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Tag Archives: Frank Capra

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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It’s a Wonderful Life (Dec. 20, 1946)

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and I’m not alone. When I was a kid, not a Christmas went by that it wasn’t shown on television multiple times. For many families, it’s required holiday viewing.

Like a lot of people, I didn’t see the film in its entirety until I’d already seen bits and pieces over the years and seen it satirized and referred to in countless TV shows and movies.

My first memory of seeing part of it was on my grandmother’s 13″ black & white TV. The film was almost over, and I had no idea what it was about. George Bailey (James Stewart) is experiencing what life would have been like if he’d never been born. He’s disheveled and looks terrified. Police officer Bert (Ward Bond) and cab driver Ernie (Frank Faylen) watch as he explores the abandoned, ramshackle version of his own home. The scene is full of darkness and shadows. It has the look of a film noir, and I found it scary.

If you’ve never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, you might think it’s the exact opposite — sappy and sentimental — but that’s not the case. It’s a film full of dark moments, with a sense of desperation that’s always threatening to bubble to the surface. The most famous part of the film — George seeing what life would have been like in Bedford Falls, NY, if he’d never been born — occupies a relatively small amount of the total running time. Most of the film tells the story of an ordinary man who ended up living a very different life than he dreamed he would.

When he was young, George dreamed of going to college, traveling the world, and becoming a titan of industry. His life is an emotional game of tug. He puts off college, stays in Bedford Falls, and even gives away the money he and his wife Mary (Donna Reed) put aside for their honeymoon in order to save the family business, Bailey Building & Loan. George always does the right thing because he’s a decent person, but he’s a real person, too. Each little depredation eats away at him. He loves his wife and four children, but when the evil old Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) spirits away $8,000 from his absent-minded Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), George loses hope. It looks as if the family business might not only be ruined, but George might also be headed to prison.

George asks Potter for a loan, and Potter points out that while he needs $8,000, he carries a life insurance policy worth $15,000, which means he’s worth more dead than alive. The desperate George takes this cruel assessment to heart. He heads home, yells at his children, trashes part of the house, and goes out to get good and drunk. After getting punched in the face in the bar, he crashes his car, stumbles to a bridge, and contemplates killing himself. It’s at this point that a frumpy angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), who has “the I.Q. of a rabbit and the faith of a child,” arrives to show him just how much he really is worth.

It’s a Wonderful Life works as well as it does because it earns every one of its emotional moments. Take, for instance, one of the pivotal moments of George Bailey’s boyhood. George (played by the wonderful Bobbie Anderson, later to be known professionally as Robert J. Anderson) has an after-school job in the local pharmacy, and stops old Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner) from making a fatal mistake. The audience knows that Gower has slipped up not only because he’s drunk, but because he’s distraught following the death of his son. When George returns, having failed to deliver the poisonous “medicine,” Gower beats him savagely. When Gower finally realizes the fatal mistake George has stopped him from making, he breaks down and embraces the boy in an outpouring of emotion.

I really meant to re-watch It’s a Wonderful Life and write a review of it before Christmas. But one thing led to another and I got behind in my movie-watching schedule. I’m glad I didn’t get around to seeing it until now, though. It reminded me just what a great film it is. So many “holiday films” are unwatchable after December 25, but It’s a Wonderful Life was just as engaging and emotionally satisfying in mid-January as it is any other time of the year.