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State of the Union (February 21, 2013)

During the political conventions in 1944, the American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films relates, actress Helen Hayes suggested to playwrights Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse that they write a play about presidential candidates. Lindsay and Crouse had become famous with their adaptation of Clarence Day’s childhood memoirs, Life with Father, into a play that opened in 1939 and that set a record as the longest-running non-musical play on Broadway. They wrote a play about a presidential candidate, which became the Broadway production State of the Union, starring Ralph Bellamy and Ruth Hussey, which played from November, 1945 until September, 1947. Lindsay and Crouse won the Pulitzer Prize. The events of the play were thought to refer to a romantic liaison between the late Wendell Willkie, 1940 Republican presidential candidate, and Irita Van Doren, the wife of critic and author Carl Van Doren.

In April, 1945, Frank Capra, back from a stint with the U.S. Army Signal Corps, formed, with Samuel Briskin, former production chief at Columbia, where Capra made his 1930s movies, an independent film production company called Liberty Films. Shortly, returning veteran directors William Wyler and George Stevens were also partners in Liberty Films. The embryo company had big plans, but it ended up making only two films, both by Capra – his Christmas fantasy It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – distributed by RKO, it was not a box office success – and this movie. RKO backed out of distributing and financing this film when the projected budget reached $2.8 million. Liberty instead made a deal to make State of the Union at MGM’s studios, with MGM getting distribution rights. So the lion roars in darkness, before the Liberty Films logo appears. In exchange for distribution, MGM offered Liberty Spencer Tracy for the lead, something that actor agreed to, saying “I’m getting old and I’ve never done a picture with Capra.” Claudette Colbert was slated to play opposite Tracy but reportedly balked when Capra would not agree to her request for a daily 5 p.m. shooting stop time. Tracy told Capra Hepburn might play the part, which she stepped into with forty-eight hours notice. Production took place from September to December 1947 and the film was released in April, 1948. The screenplay was by Anthony Veiller and Myles Connolly and the cinematographer was George Folsey. The supporting performances were of great merit – note Angela Lansbury as the young millionairess pursuing political power, Adolphe Menjou as the old pol, and Van Johnson as the newspaperman – and you’ll glimpse Lewis Stone, Raymond Walburn, and Margaret Hamilton among the second tier supporting cast. Menjou corrects the misspelling of his character’s name by Van Johnson’s paper – ironically, Menjou’s name (and those of Hepburn and cinematographer Folsey) are misspelled in the opening credits. The movie made $3.5 million on a cost of $2.6 million, which ranked it thirteenth among films released in 1948.

I like it. Heaven knows it is a talking picture. Tracy and Hepburn are again cast as a married couple with some problems. Resolving those problems by the final reel isn’t a great stretch, this time. Hepburn first appears about twenty-eight minutes into the picture, and it’s ten minutes more till she encounters Tracy. Near the end of the film you’ll see how Capra sensed from the early television production he had seen how the medium would wield immense influence in coming years. With regard to the politics, the writers of the French film blog “L’oeil sur l’écran” (the eye on the screen) remark “We wonder if the dialogue isn’t still current, some sixty years later.” Well, maybe, except for the Truman jokes. In the life-imitates-art category, the most Hollywood-centered presidential candidate in our history, Ronald Reagan, who was fond of bringing forth good lines he remembered from a lifetime of watching movies, echoed some of Tracy’s dialogue in this picture at a debate on February 23, 1980 in Nashua, N.H. when he said, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Breen,” after a moderator threatened to silence Reagan’s mike. I hope you enjoy watching State of the Union with me tonight.