The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next few weeks. In this post LR Simon discusses State of the Union (1948).
As much as there is to admire in State of the Union, the more I think about this film, the less I like it. Technically, it has a lot going for it, such as a stellar cast and good production values. Frank Capra’s direction is deft as usual, and because the screenplay features political commentary that remains relevant (one character asks whether there’s any difference between the Republican and Democratic parties, a question that usually comes up at least every four years), one can see why Capra was attracted to the material.
Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury) plans to make Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy) President of the United States, using her influence via her newspapers to deadlock the Republican primary and then promote Matthews as a dark horse candidate. Matthews’ estranged wife Mary (Katharine Hepburn) agrees to campaign with him because she believes in his idealism. Along the way, Matthews compromises his positions and ideals to ensure backing from special interests. As he compromises behind the scenes, his character starts to change for the worse.
Thorndyke may be the character with the plan, but the story belongs to Matthews. He has to struggle with his ideals and his newfound ambition, and he has to decide between his wife and his lover, Kay. Most of the time, when the story focuses on Matthews, it works; there is, however, a cute but unnecessary and unbelievable airplane sequence that does not work with the rest of the film.
The main weakness in State of the Union is the treatment of the two main female characters. The characters are not written as real human people but as representations of ideas, Kay representing ambition, lust, and corruption, and Mary representing idealism and family. It’s another rendition of the virgin/whore trope that still permeates literature, television, film, and music to this day. Kay is not allowed to have any real virtues, and any characteristics she has that could be seen positively are instead used to show her in a bad light. Mary, in contrast, is not allowed much in the way of flaws, and when she starts to compromise in support of her husband, he puts an end to it—she isn’t even allowed to save herself.
Neither Kay nor Mary goes through the kind of journey that women in earlier Capra films did—in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, for example, Jean Arthur starts out cynical but through her growing familiarity with Smith (James Stewart), starts to lose her cynicism and become an optimist, even helping Smith with his apparently quixotic filibuster. In State of the Union, Kay starts out cynical and remains cynical while Mary starts out righteous and optimistic, and ultimately stays righteous and optimistic. If the characters don’t feel like cardboard, much of the credit must go to Lansbury and Hepburn.
As mentioned above, however, the political commentary was smart and strong and is not dated. For example:
“Because you politicians, instead of trying to pull the country together, are helping pull it apart, just to get votes.” Matthews (Spencer Tracy).“Oh, I’m a good Republican, but the voters do control the lease on the White House, don’t they? Not just the Republican Party.” Mary Matthews (Katharine Hepburn).“You politicians have stayed professional only because the voters have remained amateurs.” Mary Matthews (Katharine Hepburn).
Despite its flaws in its depiction of (especially) the female characters, State of the Union continues Capra’s tradition of smart political commentary. It isn’t in the same league as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, You Can’t Take It With You, or Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and overall, it isn’t Capra’s best effort, but the actors’ performances and the political commentary make it watchable.