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Tag Archives: Adolphe Menjou

State of the Union (April 30, 1948)

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.

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The Hucksters (Aug. 27, 1947)

It’s hard to watch Jack Conway’s The Hucksters today and not compare it with Mad Men.

While Mad Men is a TV series that began in 2007 and takes place in the early ’60s and The Hucksters takes place during the time it was filmed (the post-war ’40s), they share a number of similarities, and not just because they’re both about advertising agencies.

Both feature at their center a dashing leading man with rugged good looks as an advertising genius who must navigate the tricky waters of love, sex, and difficult clients. Jon Hamm was in his mid-30s when Mad Men began, while Clark Gable was in his mid-40s in 1947, but both of their characters are veterans of the most recent war and inveterate seducers of women.

The Hucksters is based on Frederic Wakeman’s 1946 novel of the same name, which spent a year at the top of the best-seller lists. Wakeman’s novel was based on a four-part exposé in The Saturday Evening Post, “The Star Spangled Octopus,” about talent and promotional agency MCA.

The novel’s racy subject matter was largely responsible for its success. Life magazine called it “Last year’s best-selling travesty on bigtime advertising.”

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer paid nearly $200,000 for the rights to Wakeman’s novel in a pre-publication deal. Most of the salacious details, however, never made it into the final shooting script. (Clark Gable’s take on the first draft of the script was, “It’s filthy and it isn’t entertainment.”) For instance, in the novel, Gable’s character, Victor Albee Norman, has an affair with a married woman, but she was changed into a war widow for the film.

Consequently, The Hucksters never quite achieves the satirical bite of Mad Men, but there are number of bits that are funny, particularly if you’re familiar with radio advertising circa 1947.

There are plenty of reasons to see The Hucksters. It was the American film debut of Deborah Kerr, who plays Gable’s widowed love interest, Kay Dorrance, and it also features the beautiful Ava Gardner as a torch singer named Jean Ogilvie. Adolphe Menjou is wonderful as Mr. Kimberly, the head of the advertising agency, and Keenan Wynn is appropriately irritating as a third-rate radio comedian named Buddy Hare.

The most memorable actor in the film, however, is Sydney Greenstreet, who plays Evan Llewellyn Evans, the grotesque and demanding head of Beautee Soap. After Gable’s character, Victor Norman, rejects the more scandalous layout favored by Evans, Evans sits down at the head of the boardroom table, tilts his head back, hawks, and spits on the table. “Mr. Norman, you’ve just seen me do a disgusting thing,” he says. “But you’ll always remember what I just did. You see, Mr. Norman, if nobody remembers your brand, you aren’t gonna sell any soap.”

The Hucksters could have used more moments like that. It’s nearly two hours long, and Gable’s romance with Kerr takes up much of the running time. It’s perfectly well-handled and shot, but it’s a storyline one could see in any number of pictures, while the advertising angle of the story is unique, and the film could have gotten more mileage out of it.

The Hucksters earned a respectable $4.4 million during its domestic release, but was a complete flop overseas, since in those days no one outside the United States was in any way familiar with American advertising or commercial broadcasting.

I’ll Be Yours (Feb. 2, 1947)

I really liked I’ll Be Yours, and not just because it stars my time-travel girlfriend, Deanna Durbin. It’s a light and frothy romantic comedy — hardly my favorite genre — but the performers are appealing, the humor is genuinely funny, and the musical numbers are great.

Durbin herself can’t be counted among the film’s fans. She retired from acting at the age of 27, after a 12-year career in the movies, and retired to France with her husband. In an interview with David Shipman in 1983, Durbin called her last four films — I’ll Be Yours, Something in the Wind (1947), Up in Central Park (1948), and For the Love of Mary (1948) — “terrible.”

I imagine that Durbin’s negative assessment of her last several films was at least partly due to her dissatisfaction with Hollywood. If she was yearning for a “normal” life and looking for a sign that she should continue acting, I’ll Be Yours is neither groundbreaking nor artful enough to qualify. But if you’re a fan of Deanna Durbin, I’ll Be Yours is wonderful entertainment. She’s as lovely and appealing in it as she was in everything else, and her singing voice was unparalleled among Hollywood ingenues.

In I’ll Be Yours, Durbin plays a naive, wide-eyed young woman with the unwieldy name of Louise Ginglebusher who leaves her hometown of Cobleskill, NY, for a life of excitement in Fun City. While eating lunch on a ridiculously tight budget, she’s befriended by a cranky but kindhearted waiter named Wechsberg (played by William Bendix, another performer who was able to overcome mediocre material).

She’s given a job as an usherette in a palatial movie house by a fellow native of Cobleskill, Mr. Buckingham (Walter Catlett), and shown kindness by a young and handsome lawyer named George Prescott (Tom Drake) who sports an unfortunate Van Dyke beard.

After Wechsberg sneaks Louise into a swanky party he’s working at the Savoy Ritz, she’s snookered into performing a musical number by a philandering millionaire named J. Conrad Nelson (Adolphe Menjou). Naturally, she pulls it off with aplomb, and the song she sings — “Granada” — is a high point of the film.

This leads to J. Conrad Nelson offering Louise a starring role in the Broadway musical he’s financing, but to fend off his advances she invents a husband for herself. In doing so, she underestimates the tenacity of Nelson’s libido. Nelson demands to know who her husband is so he can be put on his payroll and eventually be bought off and done away with.

Forced to produce a husband, Louise turns to Prescott, but his old-man beard will have to go.

All of this is ridiculous, of course, but it’s a thoroughly entertaining vehicle for a quartet of appealing performers. And the music is wonderful.

Felix Jackson wrote the script, which was adapted from Preston Sturges’s The Good Fairy (1935), which was based on a play by Ferenc Molnár. William A. Seiter directed the film.