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Tag Archives: Angela Lansbury

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 Private Affairs of Bel Ami (April 25, 1947)

The Private Affairs of Bel Ami
The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947)
Directed by Albert Lewin
United Artists

I love George Sanders. I don’t know what it is. I could give you a laundry list of attributes — his effortless charm, his ironic detachment, his pitch-perfect performances as cads and bounders — but that would only scratch the surface.

I like him so much that I found it impossible to root against him as the villain opposite Tyrone Power in John Cromwell’s minor swashbuckling classic Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake (1942) and I even enjoyed his role in Douglas Sirk’s lightweight A Scandal in Paris (1946).

His insouciance and Herculean detachment from the concerns of everyday life weren’t just an onscreen pose. In the suicide note he left in 1972 before taking his own life at the age of 65, Sanders wrote, “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool — good luck. Love, George.”

In life as in art, there is always the sense with Sanders that you are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Certainly boredom was not the real reason Sanders took his own life. His brother, actor Tom Conway, had died of cirrhosis of the liver — a complication of his alcoholism — five years earlier. Sanders had four failed marriages under his belt, was himself a heavy drinker, and suffered from extremely poor health in his later years, as well as related bouts of depression. But who really knows? No one really kills themselves because they’re bored, but with Sanders, that’s all we’re left with.

Albert Lewin’s The Private Affairs of Bel Ami is based on Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 novel Bel Ami. Dubbed “the history of a scoundrel,” the film has a lot in common with Lewin’s 1945 film The Picture of Dorian Gray, which also featured Sanders and Angela Lansbury in starring roles. Both films are black and white adaptations of 19th-century novels that feature a single oil painting shown in stunning Technicolor. In the case of The Picture of Dorian Gray, it’s Dorian Gray’s famous portrait, hidden away in an attic, revealing his corruption. In The Private Affairs of Bel Ami it’s the totally crazy and anachronistic “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” by surrealist painter Max Ernst.

Max Ernst

Ernst’s painting isn’t the only anachronistic thing about Lewin’s film. While the film ostensibly takes place in Paris in 1880, there are no attempts at verisimilitude. Frank Paul Sylos’s art direction in The Private Affairs of Bel Ami is careful and loving, but it looks more like a picture postcard than real life.

Sanders’s character, Georges Duroy, is a bored habitué of Parisian café society who seduces women and uses them for social and professional gain, then discards them as soon as a lovely new opportunity sashays across his path. The women who love him call him “Bel Ami.” The name is ironic, since Duroy is a friend only to himself. When the film begins, he is already ignoring a hurt-looking former conquest while he seduces the pale beauty Clotilde de Marelle (Angela Lansbury). He’ll soon throw Clotilde over for his business partner’s wife, Madeleine Forestier (Ann Dvorak), to whom he proposes marriage in a businesslike fashion literally as her consumptive husband, Charles Forestier (John Carradine), is drawing his last breath.

Angela Lansbury and George Sanders

Clotilde remains a presence in the film throughout. (Perhaps in an attempt to make Duroy more sympathetic, he dies with her name on his lips.)

She loves him madly, and while Duroy’s treatment of Clotilde is never less than ungentlemanly, the film never gets as sexually brutal as the poster above promises with its implication of desperate, “please-don’t-leave-me” fellatio.

With the help of his wife Madeleine, who does most of the actual writing, Duroy becomes a Victorian-era Walter Winchell with a gossip column called “Echoes.” With it, he influences politics and high society, and becomes a high-level player, but he always wants more. He attempts to buy a title from a family named “De Cantel” whose last descendant is missing, presumed dead. With the promise of his incipient nobility, Duroy courts the young heiress Suzanne Walter (Susan Douglas).

In his role as Duroy, Sanders is always doing things that telegraph his utter boredom with the here-and-now, such as playing with a ball and cup or flipping playing cards into a hat on the floor. He has a voracious appetite for fame, wealth, and women, but he almost never seems to be enjoying himself.

It’s a role tailor-made for the deadpan Sanders. In one of the last scenes of the film, in which he is preparing to fight a duel in the rain with an overheated young opponent, he casually asks for an umbrella and says, “I should not like to quit the field of honor with a bad case of the sniffles.”

The Harvey Girls (Jan. 18, 1946)

In 1876, a 41-year-old entrepreneur named Fred Harvey opened a string of restaurants along the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway line. The eateries catered to middle-class and wealthy travelers alike, and at the height of the franchise’s success, there were more than 80 Harvey House restaurants. Harvey died in 1901, but the Fred Harvey Company continued to build restaurants into the 1960s.

A restaurant chain might seem an unlikely subject for a big-budget, Technicolor, Hollywood musical, but clearly the young, attractive waitresses in their crisp black and white uniforms were enough of a hook. The film opens with the following portentous prologue:

“When Fred Harvey pushed his chain of restaurants farther and farther west along the lengthening tracks of the Santa Fe, he brought with him one of the first civilizing forces this land had known … the Harvey Girls. These winsome waitresses conquered the west as surely as the Davy Crocketts and the Kit Carsons — not with powder horn and rifle, but with a beefsteak and a cup of coffee. To these unsung pioneers, whose successors today still carry on in the same tradition, we sincerely dedicate this motion picture.”

If all this is to be taken seriously, then who wouldn’t want to lionize these distaff settlers? I haven’t read Samuel Hopkins Adams’s 1942 novel that this film is based on, but it must have been a good story for Hollywood to want to pick it up. Or maybe it was just that Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren realized what a catchy rhythm the phrase “on the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” had.

After the prologue and credits, the film opens on a shot of a moving train. Susan Bradley (Garland) is standing on the deck of the caboose, singing a forgettable song about love. She is heading out west to marry a man whom she only knows from the florid love letters he has written her. When her suitor, H.H. Hartsey (Chill Wills), turns out to be a functionally illiterate cowpoke who had a friend play Cyrano for him by penning the letters himself, Susan parts with him (mostly amicably), and becomes a Harvey girl.

The dramatic conflict, such as it is, comes from the local saloon and gambling house, which also features dancing girls. The owner of the palace of sin, Ned Trent (John Hodiak), and his star attraction, Em (played by a young and foxy Angela Lansbury), fear that the opening of the Harvey House will usher in a new era of respectability and crush their business. In real life of course, Trent’s girls would have been prostitutes and Em would have been their madam, but in the world of 1940s M-G-M musicals, dancing the cancan for hooting and hollering cowboys was about as scandalous as they could get.

Garland and Lansbury both give good performances, and are backed up by a large and talented cast. Virginia O’Brien (as the Harvey girl “Alma from Ohio”) is tough and sassy, and Ray Bolger, most famous for playing the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz (1939), here gets to play the Cowardly Homosexual, a popular character type in Hollywood pictures for decades. While his sexual preference is never identified outright, Bolger’s character’s effeminacy and fear of any butch labor (such as shoeing horses), as well as his spirited prancing, leaping, and tap dancing make it clear that he doesn’t have any designs on the ladies.

The Harvey Girls is an entertaining mix of musical and western. But if director George Sidney aspired for it to be anything more than breezy entertainment, it doesn’t show. Judy Garland is always a delight, but Vincente Minnelli’s ability to coax a nuanced performance from her and to tell an engaging story from beginning to end in a musical is sorely missed here. The Harvey Girls is enjoyable, but it’s no Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Also, aside from the standout song, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” (which won an Academy Award for best song), no musical number in the picture really stands out.