‘The Last Hurrah’ or — Breaking the Blarney Barrier?
(Spoilers for the end but it’s kinda obvious what’s going to happen)
I wouldn’t say I was relaxed when I sat down to watch John Ford’s ‘The Last Hurrah’ (1958) last night because it was my FIFTH attempt to watch this movie. Every other time I’d tried Ford’s Irish shenanigans had utterly defeated me after only a couple of minutes resulting in me immediately switching the film off. Yet I was determined to finally break through this blarney barrier so I strapped myself into my sofa and, like a modern day Chuck Yeager, prepared to blast through it.
It was just as well I was travelling so fast because there’s a shit tonne of blarney to rip through here from the get-go, but the compression effects of hitting the blarney barrier with such speed were starting to rupture my sofa’s structural integrity and any reversal now would result in complete disintegration. I had to keep watching, even though the shock waves coalescing in front of me were distorting the blu ray image significantly meaning I had to squint.
‘The Last Hurrah’ is about a New England city major named Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy) and his last election campaign to retain his seat. Frank worked his way up from a poor Irish ghetto to become mayor. Frank always knows exactly the right thing to say to everyone he meets (this is one of the reasons Frank is so popular), the right thing to do, the right help to offer. This means Frank’s also a master manipulator. He’ll help a poor widow out by cajoling (intimidating?) the funeral director to drastically reduce his bill or happily make up a lie to allow someone to accept charity. Frank’s a decent guy, so surely this young upstart of a rival candidate whose only campaign plan is to appear on TV will be of no threat. Right?
What’s fascinating about ‘The Last Hurrah’ is despite having Frank firmly as the hero it never lets him off the hook. In fact, it often calls Frank out not only on his manipulative behaviour but his excessive Irish shenanigans too! At one point a character asks him — “Mr Major, do you not think you’re being a little bit too Irish?” Yes! I cried out! Yes, he most certainly is! And thank god somebody finally said it!
This was blessed relief as I’d been having some handling problems with my sofa after hitting some unexpected blarney barrier turbulence a few minutes earlier, specifically in the form of the old woman in the funeral parlour who might be the most annoying John Ford character I’ve ever encountered. She embodies everything about Ford I can’t stand — the forced humour, the cackling laugh; the Irish blarney so excessive that even SHE pleads for it to stop at one point. But SHE doesn’t stop but just goes on and on and on! She’s like some sort of John Fordian Terminator or Freddie Kruger whom I’m terrified will indefatigably stalk me in my dreams, laughing away as she bears down on me, hitting me in the stomach with her umbrella as she does so. God, I was relieved when she walked off.
Only for the blarney to immediately increase again when Mr. Hennessey takes her place, and he’s even more annoying! My sofa was shaking as the transonic buffeting violently increased and I regretted not installing a power-operated stabilator to reduce conical shock from the concentrated blarney waves I was encountering.
Fortunately the film settles down again and once it kicks into the election campaign itself ‘The Last Hurrah’ is delightfully entertaining. Say what you want about John Ford (and I do!), he sure knew how to make movies. The rival’s disastrous televised election advert is one of the funniest sequences of Ford I’ve seen (a dog almost steals this movie) and by the time the results started pouring in I was genuinely hooked.
The film also looks gorgeous with Charles Lawton, Jr.’s cinematography filling the scene with ravishing black and white light and some very nice compositions and framing.
Then there’s the comedy which deliciously functions by exploiting people’s sycophancy, snobbery, pride, egotism (“You would, I’m afraid, be the center of attention”), etc all of which Frank knows how to effortlessly exploit. And what is Frank’s driving force anyway? It feels like he’s setting out to stick it to the Man. But Frank IS the Man! He may be major but he can’t sit still when he sees injustice happening. But isn’t that Frank being a tad hypocritical?
The funniest undercutting of Frank comes from his own son when, after Frank asks him if he voted that morning, the son replies he hadn’t, in fact he hadn’t even registered. He then flashes his dad a huge grin, cheerfully says “Bye!” and fucks off. He has suddenly rendered his father’s entire world instantly meaningless. I laughed hard.
You know what, ‘The Last Hurrah’ is incredibly enjoyable. It’s got fully rounded characters all of whom have real depth and nuance, it is critical of both the subjects it is attacking and those it is celebrating and it doesn’t shy away from the fact that politics, no matter what side you’re on, is a game. It also has those typical John Ford contradictions — modernity vs. nostalgia, a progressive attitude rubbing up against an ingrained conservatism, a suspicion of youth but also a lament for aging — but you get the feeling they’re all being investigated with awareness.
This was looking good! I had the feeling I was going to be able break through the blarney barrier and survive ‘The Last Hurrah’ unscathed!
And then I hit the ending.
Frank loses the election and the defeat is a fatal blow for him. The last twenty minutes or so are of a dying Frank doubling-down on his Irish nonsense as he’s going to die anyway so what’s the point of showing restraint now. Then the son comes in who has only functioned as a comic relief until this point and suddenly he’s the emotional core of the entire film and we’re meant to feel pity for this guy which is completely impossible at this stage and I started laughing again. Oh well, as long as that’s the most ridiculous thing that happe…
And then Frank dies and apparently goes to Irish heaven.
That’s when the blarney barrier hit with full force. That’s when the explosion happened. That’s when I lost consciousness.
When I woke up this morning in the operating theater the surgeons asked me how I had sustained such intense burns over 90% of my body. I informed them I had been attempting to watch a John Ford movie. They silently nodded their masked heads.
My sofa had been blasted through my living room wall by the force of the impact and was found a smoldering wreck several miles away in Queen’s Park, a burning shell in a three yard impact crater. The crash investigation concluded I hadn’t Sellotaped the wings on properly.