The Last Hurrah, 1958 – Based on The Book By Edwin O’Connor

 

“Politics is not the most diplomatic thing to discuss.” – Frank Skeffington

I first noticed The Last Hurrah on iMDb when I was looking for Frank McHugh movies I hadn’t seen yet. (Oh how I love Frank) This was one of them. At the time, this movie was tagged as a comedy on iMDb, (with Frank McHugh starring as Fetus Garvey) so I jumped in with both feet. I mean, Spencer Tracy AND my buddy Frank? Of course I’m in! It didn’t take long to realize that this is not a funny movie. It’s a dark, old-fashioned, political drama. Politics was the last thing I was in the mood for, but I gave it a shot anyway…

…I know now that I needed this time with Spencer Tracy. He made the movie for me.

The Last Hurrah was directed by John Ford for Columbia pictures in 1958…

Frank Nugent wrote the screenplay that was based on the book written by Edwin O’Connor in 1955. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and spent 20 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list in 1956. I hate to say it, but I liked it better than the movie. In the book we were allowed to get to know the characters better and the story dug deeper and was more detailed.

The plot of both the book and movie follows Mayor Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy), a devoted, life-long politician as he embarks on what he thinks will be his final campaign to be re-elected mayor (of a city that’s never named). He knows he’s “on his way out” and calls this campaign his Last Hurrah. Frank Skeffington is down-to-earth and genuinely (we think) cares about the individuals in his city. Oh, it’s obvious he’s corrupt around the edges…he is a politician, after all. And he clearly knows his way around a campaign like this one. He’s shrewd but likeable, political but reliable. In the book, Skeffington was the former governor of the state they’re in (it’s never named in either), but there’s no mention of him ever being governor in the movie. There are those that claim the city never named in the movie is based on Boston and that Frank Skeffington is a loose caricature of Boston’s Mayor James Curley.

Frank’s son, Frank Skeffington, Jr. (Arthur Walsh) is, shall we say, worthless. He’s a playboy that could care less about politics, let alone his father’s campaign. Instead, Frank, Sr., bonds with his nephew, Adam Caufield (Jeffrey Hunter) which adds a level of ‘interesting’ for me. Adam writes about sports for the local newspaper. It’s Adam’s publisher, Amos Force (John Carradine), that asks him to cover Skeffington’s Last Hurrah. The story brings uncle and nephew together at a good time in both of their lives. The thing is, Force hates Skeffington. As history would have it, Frank Skeffington’s immigrant mother was fired for stealing left-over food when she was a maid in the home of Amos Force’s father. Oh boy. The tension! (And not all that believable) Force believes Frank, Sr. is the worthless one and he backs his unimpressive rival, Kevin McCluskey (Charles Fitzsimmons). Annnnd this causes more tension between Force and his writer, Adam.

Director John Ford was a Westerns guy, as we all know, and I kind of felt like maybe he didn’t care a lot about the subject of this one? Something wasn’t clicking here for me. Spencer Tracy grabbed me and kept me with the story, but I found myself wishing the director would have made more of an attempt to explain some things. (no spoilers). It was a watchable, even enjoyable, movie most of the time, but it wasn’t as good as it could have been. Even though it’s chock-full of Ford’s usual troupe like – Donald Crisp, Wallace FordJames Gleason, Ricardo Cortez, Basil Rathbone, Pat O’Brien AND FRANK MCHUGH! They just weren’t around…..enough.

As Frank Skeffington maneuvers his way through opposing view points we get a glimpse into the story of one city’s mid-century American political climate. It’s not pretty, and it sure isn’t funny. Spencer Tracy made it a decent movie for me. Without him, he, not so much.

