To make a typical triumph of down-home commonsense, breaking from the corrupt smarty-pants of these United States, producer-director Frank Capra drained most of the wit and all the substance of the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “State of the Union” by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse (Life with Father, The Sound of Music). The play thinly veiled the story of the 1940 Republican presidential nominee, Wendell Willkie, and his extramarital relations with Irita Van Doren. Willkie had been president of the Commonwealth & Southern Corporation.
The businessman being turned into a Republican presidential candidate is an aircraft magnate Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy), who has been keeping company with the heir of a newspaper empire, Kay Thorndyke (played by the then 21-year-old Angela Lansbury who did not look her age, and, indeed already showed the determination to make a president that she would play in the far superior 1962 “The Manchurian Candidate”).
In the 1940s as now, a presidential candidate has to display (or at least counterfeit) “family values” by parading wife and kids. The estranged wife Mary (Katharine Hepburn) thinks her husband would be a good president and realizes that being First Lady would make the liaison between her husband and his power-hungry mistress difficult, so goes along for the campaign ride being orchestrated by oily operator Jim Conover (Adolphe Menjou), who assigns a not very cynical newspaperman, Spike McManus (Van Johnson in the Jean Arthur role) to manage the campaign and keep the candidate from too plain of speaking to either his fellow big capitalists or to labor (hoodwinked by union officials).
The name above the title guarantees that the people’s choice will in the last reel see that he has been duped and denounce those who have been putting him in the race, just like James Stewart’s Mr. Smith in Washington in 1939. Of course, this will inspire the populace to pay attention, stop listening to fear-mongerers and join hands to transcend conflict (“Kumbaya” was not yet known to Americans) and lead the world to peace, prosperity, and a genuinely United Nations (American exceptionalism was not then Republican dogma, see Harold Stassen, who was a 1948 candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and Willkie’s best-seller One World).
The quaintest of many quaint aspects of the very talky and uncinematic “State of the Union” is the reminder that once upon a time the party of Theodore Roosevelt was opposed to monopolies and for world government in a guise other than US hegemony. The only Democrat in the movie is a heavy-drinking Southerner (Maidel Turner, the only carryover from the Broadway cast) who is the wife of a judge (who must have been appointed decades earlier…). But the pseudo-populism has the fascistic resonances that have not disappeared (I will forebear naming contemporary names, and stick to the cult of the leader in Capra’s jingoistic and manipulative worldview.)
The actor who comes through best in the movie is Van Johnson, not usually a favorite of mine. Spencer Tracy can manage the speeches and the deference to la Hepburn, but cannot make the part remotely believable. Hepburn fares better, and Menjou was certainly believable as an oily deal-maker. Lansbury was not bad, though, again, her part was underwritten/miswritten.
The editing is not just lax but astonishingly sloppy. And the DVD is barebones.
©2018, Stephen O. Murray