State of the Union
By 1946, the United States of America found itself at one of the most profound crossroads in its history a four-term Democrat president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had died in office, after overseeing the country through two of its greatest crises, the Great Depression and the Second World War. President Truman, assuming office after Roosevelt's death, successfully concluded the war with Japan, but Republicans were convinced that he was vulnerable at the 1948 ballot box. The only problem was that they weren't sure who to run against him, which would involve taking on the Roosevelt legacy itself. Such is where Frank Capra's State of the Union (1948) enters, in roman à clef fashion. The GOP front-runner, Sam Thorndyke (Lewis Stone), succumbs to illness and age, leaving political bigwig Jim Conover (Adolphe Menjou) to sort through the likely contenders still in the field. He's advised by Thorndyke's daughter, newspaper publisher Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury), to look for a dark horse. And she knows just the man. American industrialist Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy) was born dirt-poor, got rich by starting his own aircraft company, and has never held political office. He seems perfectly suited for the role of candidate-in-waiting, except for one small detail he's romantically linked to Kay Thorndyke, while his marriage to wife Mary Matthews (Katharine Hepburn) has turned into little more than a façade. On the outs with Republican power-players, Kay soon develops a divide-and-conquer strategy to get Grant the nomination, first by sending him to several cities around the country to give speeches in order to establish his viability, and thus prevent any other candidate from assuming the lead. Conover convinces Mary to join Grant as well, even though they haven't lived together as man and wife for some time. And Grant finds himself invigorated by politics, once given the opportunity to expound on the value of industry, as well as society's commitment to the social good. But when the press gets wind of Grant's secret romance with Kay, Mary finds herself in an awkward bind, forced to make nice with the woman who stole her husband. Even worse, she can see that Grant is now tempering his speeches, doing his best to shore up votes for the nomination rather than simply speaking his mind.
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Adapted from the popular stage play by Myles Connolly and Anthony Veiller (which won a Pulitzer Prize), State of the Union was a logical project for Frank Capra to take on, particularly in the wake of It's a Wonderful Life, which earned Academy recognition in 1946, if not huge returns at the box-office. Like Life, Union retains the director's vision of optimism triumphing over a cynical, pessimistic world, although it's really a follow-up to 1939's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Like Jefferson Smith, Grant Matthews is an outsider who willingly battles the national political machine with his own unbridled optimism, but the script changes up the scenario in three ways Grant is rich, unelected, and seeking the presidency. It's still Smith, but told from the insider's point of view, and thus revealing that idealism is not the exclusive domain of the common man. Capra spent some time getting the cast right at first, he intended to re-team Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert from the screwball sensation It Happened One Night (1934). He later considered Gary Cooper for the lead, but when Spencer Tracy came on board (and Colbert did not), he recommended Katharine Hepburn. State of the Union is authentically one of the little-seen gems of film history: Capra co-produced it with MGM, later buying the film outright, and thus keeping it from untold potential admirers for years. Those who have not seen it may find themselves surprised at how relevant it remains. Grant Matthews is placed squarely in the Republican camp, but only to place him in the party of opposition. Instead, the script deftly focuses on the influence of the press, as well as the necessity of viable presidential candidates to compartmentalize messages in order to pander to niche groups, which helps secure the all-important nomination. But Grant Matthews proves to be a hard man to shake, and Spencer Tracy gets in two great monologues one where he rolls off a list of famous philosophers, artists, and statesmen in front of the White House, and later when he tells Conover that he believes in support for health care and housing, but also that he's fiercely anti-communist, believes in capitalism, and supports a strong defense, because "they next time we're not gonna get two years to get ready they're gonna jump us overnight." The script couldn't help but get attention on Broadway in postwar 1946, when lines were being redrawn rapidly around the globe in the wake of the defeat of the Third Reich. And, as with most fictional portrayals of presidents and presidential candidates, Grant Matthews is, at heart, a cross-platform idealist who would survive in high-stakes politics about as long as a mouse at a cat convention. But its filled with wonderful performances all around from Tracy, Hepburn, Lansbury, Menjou, and Van Johnson, who earns some of the best lines as a charming newspaper columnist. And, decades later, it still resonates, nearly as much as the director's better-known chestnuts. Leave it to Capra then to throw something totally unexpected into a Broadway adaptation namely, an impromptu air-race between Tracy's passenger plane and a T6 Texan fighter, complete with a wager that ultimately involves parachutes. As Van Johnson says, looking at his presidential candidate hurtling toward the earth, "At least we have the screwball vote." Universal's DVD release of State of the Union offers a solid transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from an excellent, pleasant black-and-white source-print, with strong monaural DD 2.0 audio. No extras, keep-case.