Sources:

A Tribute to Jeffrey Hunter
Wikipedia – New York Times Fiction Best Sellers, 1956

Mr. Blanding’s Builds His Dream House, 1948 – Based On the Book By Eric Hodgins

“Oh this was a joy, sheer heaven from beginning to end,” Myrna Loy said about Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House in her autobiography, Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming

“Acting is like playing ball. You toss the ball and some people don’t toss it back; some people don’t even catch it. When you get somebody [like Myrna] who catches it and tosses it back, that’s really what acting is all about. Myrna kept that spontaneity in her acting, a supreme naturalness that had the effect of distilled dynamite,” Cary Grant for Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming.

The reason I love this movie SO much is the pairing of Cary Grant (Jim Blandings)and Myrna Loy (Muriel Blandings). They’re magical together. (See Wings in the Dark, 1935 and The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer, 1947) They play off each other so well that I never want a story to end when they’re in it. Their mutual respect shows on screen and its feels good to see that displayed effortlessly and authentically like this. Together, they make us laugh, and laugh some more. Mr. Blandings is my version of a perfect movie-watching experience. I only wish I could have seen it on the big screen.

Both the book and movie follow Mr. and Mrs. Blandings as they pursue their dream of moving to the country to raise their girls in the clean air and peaceful atmosphere. He’s a New York City advertising executive that’s stressed out with his job and the cramped quarters of their city apartment. She does her best to make it comfortable for all of them. A peaceful existence in the rural landscape calls to them both. They find what Mr. Blandings calls their “dream home” in a decrepit “antique” house. They can afford it, if they put some work into it.

They buy it. It immediately becomes a money pit with problems. It’s a chaotic, stressful project that causes more grief than they ever imagined it would when they first saw the house and fantasized about their life in it. And the bills. There’s so many bills!

Grant and Loy play their roles so well that all we have to do now is get lost in the story and smile at the way they handle it all. His funny facial expressions expertly show his passion and frustrations, and, as usual, her presence is comforting, beautiful and strong…to BOTH Mr. Blandings and us viewers.

Add Melvyn Douglas to the mix and, boom, MORE smart comedic timing. The script for the film was written by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank. The dialogue and banter is an improvement from that in the book. I’m glad I read the book after I saw the movie. Placing the faces of Cary Grant and Myrna Loy into the characters of the book, I think, made it an easier read.

The Blandings with their architect, Simms (Reginald Denny).

Bottom line: The movie script, the actor’s abilities  and the setting of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is nothing short of brilliant. It’s funny and uplifting despite the turmoil that comes with building a new house.

There are some differences in the characters from book to movie. Notably, Bill Cole (Douglas), who is a smaller character in the book. narrates and plays a bigger part in the movie. You could say he anchors the whole thing with his narrative observations. Gussie (Louise Beavers), the housekeeper, is an entirely new, and enjoyable character in the movie. Spoiler alert:

Gussie (Louise Beavers) with Betsy (Connie Marshall) and Joan (Sharyn Moffett) Blandings.

She ends up saving the day.

Eric Hodgins published the book in 1946 after he wrote a short story about the home-building process for Fortune Magazine in 1946. Hodgins had a career in magazine publishing starting with the Atlantic in 1926. He was an Associate Editor at Redbook, a Vice President at Time and the publisher at Fortune. This is the only novel he ever wrote.

Each chapter of the book coincides with the chronological steps of the process of buying and rebuilding a dream house. It starts with Mr. and Mrs. Blanding discovering their dream property in Lansdale County, Connecticut (the movie starts in their New York City apartment) and takes us all the way to life in the house after it’s done.  The chaos in between is what both the movie and book are all about. In the book, that chaotic process is trying and full of details. It reads more like a diary than a story. In fact, Hodgins uses Mrs. Blanding’s diary entries to tell a chunk of the story.

The movie treats the chaos with humor and it’s perfect.

