Sixty-four years ago there was a Democrat in the White House facing reelection in the fall, and there was no single heavily favored Republican candidate as the days marched on toward the Republican National Convention.
That Democrat was, of course, Harry S. Truman, and he had faced a bitter rebuke two years earlier when the Democratic Party lost 11 seats in the Senate and 54 seats in the House of Representatives in the 1946 midterm elections (a landslide for Republicans similar to the 2010 midterm elections). I’m tempted to keep drawing parallels to the present day, but I’m afraid that if I do it’ll devolve into me spewing a bunch of meaningless facts, like how the 1948 Summer Olympics were held in London, just like the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Suffice it to say that this was a good time for me to watch Frank Capra’s State of the Union for the first time. And if you’ve never seen it before, then it’s a good time for you to watch it, too.
Adolphe Menjou plays a brilliant Republican party strategist named Jim Conover, who works with the young but equally brilliant Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury) to split the Republican primaries in order to get their own dark-horse candidate the nomination for the presidency. Kay is the ruthless publisher who owns the Thorndyke Press, which was bequeathed her by her equally ruthless father.
Van Johnson plays campaign manager “Spike” McManus, a devil-may-care sort who’s happy to tell anyone who will listen that they have no hope of unseating Truman. Instead of coasting on his million-dollar boyish charm, Johnson engages in some “acting” in State of the Union, which didn’t always work for me, but it didn’t ruin the picture either. (And we have to cut Van Johnson a little slack, since in State of the Union he’s acting opposite four absolutely brilliant film actors who are all at the top of their game.)
In response to the assertion that there’s no real difference between the Republicans and the Democrats, Conover exclaims, “There’s all the difference in the world. They’re in and we’re out!”
With this “win or die” attitude, Conover, Thorndyke, and McManus approach the plain-speaking Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy) to be their candidate. Matthews is a wealthy and successful airplane designer who has a “hang the politicians” attitude and thumbs his nose at political divisiveness with statements like, “Either we all pull together or we’ll be pulled apart.”
On the other hand, he’s in the midst of a long-standing extramarital affair with Kay Thorndyke, and when he launches his campaign for the presidency, it’s the first time he’s seen his wife Mary (Katharine Hepburn) in four months.
I’m not sure why this film isn’t talked about as much as Capra’s earlier films, like It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Despite its cynical view of our two-party system, I think State of the Union is every bit as hopeful about humanity as Capra’s earlier films.
It’s also a very funny film, which I wasn’t expecting. Even when movies about politics are labeled “comedies” I usually find them more depressing than funny, but State of the Union features a cast of characters who are genuinely interesting and likable (and when they’re unlikable, it’s done in a natural and believable way). Capra’s direction is smooth and assured, with shot constructions that are occasionally brilliant, but there are a lot of jump cuts, too, as though Capra cared more about getting the right flow and combination of dialogue takes then setting up his shots seamlessly.
State of the Union is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse that ran on Broadway from 1945 to 1947. The dialogue in the play was changed slightly from week to week to reflect the current political reality, which is obviously not something that can be done once a film is completed and released into theaters.
It could be this “trapped in amber” quality that has led to State of the Union being relegated to second-tier status among Capra’s films. If that’s the case, I think that’s sad and short-sighted. Despite the fact that State of the Union is entirely about the 1948 election for president, its depiction of our two-party system, the personal and moral compromises a presidential candidate must make, and the corrupting influence of big money in politics is just as relevant today as it was 64 years ago.