Thursday, October 24, 2013

'The Last Hurrah' of a Machine Mayor

Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy): One more regret at my age won't make much difference.

Spencer Tracy must have had a lot of fun making "The Last Hurrah," which premiered 55 years ago today.

He played the longtime mayor of an unidentified New England city (presumably Boston) where his character had grown up in an Irish Catholic ghetto. It was undeniably a drama, but there were some humorous moments. Tracy's character clearly wasn't above cutting some corners, and he had compromised his principles from time to time, but he knew how to be a mayor, and, apparently, he was an effective one.

His was the kind of political character who has mostly disappeared from the American scene, the creation of a machine that ran everything, and "The Last Hurrah" tells the story of how such characters started to become extinct in the second half of the 20th century. Tracy's character had embarked on his final campaign, but the rickety machine was losing its grip, and Tracy was challenged by a political neophyte backed by Protestant community leaders.

He invited his nephew, a sports writer whose employer was supporting his opponent, to observe his campaign up close and write about the transition from old–style campaigns to the more modern campaign that he expected to be waged on TV and radio.

He never mentioned the Internet. That really would have been prophetic in 1958.

The hands–on campaign style of Tracy's character was something I saw frequently as a child in rural Arkansas. The candidates/office holders in our machine were experts at putting up the appearance of normalcy, and they practiced the glad–handing, back–slapping brand of campaigning at every fish fry and all the other public gatherings — and, when they couldn't scrape up enough votes from the living, they stuffed the ballot box with votes from the dead, courtesy of local cemeteries.

Because of the efforts of my parents and people like them who worked to have voting machines used in our county, I was able to see, at a young age, our machine shatter like a cheap mirror.

Of course, none of the people who ran things in my home county had the charisma of Spencer Tracy, and maybe it took a Spencer Tracy to make the movie's apparent message plausible — that a little corruption was a good thing. At least, that was what I took away from John Ford's movie.

But, if I could have had the opportunity to discuss it with Ford, I would have asked him where one draws the line. How much corruption is too much?

I guess it was best not to dwell on things like that, though. It took away from a wonderful performance by Tracy (but, honestly, did he ever give any other kind?). As I say, he must have enjoyed making this movie and, as always, it was almost as much of a pleasure to watch him on the TV screen as it must have been to watch him on the silver screen.

I won't tell you if Tracy's character won or lost that election, but I will tell you that he announced that he would not run for governor — and suffered a heart attack that proved fatal.
Roger Sugrue (Willis Bouchey): Well, at least he made his peace with God. There's one thing we all can be sure of — if he had it to do over again, there's no doubt in the world he would do it very, very differently.

Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy): Like hell I would.

Well, he may have been a crook ... but he was an honest crook.