Additional Source:

Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming by Myrna Loy

The Hustler, 1961 – Based on the Book By Walter S. Tevis

This is not a story about pool or billiards. It’s a tremendous story about character. Fast Eddie Felson, just happens to be a pool-hustler…

The Hustler, 1961

Walter S. Tevis wrote The Hustler in 1959. The movie, one of Paul Newman‘s first big roles, came in 1961. Both expertly tell Fast Eddie Felson’s  story: He’s a pool-hustler who’s convinced himself that he needs to prove to everyone (and himself) that he’s the best pool player in the country so he can gain the respect and riches he so desperately craves. Eddie tells himself he can beat anyone, Including Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), who is the actual best pool player in the country. We recognize early that maybe Eddie could do it, if he just had the character he doesn’t know he needs to accomplish it. Talent isn’t everything like Eddie thinks it is. He believes beating Minnesota Fats would prove everything. Like the poster says, it’s a hunger that lies within him, and it drives every decision he makes.

“You just want the money. Sure. And the aristocratic pleasure of seeing him fall apart.” – Bert Gordon, calling Eddie out on his lack of character it takes to win.

I don’t like Eddie in the book or the movie.  I’m not supposed to. He has little integrity and no character.  He’s a mouthy, arrogant,  obnoxious brat – one that Paul Newman brings to life brilliantly. The “aw shucks” smiles he invokes to show the emotions Eddie struggles with, and tries to cover up, are perfect. I DO admire, respect and like his adversary, Minnesota Fats (Gleason). It’s evident in HIS manner, language…even the clothes he wears…that this is where the man with real character is. And success.  He’s the one that deserves the respect Eddie can’t seem to achieve. The same thing happens In The Cincinnati Kid, 1965, a remake of The Hustler (in a poker environment instead of a pool hall one), I don’t like the The Cincinnati Kid (Steve McQueen) either, for the same reasons I don’t like Eddie. But I DO admire, respect and like HIS adversary, Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson) for the same reasons I like and respect Minnesota Fats in this movie. In The Color of Money, the Martin Scorcese-directed 1986 sequel (not remake) to The Hustler, I don’t like Vincent (Tom Cruise) at all either for, you guessed it, the same reasons. But, I finally DO get a chance to admire, respect and like Eddie Felson (Paul Newman revisits this role) for a little while.

By the way, there was no real Minnesota Fats at that time. The nickname came about after the 1961 movie when a plump pool shark named Rudolf Walter Wanderone, Jr. adapted the nickname for himself from the Jackie Gleason character in the movie.

In the book, Walter S. Tevis gives us vivid descriptions of dark, gritty, urban (and not-so-urban) pool halls that give it a distinct noir feeling. The opening scene of the book takes place at Bennington’s Pool Hall in Chicago and I swear, I could smell the smoke in the air just reading Tevis’s words. Excellent writing like this continues throughout the book and, thankfully, the visuals in the movie live up to every word Tevis writes in the book. Every character is properly placed in the exact atmosphere they should be in both the book and movie. The reader…and viewer…are too. We never feel ourselves cringing at any misplaced dialogue or setting in either one. I always felt like I was there. Listening, watching and very interested in a man that comes full circle in his quest for respect.

The Hustler was directed by Robert Rossen for 20th Century Fox and in addition to Paul Newman, it also starred Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie and George C. Scott. Newman, Rossen, Gleason and Laurie were all nominated for Academy Awards for their roles. The movie was nominated for 11 Oscars total and won two; one for Best Cinematography and another for Best Art Direction. Director Robert Rossen communicated Tevis’s atmosphere perfectly. The movie follows the book closely, up until the billiards game between Eddie and James Findley (Murray Hamilton) with a few minor exceptions.  It’s then that the book and movie diverge. Bert Gordon’s (George C. Scott) entrance into the story changes things for Eddie. In one way for the book, in another for the movie. The endings are completely different but the same overall message is the same: Character matters.

Sources:

Encylopaedia Britannica – Minnesota Fats
iMDB

In A Lonely Place – Based on the Book By Dorothy B. Hughes

TCM | Amazon

The movie In A Lonely Place, from 1950, stars Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. It was directed by Nicholas Ray for Santana Productions, Humphrey Bogart’s own company, and Columbia pictures.  It’s worth noting that Ray was married to Gloria Grahame when shooting started, but on the way to divorce when it ended. That seemed to have played a role in the adaptation from book to movie.

