HOW’S THE STATE OF THE UNION? IT’S GREAT!
Today we regard Frank Capra’s two last great films, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and State of the Union (1948), as obvious classics, but in the late 1940s neither critics nor audiences were quite as appreciative. Capra had done a tremendous PR effort while serving in World War II, but his themes and films seemed to suit Depression-era audiences better. Still, State of the Union is a welcome return to politics for him, its fury and sadness regarding the state of the political climate in the nation as passionate as in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
President Harry Truman is not expected to win the 1948 election and the Republican Party are eagerly vetting candidates. Two of its “kingmakers”, newspaper publisher Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury) and strategist Jim Conover (Adolphe Menjou), have found a man they believe has plenty of potential – aircraft tycoon Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy). When they meet with him, Matthews is anything but open to the idea, making it clear to them that he’s very interested in what happens to his country but doesn’t care about politics. Besides, he and his wife Mary (Katharine Hepburn) are separated, which would hardly help the cause. Eventually, Matthews is persuaded to run after all, and foolishly believes that he can win primaries by telling voters the truth about what needs to be done; Conover, who knows what it takes to win, tries to make Matthews see things his way.
Then there’s the problem of Mary. She agrees to return and stand by her husband, but she doesn’t realize just how big a role Thorndyke plays. After all, she’s the reason why the Matthews’ split up…
Searing attacks on corruption
This film does not take place entirely in an alternate reality. In early 1948, it was indeed assumed that Truman would not get a second term, which is why there was a lot of interest in the Republican nomination. Tom Dewey ended up as the GOP candidate, and he’s named in the film along with other prominent Republicans at the time. But the film really doesn’t have anything to do with conservatism or liberalism; it could just as easily have portrayed power games within the Democratic Party.
As in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Capra is aiming for the universal ailments that he believes Washington in general is suffering from – corruption and a disregard for the common people. In simplistic, but highly effective ways, the director shows how the genuinely honest Matthews falls for Conover and Thorndyke’s machinations, the sordid game of securing support from various powerful players in order to control the outcome of the upcoming party convention. Modern audiences may find some scenes hard to believe, but in all honesty, has all that much changed? The film is often funny, but Capra and his writers also turn Matthews’s speeches into searing attacks on a culture of corruption, as well as uplifting messages to a nation longing for an honest leader.
Tracy is ideal, but Hepburn is even better as the deeply conflicted Mary, her husband’s moral anchor. Lansbury has an unusual part as the young, influential, female publisher; both Menjou and Van Johnson are fun to watch as dedicated campaign workers.
One of the stories surrounding this film is that Hepburn, a liberal, and Menjou, a conservative, were at odds. The year before the premiere, Menjou had cooperated with the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities, selling out people he believed were Communists; Hepburn wouldn’t talk to him during the making of this movie. Still, they both read the script and signed on. That says something about the story’s universal appeal.
State of the Union 1948-U.S. 124 min. B/W. Produced and directed by Frank Capra. Screenplay: Anthony Veiller, Myles Connolly. Play: Howard Lindsay, Russel Crouse. Cast: Spencer Tracy (Grant Matthews), Katharine Hepburn (Mary Matthews), Angela Lansbury (Kay Thorndyke), Van Johnson, Adolphe Menjou, Lewis Stone… Margaret Hamilton.
Trivia: Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert were first considered for the leads. Both Hepburn and Menjou’s names are misspelled in the opening credits.
Quote: “No woman could ever run for President. She’d have to admit she’s over 35.” (Hepburn)
Last word: “On the phone, Hepburn wasted no words on contracts or salary or billing. A show was in distress [due to Colbert’s departure]. She was being asked to help. And help she did. Monday morning at nine sharp, we shot our first scene with Tracy, [Adolphe] Menjou, and Hepburn. For many of the cast and crew it was the first indication that Hepburn had replaced Colbert. There were no tears and no jeers. MGM crews were not easily impressed. They, too, had eaten of MGM’s Superman spinach. But one man on the set was impressed, the director. […] And when Tracy and his ‘bag of bones’ played a scene, cameras, lights, microphones, and written scripts ceased to exist. And the director did just what the crews and other actors did sit, watch, and marvel. And the name Claudette Colbert, only days ago synonymous with disaster, now became associated with serendipity.” (Capra, “The Name Above the Title”)