19 February 2005 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Spencer Tracy did it better.
'The Last Hurrah' was originally a best-selling novel by Edwin O'Connor ... who is not (to my knowledge) related to actor Carroll O'Connor, but their common surname may have drawn Carroll O'Connor to this material. Edwin O'Connor's novel is a very thinly disguised account of the shenanigans of James Curley, the mayor of Boston who was openly dishonest, but who got away with his graft because the Boston working-class people (most especially the Irish of the South Side) got a taste of the gravy. Mayor Curley went to prison during his mayoralty, actually standing for re-election from his prison cell! 'The Last Hurrah' was a memorable film, starring Spencer Tracy and directed by John Ford ... with much of that director's usual Irish blarney. Tracy gives a solid and reliable performance, and Ford makes only a few missteps. (For one thing, it seems unlikely that a candidate named Skeffington would win the Irish vote against a rival named Hennessey.)
The TV version of 'The Last Hurrah' is an example of something that was fairly common on American television before VCRs became available: a video remake of a classic film that isn't readily available. Now that the Spencer Tracy film is available at Blockbuster, there's no need for anyone to seek out this video version ... which in every way (except one) is inferior to the movie version.
The actor Carroll O'Connor has never impressed me. I've never seen him give a truly convincing performance, and he has given some howlingly bad ones. (Such as a guest shot on 'The Outer Limits'.) Archie Bunker broke new ground in television, but for reasons that had little to do with O'Connor's performance in the role. No matter what role O'Connor plays, I'm always aware of him as an actor speaking dialogue. He never disappears into a role ... least of all when he wore his pinkie rings on-camera while playing Archie Bunker, probably the last man on Earth who would wear pinkie rings.
O'Connor is no better here as Frank Skeffington, the genially corrupt Irish-American mayor of an unnamed New England city, who is hoping to get re-elected one last time before his health fails. The script has too much talk and too little action. We're meant to admire Skeffington as a lovable rogue who knows how to play the system, but as O'Connor portrays him he's just a cheap crook.
On the plus side, there are some welcome supporting performances from several splendid character actors ... notably Burgess Meredith, John Anderson, Arthur Batanides and the very memorable Sandy Kenyon: a distinctively gaunt man who had the most prominent cheekbones I've ever seen on any male actor this side of Frank Lackteen. As good as they are, none of this veteran cast quite manage to surpass their counterparts in John Ford's film.
The only way in which this telefilm surpasses its predecessor is in the casting of Ditto Boland, the dog-like political stooge who is intensely loyal to Skeffington. In John Ford's film, Ditto was played by Edward Brophy, one of my favourite character actors. But Brophy usually played befuddled men of limited intelligence: in 'The Last Hurrah', Brophy played Ditto as a man who was so brainless that I seriously wondered if this character was meant to be a mental retardate. A very rare bad performance from this wonderful actor. In the television remake, folksinger Tom Clancy gives a much more subtle and realistic performance in the role. His scenes in this telefilm -- especially at Skeffington's deathbed -- are worth watching.
Now that DVDs are here, skip this TV remake and view the Spencer Tracy movie. I'll rate this TV version only 4 out of 10.