The movie is based on the book of the same name, by Dorothy B. Hughes….

IndieBound | Amazon

….which was originally published in 1947.

Both the film and book are noir; they both have a serial killer plot, a flawed male, a femme fatale and paranoia. Boy, is there a lot of paranoia. The movie leans more toward a love story, with some suspense elements, while the book is a flat out hard-boiled crime drama.  The characters are the same: Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart), Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) and Sylvia Nicolai (Jeff Donnell), etc. and the plots are similar, but the endings are completely different.

Aaaaand that’s all I’m saying about that! I hate spoilers, and I’d hate to ruin either the book or the movie with one because both are worth spending time with.

In the book, we learn right away that Dix Steele is a veteran World War II fighter pilot that ends up in Los Angeles. In both the book and the movie, it’s obvious that Dix can’t recapture the feeling of power and exhilaration the war gave him. The frustration over this rules his life. It’s resulted in a pile of insecurities and a huge inferiority complex that he uses alcohol and anger to deal with.  In noir fashion, Dix is convinced that the “system” is against him. That goes for everyone; employers, friends, bartenders, bus drivers and especially women. He just can’t deal with the lack of respect, power and adrenaline taken from him when “the war crashed to an end.” Anger drives everything he does and he can’t control it.

“Without his uniform, he’s without purpose and dangerous.”  – Megan Abbott, Afterword of In A Lonely Place

Dix’s life after the war consists of one angry decision after another and a whole lot of alcohol. It’s sad to watch, thanks to what I think is one of Humphrey Bogart’s best performances in his career, and I’ve enjoyed almost all of them.

Laurel Gray meets Dix in the apartment building they both live in. (On a side note, this Spanish-style apartment building is amazing). One night, Laurel is questioned by the police about Dix’s whereabouts when a girl that had visited his apartment the night she was murdered. It didn’t scare her, in fact it made him more interesting to her, and “likes his face.” It’s obvious Laurel has had experience with broken men like Dix. While she’s skeptical of him at first, she’s sure she can save him. And then she falls in love with him.

Dix realizes after being in Los Angeles for a few months, that his best buddy from the war, Brub Nicolai also lives in there. Dix hopes seeing him might help bring those old feelings of exhilaration from the war back, so he calls him and sets up a visit. What he finds is a very happily married Brub who has settled nicely into his new life since the war. Of course, Dix is jealous. Dix calls the war, “the best years of my life.” Brub says they were his worst. Oh, and Brub just happens to be the detective that’s investigating the murders of young girls that’s terrorizing the city.

After being let down by Brub’s way of life and lack of love for the war, Dix turns his attention to Laurel. He tries desperately to recreate Brub’s life for himself with Laurel. For a while, we all believe he can do it.

“I was born when you kissed me, I died when you left me. I lived a few weeks while you loved me.” – he tells her.

We follow Dix through loneliness and excruciating anger. The contrast between Dix and Brub’s lives is stark evidence of the self-hatred that Dix has developed since the war and the consequences that occur because of it. He knows he can never be satisfied with a life like Brub’s, even though he so desperately wants to be. It wouldn’t be enough. Dix flirts with getting caught throughout the story, even that exhilaration would work, but it seems he catches his out of control behavior just in time, every time.

The story is a sad one. Bogart, as usual, is perfect and Grahame is convincing, as usual, as a smart and beautiful femme fatale.  Both the movie and the book give us an interesting psychological profile that can easily consume us.

The book and movie give us a different ending and both are fantastic.

Hopscotch – Based on the Book By Brian Garfield

Hopscotch, 1980, Directed by Ronald Neame, Produced by Edie & Ely Landau Inc.

