Adapted from the novel by Edwin O’Connor and directed by John Ford, an aging mayor runs for re-election and faces opposition from bankers for a housing project he wants.
Mayor Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy) comes downstairs at home and asks Winslow (Carleton Young) if he is going to win his fifth term and is shown the newspaper headline. Four men come in, and Frank tells Ditto Boland (Edward Brophy) he is a changed man. Boland has a new hat, and Frank warns him someone may cheat him. Frank signs letters. John Gorman (Pat O’Brien) asks Frank if he is going to see all the people out there. Frank says he will. He asks his staff who he has to beat in the election. They mention names and laugh. Frank asks about Kevin McCluskey, and Boland talks about him. Frank starts seeing people.
Newspaper editor Amos Force (John Carradine) gives orders concerning the mayor race. They are going to promote McCluskey. He calls in Adam Caulfield (Jeffrey Hunter), who asks Force if he knew that Skeffington was his uncle. Force says he did not, but now Adam’s column is successful. Force asks him to tell his uncle that he is going to be glad to see Frank lose the election. Force says he has $2,000,000 in a vault, but Adam doubts the story.
Adam calls on his Uncle Frank who says politics is the greatest spectator sport. Frank proposes that Adam be a spectator of his campaign. Frank describes how he campaigns, though he admits campaigns are changing. This is his last campaign, and this is Adam’s last chance to catch the act. Adam says he is interested, but he has to write his column for a living. Adam conveys his publisher’s worst. Frank says Force belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. Adam asks him why Force hates him so much. Frank says that his mother worked as a maid in Force’s house, but she was fired for stealing. Frank says she was guilty, but it was common practice then. Immigrants did that to survive. She was caught stealing some fruit, and Caleb Force fired her. Frank says Amos has not forgotten her crime and that her son became mayor of the city. Adam hopes Frank will keep up the good work and goes out.
At a campaign rally Skeffington prepares to speak as Adam and his wife Mave (Dianne Foster) are watching with her father Roger Sugrue (Willis Bouchey) who criticizes the mayor. Adam says he is leaving and goes to the rally where Skeffington is speaking.
Later Frank Skeffington Jr. (Arthur Walsh) says goodnight to two women and goes in the house, saying goodnight to his father.
In his office Frank is told about his schedule. Sam Weinberg (Ricardo Cortez) asks Frank to draw the winning number for a Jewish lottery, but he says no. Frank takes a call from Adam. At the newspaper Force introduces Adam to Kevin McCluskey. Adam tells Frank he will see him later. Jack Mangan (Frank Albertson) knows Adam slept on the couch last night and advises him about his wife Mave.
That night Frank and Adam walk on the street where Frank was born. Frank says Adam’s father-in-law was born there too along with the cardinal.
Frank comes and inspects a coffin and walks out of the room. Delia Boylan (Jane Darwell) laughs and talks to Adam about the deceased. Frank talks with the deceased’s wife Gert Minihan (Anna Lee). Frank says his late wife left her a present, and he hands her a check. She won’t take it. Frank says he does not want to break his word to his wife. Gert says his wife told her nothing about it. Frank swears that she left it to her on her death bed. Gert finally accepts and cries. The mortician comes in and meets Adam. Cuke Gillen (James Gleason) and Boland come in with food, but Frank makes them get rid of the alcohol. Seven policemen come in, followed by other people who shake hands with Frank. Boland gives out cigars. More police come in. Boland talks with Adam about Minihan. Gorman gives instructions to the wards, and outside he asks Adam not to run off. Adam says this is Minihan’s wake, but they are playing politics. Gorman says most people came because of Frank. Gorman says Frank came to make the widow feel better about the friends her husband had. Gorman introduces Adam to Monsignor Killian (Ken Curtis). Gorman tells Adam all those people will be praying for Minihan, and he could use it. Killian talks with Frank who thanks him for coming. Charles J. Hennessey (Wallace Ford) introduces himself to Adam and talks with Frank who lights his cigar. Gert comes in with Killian and Frank and sits by the coffin. Later Frank says goodnight to her. The mortician says everything went well, and Frank asks about the cost for their circumstances. Frank finds out he did not discuss it with Mrs. Minihan. Frank asks what was the cheapest he ever buried anyone, and Frank suggests $35. The mortician says that is impossible for the limousines and everything. Frank warns him about his licensing board and insists on $35.
