Politics may make for strange bedfellows, but according to Judge Bill Gibron, it's also an impressive foundation for this flawless 1948 masterwork by idealistic director Frank Capra.
Our review of Tracy And Hepburn: The Definitive Collection, published April 20th, 2011, is also available.
How's the State of the Union? It's GREAT!
After her father dies, leaving her his newspaper empire, heiress Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury, Gaslight) decides to throw her hat into the political ring. With the help of Republican operative Jim Conover (Adolphe Menjou, Little Miss Marker) and her enormous influence, Kay decides her lover, Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy, Captains Courageous), would make an excellent presidential candidate. There is only one catch—the rich industrialist with a commoner's touch is still married to his stoic, dedicated wife Mary (Katharine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story). Fully aware of Kay's fling with Grant, Mary has stayed on, caring for the couple's two kids. Now, with politics in the air, her cooperation is crucial. Kay puts a reporter turned campaign manager Spike McManus (Van Johnson, The Last Time I Saw Paris) on the case. To everyone's surprise, Mary agrees, and soon Grant is crisscrossing the country, making speeches and seeking support. His ideas go over like gangbusters with the everyday people. However, the party bosses, including those in labor, agriculture, immigrant relations, and industry, think Grant is a troublemaker. They want him controlled so that he has to face the near-impossible task of getting their support—and in turn, the delegate votes necessary for Grant to win the nomination. With everyone rooting for him, our reluctant candidate must decide what to do—stand strong with his principles or give in to the process. Either way, the State of the Union will remain shaky—that is, until the voters decide what to do.
Expertly acted, marvelously scripted, and peppered with Frank Capra's typical jingoistic joi de vivre, State of the Union is a stunning motion-picture masterwork. Telling a universally recognizable story (how politics poisons the common man) in a way both prescient to the rise in power and insightful as to the many traps laid in pursuing public office, this astounding film features standout performances from many of Hollywood's most legendary stars, as well as individual moments that mark the best of what cinema has to offer. Some may view this movie as incredibly talky and full of itself—especially in the realm of belaboring points about the graft-grinding Washington to a back-slapping halt—and so sophisticated that it misses the common touch it so rigorously defends. Such sour grapes would be completely off-base. Thanks to a beautiful screenplay, taken from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Russell Crouse and Howard Lindsey, and the MGM mandate that studio heavyweights Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn take the leads, we end up with a multi-layered look at the state of America, the state of politics, the state of marriage, and the state of personal integrity in the post-war world. Many complained that Capra sold out some of Crouse's and Lindsey's coarser wit and more controversial themes for the sake of this typical immigrant love letter to the USA. But the fact is that no other filmmaker could find the necessary heart inside all the heated histrionics better than this idealistic Italian.
To those unfamiliar with the era in which the story takes place or the way in which party politics worked back then, there will be a few flummoxing issues. There is talk of third presidential terms, political bosses, and party, not primary, pledged delegates. Even more dated are the concepts of readily-accepted mistresses, blatant businessman machismo, and the use and abuse of the press to prop up and support a single candidate. But thanks to the other elements in the narrative, the issues involving selling out, conforming to the concerns of special interests, and the smoke-filled backrooms where shady deals determine the fate of candidates feel all too real. When a movie made way back in 1948 can play as profound and prophetic nearly 60 years later, you're either dealing with something that's very well written, or a subject that never seems to change its seedy standards. Watching Grant Matthews go from novice to pawn in the Republican Party's pledge to retake the White House is so familiar to us in the post-millennial age, especially with our behind-the-scenes access to the process through the 24-hour cable news channels, that it plays like a notable necessity in our modern age. Certainly the story must have shaken late '40s audiences to the very marrow of their belief. After all, with presidents able to be elected for as many terms as possible, the country had been cruising on 15 years of Democratic rule (12 for Roosevelt, three and counting for Truman). They had survived a Great Depression and a horrendous World War. To learn that there was just as much bloodshed in the halls of Congress and alleys of influence had to be a blow to the entire notion of democracy.
Indeed, what State of the Union stresses the most is the concept of where power truly lies. Capra sets up all the levels of control—Angela's Lansbury's newspaper heiress, Adolph Menjou's party boss, individual and local leaders—with very clear agendas and distinction. Each gets their moment in the misguided sun, to speak their anti-democracy piece and be judged on same. Similarly, when Matthews makes speeches, he is clear to toss communists and fascists into the mix, making sure we see the threats that exist right outside our borders. With fear from both within and without, Capra condemns us to polarized partisanship unless we realize one thing—that power is inherent in the people, not the process. Many think the government holds all the controls, but what few outside a constitutional law class recognize is that the actual authority in this country resides in the people. By voting, we transfer that control to representatives who supposedly take our interest to heart. Of course, we now know that this simple sentiment has been twisted out of shape. The politicians believe that they are invested with command—not responsible to the people, but to the process. It's the very thing that State of the Union warns us against. Sadly, like most situations in history, it is a notion that is destined to repeat itself over and over.
One can't leave this film without mentioning the amazing acting. From the slimy party heads to the five major leads, all the performances are pitch-perfect. Though he tends to blend into the background, Menjou is magnificent as the fallen fixer who can't wait to get back in the game. Similarly, Lansbury proves that she's quite capable of playing nice and nasty—sometimes in the same sentence (it is a trait that was to be fully exploited later with her sensational work in The Manchurian Candidate). As the press liaison and campaign chief, Van Johnson has the tall task of playing jester to all the intense situations. He is always good for a satiric joke or a pointed put-down. But it's Tracy and Hepburn who steal the show, each one offering what they do best. As Grant Matthews, the two-time Oscar winner really sells us on the whole "man of the people" shtick. For someone who is one of Tinseltown's major superstars, Tracy has a uniquely common touch. Hepburn, however, never once grovels or gives in to the possible melodramatics innate in her story. Instead, she lets it all build up inside, waiting for just the right moment to explode. Naturally, this comes during a nationally-televised campaign event. The scene, starting with Hepburn putting Lansbury in her place and ending with Tracy's terrific monologue makes for spellbinding entertainment. Emotional, insightful, and just a tad over the top, State of the Union is definitely one of old-fashioned Hollywood's finest achievements.
Presented by Universal in a bare-bones (boo!!!) DVD presentation that makes up for its lack of content with excellent technical specifications, State of the Union has a decent digital package that could have used some additional supplemental support. The 1.33:1 full-screen image is a work of monochrome perfection. The contrasts are crisp without being burdened with excess edge enhancement, and the darker sequences are free of any age or transfer defects. On the sound side, there is a Dolby Digital Mono 2.0 mix that's flat and featureless, but expertly balanced and flawlessly modulated nonetheless.
In an era where all politicians are seen as crooked, self-serving liars who will do anything to get into office, the minor misgivings of Grant Matthews may seem like much ado about ballot stuffing. Still, the sentiments sitting at the core of State of the Union are so important (both then and now) that it's impossible to dismiss or avoid them. Matthew's message at the end is as important today as it was way back when. Perhaps we should take heed before it's too late. Unfortunately, it may already be.
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