The story concerns the Irish-American mayor of a big American city that bears a suspicious resemblance to Boston, Massachusetts, who wants to run for a fifth and final term before he retires. The mayor, Frank Skeffington, is "corrupt" in the sense that he likes to hand out personal favors in exchange for loyalty, but nonetheless seems to be a pretty decent person who genuinely cares for his constituents. The story is seen mostly through the eyes of Skeffington's nephew, local newspaperman Adam Caulfield, although the novel is written in the third person.
Of course, not everyone is enamored of Skeffington or his antics, and we're soon introduced to a number of people who would like to bring him down, including Caulfield's boss, newspaper publisher Amos Force; Bishop Gardner, a local Protestant clergyman; wealthy banker Norman Cass; Martin Burke, the city's Roman Catholic Cardinal, who thinks Skeffington is a walking embarrassment to Catholics and Irish-Americans alike; and Skeffington's own father-in-law, Roger Sugrue.
Hoping to stop him once and for all, some of Skeffington's foes find a candidate to run against him: a bland, boring, good-looking-but-not-too-bright young candidate named Kevin McCluskey, who is so unimpressive, in spite of his respectable war record, that even the Cardinal thinks he's a sure loser. Ordinarily, McCluskey (who bears more than a slight resemblance to a young John F. Kennedy) wouldn't stand a chance against a seasoned politician like Skeffington and his shrewd campaign manager John Gorman, but there's one thing that has changed the game this time out: television.
The story, which drew some of its inspiration from real-life Boston mayor James Michael Curley, explores a lot of the issues surrounding mid-20th century urban politics in the United States. The New Deal had robbed the urban machine politicians of a lot of their traditional role in distributing public assistance, by making the Federal government responsible for it instead. Moreover, the advent of television meant that being good-looking and blandly inoffensive became more important than being a skillful politician who could command peoples' loyalty.
Besides Spencer Tracy as Skeffington, the film's Ensemble Cast includes Jeffrey Hunter, Dianne Foster, Pat O'Brien, Basil Rathbone, Donald Crisp, James Gleason, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Frank McHugh, Edward Brophy, Ricardo Cortez, Wallace Ford, and Charles B. Fitzsimons.
Tropes found in this novel/film include:
- Almost Dead Guy: See Final Speech below.
- Brainless Beauty: Kevin McCluskey; when the Cardinal sees him on TV, he asks his assistant "Is this the educated young laity I've been hearing so much about?" in a disgusted tone.
- Christianity Is Catholic: Averted. Although most of the important characters are Irish-American Catholics, there are a handful of Anglo-Saxon Protestants (including one clergyman), who form the main core of opposition to Skeffington.
- Final Speech: In the film, Skeffington more-or-less reconciles with the Cardinal on his deathbed. As Skeffington fades off into death, Roger Sugrue (Adam Caulfield's father-in-law and self-appointed arbiter of acceptable Roman Catholic behavior) suggests that Skeffington would do everything differently, if he had it to do over again. Skeffington then summons the energy to say one last thing before he dies: "Like hell I would!"
- Irishman and a Jew: Skeffington's Jewish assistant Sam asks the mayor to do the drawing at a raffle for the Jewish War Veterans' Committee. Skeffington agrees to show up for the drawing and even buy a book of tickets, but wisely refuses to do the drawing himself.—"It'd be just my luck to pull a name like Paddy Murphy and then I'll have lost the Jewish vote- they'll say I palmed it".
- Landslide Election: In the film, at least, Skeffington loses by a wide margin.
- Loveable Rogue: Frank Skeffington is a crooked machine politician, but he is fiercely loyal to his constituents and to his friends.
- Moral Guardians: Roger Sugrue is described as a "Professional Catholic" in the novel. An upwardly-mobile, Harvard-educated Roman Catholic, Sugrue makes it his personal business to decide what is and is not acceptable public behavior for other Roman Catholics, and pesters the Cardinal relentlessly about these things. While the Cardinal generally agrees with Sugrue's assessment of such situations, he nonetheless finds Sugrue to be an obnoxious ass in person.
- No Communities Were Harmed: The city remains unnamed throughout, but it strongly resembles Boston, Massachusetts.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: Amos Force, though it is important to note that the novel was written before political correctness became widespread, so it is probably not an example of the author trying to manipulate the audience, but just a more-or-less accurate and fairly dispassionate representation of a kind of bigotry that actually existed at the time.
- Sleazy Politician: Subverted somewhat, in that Skeffington uses flagrant bribery to stay in power and hands out jobs to his political cronies, but is beloved by his constituents, who see these same actions in a much more positive light.