After the funeral Frank’s staff gathers in his office. Frank learns that the banks have refused the loan for the housing development. Gorman says Frank can’t let them get away with that. Frank learns who is having lunch with Cass and decides to go himself with his staff to the Plymouth Club.
His Cadillac arrives with a siren. Winslow asks where Cass is eating. Frank goes upstairs and is told he cannot go up there because he is not a member. Frank talks about fire regulations. Frank walks in on the lunch and says he came on an important matter. Norman Cass Sr. (Basil Rathbone) asks Frank what he wants. Frank says he wants what the pilgrims wanted—better living conditions, especially in ward nine. Cass says he is sorry and says he is speaking for them all. Frank says he may go to the press and say the bankers are against slum clearance. They expect a new mayor, and Frank asks them not to make the housing development a political football. Cass suggests that Frank consult his own conscience. Cass doubts the city’s credit. Frank says the city is his now. He says the housing project is going up on St. Patrick’s Day, and he starts to leave. Bishop Gardner (Basil Ruysdael) stops Frank and tells them they love the city too. Frank goes downstairs and gets his hat and orders Cass Jr. to come to his office in an hour and Cass Sr. in the morning.
Gillen and Boland bring boxes into Frank’s office, and he says they will be back in the morning. Norman Cass Jr. (O. Z. Whitehead) comes in. Frank flatters him and says they want to make him their fire commissioner. Cass says he is a banker, but Winslow and Frank persuade him. Frank takes his fire helmet out of a box and a trumpet. Frank says Cass will use the chief’s car with its siren. Frank asks him to sign a letter of acceptance, and Cass signs it. Frank has Winslow bring in Gillen to take pictures. Norman Cass Sr. comes in and asks Frank about his son’s appointment. Frank says his son wants to serve the city. Frank offers him a picture. Frank says this is what is left of his family name. Frank says he knows his record and would not touch it. Cass says he will reconsider the housing loan. Cass uses the phone and tells Amos he will back his candidate to any amount. Cass says goodbye to Frank.
Adam is walking by the park and sees signs for McCluskey on the Plymouth Club.
Television cameras are set up in a living room. Cardinal Martin Burke (Donald Crisp) is watching. The TV host talks about McCluskey and says he has a picture of the cardinal. He interviews Kevin McCluskey who tries to talk while a dog is barking. Mrs. McCluskey comes n with a tray and a drink, and the host interviews her. She is reading from cards. Their four little children come in.
The bishop comes downstairs at the Plymouth Club and tells Cass Sr. the answer is no to their candidate. The bishop says he will not vote for either. He goes out, and Force tells Cass he should have used pressure.
The cardinal talks with the monsignor who says the best men are not in politics.
A parade sings a song in favor of Skeffington. Force and Cass Sr. watch from the windows.
Adam comes home to Mave with Frank who flatters her looks. They have dinner, and Frank talks about being a good mayor. He gives an example of a compromise.
On election day people line up to vote. Gert is friendly to the mortician. Frank has his picture taken at the voting booth.
Frank sees his son leaving the house and finds out he forgot to register to vote. Force receives a gift of fruit.