TCM | Amazon

The screenplay for Hopscotch was written by Brian Garfield, who wrote the book the movie is based on.

Amazon

“Hopscotch never pretended to be anything but a light-hearted comedy,” Ronald Neame, Director. “It’s a comedy-thriller.”

“We wanted to show that you could tell a suspense story like this where no one gets killed,” Brian Garfield, writer.

They did. And it’s wonderful.

Roger Ebert once called Hopscotch, starring Walter Matthau as Miles Kendig and Glenda Jackson as Isobel von Schmidt,  “pleasant.” I call it a pure delight. Laughter and suspense are hand-in-hand throughout the movie, and they carry the plot along with them perfectly. I saw this movie for the first time recently, and have since watched it several times because it is such a pleasure. I’m writing this in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and I can’t tell you how much I just love being lost inside the Hopscotch world right now. This escape factor is a good illustration of why movies like these are so important to me.

Ned Beatty plays Kendig’s nemesis, G.P. Myerson. He’s the new head man at the CIA department Kendig works in and is an arrogant, nincompoop bureaucrat. Beatty is great in making us despise him right from the start. The tension begins with Myerson being upset with Kendig. Seems Kendig had a chance to “dismantle” the Russian network in Germany (and make Myerson look good because of it) but didn’t. Kendig didn’t arrest the top Russian spy Myerson wanted him too because he thought it was a better idea to keep a relationship with him so they could better keep an eye on what he was up to. Myerson uses the incident as a reason to take the aging Kendig out of the field….and out of his way. He sends him to a desk job and Kendig is devastated. After thinking about it for what seemed like a second, and a suggestion from that same Russian friend/counterpart, Kendig decides to write his memoirs instead of take that desk job.

He immediately flies to Austria to meet with Isobel, a former love, to ask for her help. Kendig meeting Isobel at a restaurant, and the detailed conversation they have about wine, reveals the plot, and chemistry between the two that makes the movie doubly satisfying. You can’t help but root for them from the very beginning.  Isobel was not a character in the book and was created just for the movie. Thanks to her,  he’s able to implement his plan to perfection. It’s a little more complicated than that in the book when he tries to do it without her.

It took some convincing, Isobel wasn’t supportive at first, but Myles pouted until she gave in (who wouldn’t?) and got him a typewriter.

With Mozart records playing in the background, Kendig began to write about his detailed CIA missions. He sent the CIA, and other spy agencies in the world, one chapter at a time as he completed them. It drove Myerson crazy. Kendig realized, as he wrote, that he’d never go back. This realization amped up his game. He led them on a chase across the U.S. and Europe, always one step ahead of them and everything they assumed he’d do.

“Writing this makes me realize I’ll never go back.” Watch this portrait of Myerson through the scenes in the house. It goes from this smile to frowns as Kendig makes things worse for him.

At that first meeting in Myerson’s office, Kendig overheard him talking to his wife about their vacant house in Savannah, Georgia. Of course that house became an entry on Kendig’s agenda of mayhem! He rented it, used it as a place to write a couple more chapters…..and to provoke Myerson, who had to call in in the FBI for help. That had to hurt. And then it got worse for Myerson. Together, the FBI and CIA gassed and shot up the house, destroying it, while assuming Kendig was inside. They proved they were out to kill him. He wasn’t wasn’t inside. Another clever ploy.

Kendig keeps writing and sending out chapters one by one while hopping back and forth over two continents. Meanwhile, the CIA becomes more and more desperate to stop him.

“What are you trying to prove?” – CIA Agent Cutter (Sam Waterston)

“I’m just trying to have some fun,” Kendig.

Boy is it fun to watch him accomplish this. Every single thing that happens is specifically planned for a result that takes them to the next thing that makes the CIA look foolish. Everything is carefully laid out to create the most mayhem. He is successful on all accounts. It’s suspenseful, yes, but it’s hilarious too…..and extremely satisfying to watch.

