One of the pleasures of a Frank Capra movie is that it typically offers something to feed the viewpoints of cynics and idealists alike. State of the Union is no exception. The 1948 Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn vehicle trumpets the "little guy" populism for which Capra is best remembered, but the film's satirical edginess is what is likely to resonate most with contemporary audiences.
Adapted from a hit Broadway play by Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay, State of the Union's pungent wit is muted considerably by its director -- but it is hardly neutered. Screenwriters Myles Connolly and Anthony Veiller crafted a tart political fable packed with crackling dialogue and stinging observations, much of which still feels relevant in today's bitterly partisan environment. When it is suggested to the movie's Republican kingmaker, Jim Conover (Adolphe Menjou), that there's no real difference between his party and the Democrats, his flustered response is as pithy as it is powerful: "Why, there's all the difference in the world! They're in and we're out!"
Tracy is charismatic aircraft tycoon Grant Matthews, a guy whose frank talk and folksy demeanor might just be the stuff of presidents. At least, that's what Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury) thinks, a cutthroat newspaper publisher who is having an affair with Grant. But any amorous feelings she has for him are surpassed by her desire to handpick the Republican presidential candidate, thereby sticking it to old political enemies whom she blames for her father's suicide. Kay is icily determined to get her way. When Grant protests that he's not really interested in politics, she teams up with the equally conniving Jim Conover (Adolphe Menjou) to hard-sell Grant on the idea of launching a presidential bid.
The biggest obstacle is Grant's (sort of estranged) wife, Mary (Hepburn – who else?). The marriage is on the ropes, chiefly because of Grant's affair with Kay, but Kay and Jim recognize it's vital for the candidate to project the image of a committed husband and father. Kay vows to disappear from the scene. Mary Matthews is shrewd and guileless, but for Grant's sake she grudgingly agrees to go along with the charade (insert your gratuitous Hillary Clinton observation here).
The happy couple embarks on a nationwide tour to drum up interest in Grant's would-be candidacy, but Mary remains unconvinced -- and not simply because she (quite understandably) loathes Kay. Mary worries whether Grant can possibly live up to his handlers' directive that he be all things to all people -- mollifying Big Business and Organized Labor alike – without compromising his ability to be a good leader. Conover dismisses such concerns. "A good president is one who gets elected," he says.
Capra's unabashed sentimentality doesn't always age too well -- some contemporary critics are positively venomous when it comes to his work -- and State of the Union has its moments of datedness. The movie's treatment of the "common folks" is patronizing; Capra fawns over the so-called "little guys," but the only ones who Grant meets on the campaign trail tend to be lost lambs waiting for someone to "give 'em heck."
Nevertheless, the movie's most egregiously outdated aspect is its cavalier take on infidelity. Grant's affair with Kay gives Mary considerable pain, but neither Grant nor the moviemakers seem too troubled by it. As is the case with so many films of the 1940s and '50s, State of the Union accepts philandering as something that great men do. Mary stands by her husband for the sake of his political aspirations, even when it's evident that he is still diddling Kay Thorndyke (by the way, Angela Lansbury was quite the babe back in the day). For Mary, Grant's integrity and honesty isn't thrown into question until he begins softening his stump speech. What gives?
That stump speech, incidentally, must've been mighty radical stuff for moviegoers in the Cold War-era of 1948. Particularly revolutionary is Grant's support for a one-world government, a utopia that would even include Communist Russia. Zoinks.
Tracy and Hepburn trade on their characteristically wonderful chemistry, but the real star of State of the Union is its sparkling dialogue. The picture doesn't hide its theatrical origins, but loquaciousness isn't a problem with a script this polished. Of course, sharp dialogue is best delivered by sharp actors; the movie benefits from some fine character actors, especially Menjou, Lansbury and Van Johnson, who portrays Grant's prickly campaign manager, Spike.
State of the Union begins to falter in the third act, where Capra indulges his more unsubtle impulses. Think of Jimmy Stewart's tirade against his family in the final third of It's a Wonderful Life and you have an idea of Grant Matthews' growing irascibility. Still, an overly generous dose of Capracorn doesn't erase the fun of this briskly paced dramedy.
State of the Union is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and the print transfer is excellent. With the exception of minor grain in a few scenes, the picture quality is surprisingly crisp and vivid.
The 2.0 Dolby Digital typifies DVDs of films from Hollywood's so-called Golden Age. The dialogue is clear and easily heard, and that's all you really need.
OK, let me get this straight: We have a Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn movie directed by the great Frank Capra and based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play -- and there are no extras? Not even muddy, nearly unwatchable theatrical trailer? For shame, Universal … for shame.
State of the Union was Capra's last great work, and while it doesn't come close to the level of his classics – It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town – it is still well-oiled entertainment with political insights that remain relevant -- nearly 60 years later.