November’s classic is State of the Union (1949), a satire on marriage and politics which, under Frank Capra’s direction, may be the least well known of the Tracy/Hepburn collaborations, though it is reckoned by some to be one of their best.
As a cynical portrait of dirty politics, the film boasts a cast that spans the 20th century: Adolph Menjou had been a star in the silent era (appearing in A Woman of Paris, 1921, Chaplin’s foray into serious drama) while Angela Lansbury (here only 23 but playing a sophisticated woman of 40) is currently (in 2014) playing in Blithe Spirit at the Gielgud Theatre, London.
Republican newspaper magnate, Kay Thorndyke (Lansbury), intends to make her lover, aircraft tycoon Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy) president of the USA. However, he’s filled with such fine idealism that he is more of an encumbrance to his strategist (Menjou) and campaign manager (Van Johnson), who believe getting ahead means sacrificing ideals, pandering to authority and doing whatever it takes to gain votes. (Sound familiar?) Kay recognises that Grant will have to (apparently) reunite with his estranged wife, Mary (Katharine Hepburn) to gain votes, and so a radio broadcast is staged, in which Grant and Mary are to have a fireside chat with the nation. But Mary has too much to drink when she sees how dishonest and insipid Grant’s political speeches have become and chaos ensues.
Reminiscent of Meet John Doe, this so-called rom-com tests the character of a man who tries to stand against political power-brokers who want to use him for their own ends. The result is a battle between ethics and pragmatism that still has relevance for a generation in thrall to House of Cards. With its polished script and a fast pace that does not let-up, it has enough dialogue for three movies!
Playing a man whose integrity is so challenged that he refuses to play by the rules of party politics, Tracy seems tailor-made for the role. Meanwhile in the role of the wife who is fully aware of Grant’s affair with Lansbury, Hepburn is as forthright and honest as she was in real life – though in a performance that is perhaps less mannered than usual.
Capra was still recovering from the financial failure of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), when he took on the project, with Claudette Colbert slated for the lead. But when Colbert saw that her contract required her to work beyond 5pm, she walked. Capra called his friend Spencer Tracy, who told him not only was Katharine Hepburn available, but “the bag of bones has been helping me rehearse. Kinda stops you, Frank, the way she reads the woman’s part. She’s a real theatre nut, you know. She might do it for the hell of it.”
But things were less harmonious once filming started. Menjou was a staunch right-wing supporter of the House Un-American Activities Committee, while Hepburn was an outspoken opponent. At one point Menjou announced, “Scratch a do-gooder, like Hepburn, and they’ll yell Pravda.” Tracy replied angrily, “You scratch some members of the Hepburn clan and you’re liable to get an ass full of buckshot.” Hepburn, in turn, called Menjou a “wisecracking, flag-waving super patriot who invested his American dollars in Canadian bonds and had a thing about Communists.” The two did not speak unless absolutely necessary.
Lansbury was terrified of working with two acting giants, Tracy and Hepburn, but later spoke of their kindness to her, and praised Tracy’s “extraordinary understanding of the common man, which he was and which he always played – never the aristocrat. He understood that person and never let his own personal demons intrude on the character.”
The picture was shot quickly, from September 29 to December 6, 1947, on a budget of approximately $2,600,000, and was completed two weeks before schedule. It premiered at the Capital Theatre in Washington D.C. with President Truman as Guest of Honour. Capra was seated in the box with Truman, but could barely stay in his seat because many of the jokes in the film concerned the President.
Still relevant in terms of how it talks about politics, the film was praised by Bosley Crowther in the New York Times: “This being a Presidential year,” he noted, “Mr. Tracy, who plays a Presidential aspirant in this film, is a much more attractive-looking candidate than anyone who has yet declared … Likewise, Miss Hepburn as his helpmate and as his conscience in moments of need, gives every assurance of making the most stylish First Lady we’ve had in years.”
All of which makes it so much more sad that they ended up with a B movie actor in the White House.
State of the Union went on to gross over $3,500,000, making it one of the most successful films of 1948.