Brian Garfield also wrote Death Wish in 1972. It was turned into a movie starring Charles Bronson in 1974 with Wendell Mayes writing the screenplay. In an interview for Hopscotch, Garfield implied he hadn’t been too happy with “other books that had gone to movies” so he took a bigger role in this one. It worked. He helped give us a terrific movie.  “The motivation for the main character is that he wants to have fun instead of a desk job,” he said. “This movie was a delight all the way around.”

I agree.

P.S. The Criterion Collection DVD is terrific and includes interviews with Ronald Deame, Brian Garfield and Walter Matthau.

The Thin Man – Based on the Book By Dashiell Hammett

The Thin Man – 1934, MGM – Directed by W.S. Van Dyke, starring Myrna Loy  & WIlliam Powell

A scene from the movie:

Nick: “I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.”

Nora: “I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids.”

Nick: “It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.”

Same scene from the book:

“We had the afternoon papers sent up. Morelli, it seemed, had shot me — twice for one of the papers and three times for another–when I tried to arrest him for Julia Wolf’s murder, and I was too near death to see anybody or be moved to a hospital.”

And that perfectly illustrates the difference between the book and the movie.

I saw The Thin Man movie a gazillion times before I read the book.  It was one of the first classic movies I ever saw when my Grandmother had it on on her tiny black and white TV one day and made me watch it because she was a huge Myrna Loy fan. It wasn’t the first classic film I ever saw, His Girl Friday gets that honor (also with Grandma), but it is my favorite one. I immediately fell in love with Nick Charles and his wife, Nora……(and WIlliam Powell and Myrna Loy)….and still watch this movie again and again after all these years. My love for all six of these films continually grows, but the first one has its own special place in the corner of my heart and I’ll never get enough of it.

The 1943 paperback my Grandfather gave me. Oh how I treasure this! (The original story was published in 1933 in Redbook)

I’m not so sure I would have seen the movie if I’d read the book first. It’s good, it’s just nothing at all like the movie and would appeal to a different audience. The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett and its movie both have the same plot: a retired detective is roped into a murder investigation while he’s on vacation. The movie’s funny, the book isn’t. The writers Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich  turned the book into a movie filled with a lot of laughs and feel-good moments that the book just doesn’t have. The movie is a cosmopolitan 1930’s murder-mystery, with light-hearted moments that can make your heart melt and muscles relax. Yeah, it’s that good.

Depending on what you’re in the mood for, the movie or the book has you covered. Though there are some smiles in the book, it’s more of a hard-boiled crime story that suspense novel fans would be attracted to. In the book laughs are few and far between, and most of them feel forced to me, unlike the movie where I still find myself giggling at the banter between the characters even after all these years of watching it. The organization of the book is completely different than the movie, scenes are in a different order and there are quite a few scenes we don’t even see in the movie. The Jorgensen family is so much more annoying in the book, (probably because they play a bigger role) especially Dorothy. Ugh! Other characters like Morelli and Studsy have a bigger presence too. Nick’s drinking is front and center in the book, just like the movie…

…and spoiler alert:

Asta is a girl in the book.

I’m still not over that.

There’s some merit to each version, but in this case I think the movie is more entertaining. That script is hilarious!  I will always, always, always love the movie and it’s five sequels. They are my go-to classic movies whenever I need to laugh and feel good. Bill and Myrna never let me down. The movie is a more concise, organized version of the story in the book, which leaves lots of room for on-screen mystery, martinis and quips that make the movie so darn entertaining. The book is wonderful if you’re in need of a good crime-drama. I read a lot of those too, but in this case I find the movie to be exactly what I need every time I see it.

I can’t honestly say that if you loved the book you’ll love the movie, or vice versa. But, I’m sure glad I’ve done both. Have you read it? What do you think?

Next on my reading list is The Maltese Falcon by Hammett.  I’m looking forward to reading the book that another one of my favorite movies is based on. Have you read the book or seen the movie? What do you think?