|State of the Union
1948 - unrated - 122 Mins.
|Director: Frank Capra
|Producer: Frank Capra
|Written By: Myles Connolly and Anthony Veiller
|Starring: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Van Johnson, Angela Lansbury and Adolphe Menjou
|Review by: Bill King
A near perfect companion piece to "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," Frank Capra’s "State of the Union" takes a revealing look at the shady dealings that go on during a presidential campaign. Throughout his career, Capra never kept to himself his feelings about the downtrodden and the elite. He favored the triumphs of the little guy against an overwhelming political machine whose vital parts represented the corruption that the director saw in society. As a man who worked and educated his way out of poverty, Capra was speaking from experience.
By sleeping down here, you can't steal my blanket.
His best films were the ones that gave a voice to his beliefs in the form of an optimistic hero facing adversity at the hands of thieves, swindlers and politicians. Capra’s unspectacular attempts at screwball comedy ("You Can’t Take it With You," "Arsenic and Old Lace") showed his limitations, and luckily the director didn’t venture into that territory often, despite some commercial success. "State of the Union," though somewhat flawed, is an important movie whose title probably illustrated the director’s feelings on the political process.
Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury) has just inherited her father’s newspaper, and eager for a story, she recruits her old friend Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy) to run for President of the United States. Matthews isn’t interested in running for office, and is amazed that Kay and her partners would even think of asking him. He’s a businessman who would rather stick with his proven profession rather than risk drowning in the ocean of the nation’s highest office.
Grant has his reasons for dismissing interest in a political life, and as he declares them verbally, he is surprised to learn that he already has a platform from which to build a campaign. He reluctantly agrees to seek the Republican Party nomination, hoping to fine-tune his message and tour the country spreading his ideas to the masses. Kay is thrilled, although her intentions aren't honorable -- she’s just along for the ride because of the publicity it will garner for her.
Grant’s wife Mary (Katharine Hepburn) provides the rational voice for the campaign. Slowly but surely, Grant learns about the compromises that he must make in order to get elected. It isn’t enough to appeal to the voters; he must also associate himself with ethnic groups, labor unions and farmers, all of which represent a large number of delegates who will support him if he gives them what they want and reshapes his message to suit their needs.
This idea doesn’t interest Grant at first, but upon experiencing how such "small" adjustments can yield major results, he falls headfirst into a world in which a man can become a winner if he panders to special interest groups. Only Mary sees the shame in such a tactic. She sees the danger in the journey that he is about to embark on.
The film ends with a long speech that Grant gives to a roomful of news writers. It is a deadly blow to the carefully crafted image of the politician. In a sustained diatribe with practically no time for punctuation, Grant unloads his frustrations. He exposes his cohorts for the slippery snakes that they really are. He describes everything that is wrong with the campaigning process, and one can sense that Frank Capra never expressed himself more candidly than in this scene. Spencer Tracy unleashes these words in a flurry of desperation; and in a moment of self revelation, fully understands just what a major blunder his character had made up to that point.
There’s not much to fault in this film, but there is one minor irritant that I’d like to address, for no other reason than to illustrate that if "State of the Union" were a political weapon, it’s defective and not quite the equal to "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Grant Matthews has this dreamy hope of starting a one-world government, united under one Bill of Rights (he doesn't mention if it's the U.S. Bill of Rights, by the way). Immediately upon hearing this, I started wondering which countries Grant would want to start annexing and how he would go about it.
It might seem foolish to disagree with a fictional character’s political platform, but remember, this is a movie that exposes the Republican and Democrat presidential candidates of the 1940s (and beyond, as is apparent after watching the movie) as run by men who will gladly sell out their principles to get votes. One would not go into battle with a broken rifle or dented sword, and likewise, a politically-charged movie should be free of any defects if it is truly to suceed. Playwrights Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay shouldn’t have inserted such a faulty ideal into the plot. (In addition, the adapting screenwriters Myles Connolly and Anthony Veiller should have corrected that oversight.)
Despite this shortcoming, "State of the Union"'s point is clear, and Frank Capra was the right man to tell the story. His previous efforts, especially "It’s a Wonderful Life" prepared him for this story of a guy who opposes an establishment that is stronger than he is. The sort of outrage seen in this movie, from Mary’s frustrations to the campaign's subtle corruption of Grant to Grant’s explosive confession, fit in ideally with Capra’s views on the arrogant elite.