State of the Union (1948) starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, & Angela Lansbury

Introduction

This classic film’s screenplay was adapted from a Broadway play which opened in NOV  1945 and ran for almost 2 yrs. The play won the Pulitzer Prize in 1946. The themes present w/in this tale are a perfect fit for optimistic, first gen Italian-American director, Frank Capra, though I consider it more sophisticated than some of his (more famous) films. The first choices for the leads were Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert, BUT those actors didn’t work out, so Capra brought in Spencer Tracy. Once Colbert was fired (for refusing to work nights), Tracy suggested Hepburn (who has some of the best lines). For ALL of who realize that politics is personal, this is the movie for you

Synopsis

The only heir to a publishing house, Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury- then ONLY 24 y.o.), desperately wants to fulfill her dying father’s ambition of putting a man in the White House. So what if the one who may fit the bill, successful airplane manufacturer Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy), is VERY reluctant? Kay convinces political strategist Jim Conover (Adolphe Menjou) to groom Matthews for their (Republican) party’s bid. A wise-cracking writer, Spike McManus (Van Johnson), comes along on the trail. It turns out that Grant and his wife, Mary (Katharine Hepburn), have been separated for some time; this is something that the public must NOT know. Mary is more than willing to play the supportive wife, IF this is truly what will help Grant. Does Mary still love Grant? Does Grant  love Kay (their behavior is far from platonic) or Mary? Will Grant accept the party’s nomination? 

Review of the Film

He’s beginning to wonder if there is any difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. -Kay reveals to Jim (seriously) / Now that’s a fine question for a presidential candidate to ask. There’s all the difference in the world. They’re in and we’re out! -Jim replies (w/ exasperation)

This is the type of film you need to see twice to get all the jokes, looks, and little moments (which make it a fine piece of cinema). The straight-shooting Grant is “a man of the people” who is hesitant to water-down his message to fit into the mold of a typical politician. Jim comes to realize that some of Grant’s ideas are too liberal for the party. Mary is NOT only hoping to reconnect w/ her husband, she is disappointed when he gives in to pressure from Jim. 

Kay probably has respect and affection for Grant, BUT what she truly loves is the power that she can yield on a national stage. Lansbury admitted that no special aging makeup was placed on her; she “simple had an air of sophistication” which makes her believable as a confident, strong, middle-aged woman. (She also has the best outfits in the film.) Notice the way Kay orders around her (all-male) editors? Of course, she has to be tough in typically male worlds- publishing and politics. Mary comments that men first admire Kay, then start following her around, and eventually fall in love w/ her. 

You politicians have stayed professionals only because the voters have remained amateurs. -Mary comments to a group of political strategists (during the radio broadcast at the Matthews’ home)

Grant and Mary share a special spark, though disappointed w/ how their relationship turned out. (They have two cute school-aged kids, BUT we don’t hear/see much of them until the big climax scene.) The way that Mary talks about Grant, you realize that she is still crazy about him! She admits to Jim (a cynical old bachelor) that she set up fake dates to make Grant jealous. Jim reminded me a BIT of Tobey from The West Wing. Mary finds a sympathetic ear in Spike, who gains a lot of respect for her, and ends up rooting for the couple to end up together. Spike is an youthful man who likes to act nonchalant, flirting and cracking jokes, BUT also has a good heart (something you see in Capra films). 

Real-Life Politics Behind the Film

At the time the film was released, President Truman had NOT made his political comeback and was considered a sure loser in the 1948 election by many, which is why both the Republican presidential nomination is considered so valuable in the movie. It’s also why Spike McManus is amused when a young secretary tells him (at the start of the film) that she thinks Truman will be elected President in his own right in November.

Menjou was an ultra-right-wing political conservative who had co-operated with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), named names of persons he considered to be Communists and was a strong proponent of “blacklisting.” Hepburn was decidedly more liberal and had been an outspoken critic of the blacklist. Menjou had made several comments accusing Hepburn of being a Communist sympathizer, and possibly a Communist herself, which angered Hepburn and her co-star/romantic partner Tracy. Capra was so concerned about the tension that he closed the set to the press.

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3 thoughts on “State of the Union (1948) starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, & Angela Lansbury

  1. I saw this film a while back on TCM (maybe during the month where they featured all films by one actor per day, on the Angela Lansbury day?) and really enjoyed it. I really appreciated that once upon a time US audiences apparently enjoyed fairly sophisticated political comedy.

    • Oh yeah, movies were SO much more sophisticated (esp characterization & dialogue) back then! Now w/ TCM, ppl of ALL ages can get to see, appreciate, & analyze these films. Sooo many tweet re: classic films on #TCMParty.

      • Being underemployed is really great for filling in educational holes like this — I’m really getting an education about old film these days.

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