An industrialist is urged to run for President, but this requires uncomfortable compromises on both political and marital levels.
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Frank Capra's 1948 film State of the Union is an interesting political drama starring an unusual duo for Capra: Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. The film follows a similar narrative to other Capra dramas, but is not quite as good as most of the others, although it offers an intriguing look at politics during the late 1940s, and American politics in general. Tracy and Hepburn are what holds the film together, and they rise above the somewhat weak direction.
Once again an adaptation of a play (Pulitzer Prize winning no less), the film tells the story of the presidential campaign of an honest man who is backed and spurred on by corrupt businessmen (and women). Angela Lansbury plays the cold and heartless Kay Thorndyke, head of Thorndyke Press, who convinces Jim Conover (a one-dimensional Adolphe Menjou), a Republican politician, to support and aide a “dark horse” who she wants to run for president in order to get back at certain Republicans who have shunned her newspaper. The horse is Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy), a successful businessman becoming known for his speeches about supporting workers and uniting the country. Matthews is finally convinced to get into politics by the two sly puppeteers, with hopes that he can get the people behind him and right the wrongs in Washington. But Grant's wife complicates things; she's not the type of wife to simply stand behind her husband and smile, and certainly not one to be swayed by his new politician collaborators. Mary Matthews (Katharine Hepburn) is suspicious of the whole campaign, and not only because Grant and Kay happened to have had a small fling, and the Matthews marriage has been on the rocks since. But she does support and admire her husband, and she becomes a competitor for Conover and Kay as she convinces Grant to use his own speeches and depend on the people, not the Republican party, to secure votes. Grant becomes caught in the middle of a personal fight, between his wife and the new woman he's falling for, as well as a political fight between politics/business and the ideals he has always stood for.
This film is in some ways a familiar Capra recipe for drama and commentary on the state of the country, and it has a predictable climax. It does differ, however, from Capra's previous dramas, in that it explores politics rather than society. Capra's most political film (excluding his war propaganda films) before this one was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and, in comparison, State of the Union can be seen as a somewhat matured and more cynical political film, or less senitmental. It is rooted in a kind of realism, exploring what goes on behind the scenes of political campaigns, and how many people influence a candidate. However, it lacks the heart and hope that made Capra's previous films stand out among other political Hollywood dramas; it's more negative than positive and has certain contradictions.
Grant is, at first glance, a sympathetic everyman hero, a familiar character for Tracy. But he is also a big businessman himself, who speaks with reverence for factories, mines and plants, and one might become suspicious of his love of industry and power. He does have a very interesting speech, however, about world relations, or globalization as we now refer to it, insisting that, as a world power, we have an obligation to support other developing countries in order to create a unified world. This speech has an intriguing relevance today, and also helps to make Grant into the inspiring hero, but he is then again easily swayed by his feelings for Kay and his new dream of political power.
The only character who is never swayed and stands stubbornly behind her and what were her husband's principles, is Mary. The only time she does falter, during the last scene, Grant makes his last stand in order to save her from the corruption he's succumbed to. Perhaps because they were a real-life couple, or just great actors, Tracy and Hepburn create the anchor and focus of this film. It has everything to do with politics but their couple is what gives it at least some heart. I could be biased, since Hepburn is one of my all-time favourites, but it's she especially who creates in the film real scenes of feeling, amid much political intrigue and contradictory commentary. Lansbury, also usually great, is unfortunately in a somewhat thankless role here.
State of the Union is a late Capra film, made after the beloved It's a Wonderful Life, and, although I found it imperfect in many ways, it is worth seeing as part of his ouvre, in comparison with his earlier films, as well as for some issues brought up that have new found relevance in the current political world. It is also worth seeing as a lesser-known Tracy-Hepburn film in which they, as always, steal scenes from everyone except perhaps each other.