That evening at Skeffington headquarters Gillen prepares people to cheer Frank as he comes in. Frank shakes hands with Boland. Frank takes the microphone and thanks his supporters. He says they will celebrate when the results are in. Weinberg and Gorman tell Frank he is going to win. Adam asks Boland questions about different people. The first result is from a rich ward won by McCluskey. The next ward Skeffington wins by even more. Other wards are announced, and they cheer Skeffington’s victories. They are surprised by a loss in one ward, and Frank tells them not to worry. Frank realizes they have trouble. On the phone Frank asks someone to deliver 15,000. Weinberg says they can only lose so many wards. Boland asks Frank if they should start the victor parade, but Frank says it is too early. Frank reprimands Weinberg and Gorman for quarreling over money. Frank says he will talk to the “faithful few.” Another ward is lost. Frank’s son comes in with a beautiful blonde and shakes hands with people. Frank tells his son that he is losing. Gorman asks Frank what he is going to do. Gillen tells Frank about a television crew, and Frank goes out to meet them. The TV reporter announces a big political upset and hands the microphone to Frank. He says it appears as though McCluskey has won and wishes him luck. Frank thanks those who voted for him. He is asked about his plans for the future. Frank says he is going to run for governor, and he expects to win. Frank and his staff leave the headquarters as the TV reporter speaks.
Outside Boland is angry and stomps on his hat. Frank tells him to go home and get some sleep. Frank gets into his Cadillac and goes home with Adam. Frank says he will go for a walk and turn in. He says goodnight to Adam. Frank walks in a park as a victory parade goes by.
Frank comes home and looks at the portrait of his late wife. He collapses on the stairs and calls to his son.
A doctor comes down the stairs and says they should not move him to a hospital. He says this is not his first heart attack. Gorman asks if he will pull through, and the doctor says he has a good chance. He must not have any visitors, and Gorman says there will be a cop at the door. Adam asks if he can see him for a moment. The doctor says to be brief and says he will never quit.
A nurse lets Adam into Frank’s bedroom. Frank asks Adam about the weather, and Adam says he will be back after his nap. Adam goes out, and Frank tells the nurse to go away.
People are gathered outside the house. Gorman sends Gillen out to talk to the people with Boland. Gert has flowers. Boland invites them to come in one at a time to leave their flowers. They file in.
Mave calls Adam to ask how he is. He says she should not come over. Frank’s son comes in and talks with Adam who asks if he is going out. The son says he will pick up some travel folders.
The doctor instructs the nurse who goes off. Frank tells the doctor that lying there all day is dull. He wants to invite a few boys in the evening. The doctor says no. Frank asks him to stop wasting time. The doctor says his job is to keep him alive. Franks asks for how long. He wants to say goodbye to his old friends. The doctor asks him to wait awhile, and Frank says no. He insists that he let them in, or he will tear the place apart. The doctor calls it blackmail and says he wins. The doctor opens the door.
Festus Garvey (Frank McHugh) and Hennessey come in to wish Frank well, and Adam says his uncle would like to see them. They go upstairs with others. The doctor tells them five minutes. They gather around Frank’s bed. Frank says he is progressing. He wants to talk about running for governor and asks who he has to beat. Garvey and Hennessey get enthusiastic, and the doctor says the visit is over. Weinberg, Gillen, and Gorman says goodbye to Frank who summons Boland and thanks him for the laughs. The doctor, nurse, and Adam come in. Frank asks about his son, and Adam says he will be back soon. The monsignor introduces the cardinal who sits by Frank. The cardinal wants to explain why he opposed Frank, who says he wants to confess to the monsignor. The cardinal leaves them alone.
Downstairs Adam welcomes his wife who says her father did not want her to come alone, but he says she should not have come at all. Her father Roger is surprised to see the cardinal there. Frank’s son comes in as the cardinal is leaving. He runs upstairs and enters the bedroom crying and falls on his knees. Frank says it is all right. The doctor calls to Frank, but he does not respond. Roger says he would do it differently if he had to do it over again. Frank opens his eyes and says, “Like hell I would.” Roger leaves the house with Mave and Adam. The men go upstairs slowly.
This political drama portrays the style and methods of a successful mayor who is facing changes that defeat him. The model for this story is James Curley, who was mayor of Boston five times before being elected governor of Massachusetts in 1934. However, this film reflects the effect television is having on important political campaigns.