adapted from the 1956 novel of the same name by Edwin O’Connor. The prestigious director John Ford and the actor Spencer Tracy joined forces to depict a long term Irish-American mayor preparing for a final election campaign. Mayor Frank Skeffington and his campaign are followed by his nephew and journalist, Adam Caulfield, who covers American politics at close range.

Skeffington – a mayor of a New England city which appears to be Boston – delivers one of the novel’s finest political speeches when talking to his nephew about politics, saying it is the greatest spectator sport in the United States. Everyone knows ‘who is up and who is down’, according to Skeffington. He wants to run one more campaign the old fashioned way, knowing his time is up, as Skeffington realises that radio and television were becoming the dominant force, reducing politics to a televised sport.[2]

The election contains a scathing vision of American politics with a dolt of a candidate opposing Skeffington. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times , would call him “a farcical nitwit.” [3] Backed by the town’s moneyed interests, the only advantage he seems to have over Skeffington is the use of new technology, which in 1958 was television. The book was written after Democratic Presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson’s disastrous drive to solicit votes through speeches, where the more media savvy President Dwight Eisenhower used advertising and television to promote his political profile.  Eisenhower slaughtered Stevenson in both the 1952 and 1956 campaigns. The Democrats would take note of the lessons of campaigning against Eisenhower, and use them to full effect when they worked for the future President John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election campaign.

While a supporter of Kennedy, John Ford was not a fan of television politics at which JFK would prove to be a superb practitioner. Ford was concerned with the rise of media politicians, and he could see that the days of Skeffington were numbered with their low-level corruption, but with a focus on distributing goods to their lower income neighborhoods. The new politicians had a commitment to nothing. The film highlights the impact that television would make on American politics for the next 60 years. In more recent times, television has been supplanted largely by social media, of which US President Donald Trump has shown some mastery. In the 1950s, Adlai Stevenson could still attempt to campaign with beautifully written speeches.[4] Ford would never have imagined that a reality TV star could use the medium for a political base. It is inconceivable that Ford could not even envisage reality TV, but he understood that image was now as important as substance in the 1950s.

Ford’s film is lament for a political past where politicians were elected on character and policies. The warnings from 1958 in O’Connor’s novel and Ford’s film are clear for all to see. Ford seemed more comfortable with the political speeches of Abraham Lincoln, as shown by his sentimental depiction of his political campaigns in Young Mr Lincoln (1939). Lincoln commands through use of language, logic and force of personality. In Lincoln’s time, two hour speeches were recorded in full in newspapers and people rode or walked miles to hear them. Lincoln would later develop the precursor to the grab with the Gettyburg address, which was a ridiculously short speech by the standards of the time. Today, neither side would even bother with a speech of any length in the age of twitter. Our society has election campaigns with all image and no substance, having reached the bottom of the slippery slide identified by O’Connor in 1956.

Ford seemed more comfortable with the political speeches of Abraham Lincoln, as shown by his sentimental depiction in Young Mr Lincoln, who commands through simple persuasion, logic and force of personality – and the occasional use of his fists.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The film also has one remote link back to Trump. At the end of the film and the book, Skeffington lies dying, having lost the campaign, and one of his detractors says if he were alive, he would regret what he did in his political life. The comatose figure comes back to life and says: “Like hell, I would.” I cannot imagine Donald Trump saying anything else much different in similar circumstances. Despite the massive impact of television and social media, over the preceeding seven decades, it seems politicians do not change all that much.


[1] Rick Porter, ‘The Comey Rule’ Draws Solid Initial Ratings for Showtime,’ Hollywood Reporter, 30 September 2020.

[2] The clip from The Last Hurrah (1958) can be seen at:

https://www.tcm.com/video/480786/last-hurrah-the-1958-spectator-sport

[3] Bosley Crowther, “Spencer Tracy in “The Last Hurrah;” Portrays Skeffington, John Ford directs,” The New York Times, 24 October 1958, accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/1958/10/24/archives/spencer-tracy-in-the-last-hurrah-portrays-skeffington-john-ford.html on 12 November 2020.

[4] Jill Lepore,  If Then: How One Data Company Invented the Future, London: John Murray, 2020 has an excellent discussion of the election and the links between advertising and politics.

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