Thursday, October 8, 2009

Plus ça change: State of the Union (1948)

310_BIG_-_STATE_OF_THE_UNION_P Imagine a film made by a Republican director/producer in which the Republican candidate is firmly in favor of universal health care, affordable housing, and world government. Sound implausible? Yet, in 1948, that’s the film Frank Capra made. Based on the 1946 play of the same name by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, State of the Union stars Spencer Tracy as the candidate, Katherine Hepburn as his wife, and Angela Lansbury as the girlfriend (mistress? it’s never quite clear), a newspaper owner who wants Tracy as her puppet President.

Tracy’s character is an airplane manufacturer who wants labor, management, agriculture and everyone else to work together for the good of the country. Lansbury and has-been campaign manager Adolphe Menjou want Tracy to be President for their own selfish reasons. As Tracy is setting off for a speaking tour as an unannounced candidate, they tell him he needs to take his wife along, even though they’ve been somewhat estranged for several months. Hepburn plays her usual sharp-tongued “best friend and severest critic” type of wife – but one who has a vulnerability under the bravado, for she wants to win Tracy back from Lansbury. Van Johnson is the ace political reporter who’s assigned to travel with the prickly pair. His initial cynicism is overcome by Tracy’s straight talk. All is going well – from Hepburn’s viewpoint – until they reach Detroit. Tracy’s speech in Wichita socked it to the big labor leaders but went over well with the public. Now he’s about to give business leaders the same medicine, and his behind-the-scenes handlers want none of it. Tracy resists Menjou’s exhortations to change his speech, but then he’s taken into another room of the hotel and emerges ready to compromise. Of course, it’s Lansbury who (unbeknownst to Hepburn) was in the other room and persuaded him. Once Tracy gives in, we start to see a lot of backroom deals with politicians and other leaders who promise to swing convention delegates for Tracy if he’ll promise them something in return. (This was still the “smoke-filled room” era when the nominee really wasn’t known until the convention.) Hepburn, disillusioned, goes home to their Long Island estate, but agrees to host the campaign kickoff, which is to be broadcast on radio and the new medium, television. The combination party and campaign kickoff brings everything to a head with revelations all over the place.

Other reviewers have compared State of the Union with Capra’s other and better-known political film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and found it darker. I’d say it was actually a bit more optimistic, as Capra and the playwrights made the main character more forceful and more realistic. He is a man with no little ambition and with all the enlarged and sensitive ego of the politician, but tempered by pragmatism and with the clear-eyed Hepburn to take him down a peg when he needs it. The deeper moral of the film – expressed several times – is that it is the common voter’s indifference and inertia that allows the bosses and special interests to manipulate not only candidate selection, but lawmaking as well. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Although this is a drama, there’s plenty of comedy as well, including a turn by Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer as a bumbling bellboy. State of the Union is worth seeing for a refreshing look back at a time when a Republican candidate could talk sense and not be rejected by his own party. And of course, it’s Tracy and Hepburn.