State of the Union was the film Frank Capra did after It’s a Wonderful Life. He became somewhat more cynical at this point (although astute viewers know that It’s a Wonderful Life is more than a little cynical as well), and you could make the case that it’s the last really important Capra film. He made a few more films, but they weren’t that great.
It’s a satire about electoral politics, with Spencer Tracy playing an industrialist Grant Matthews, who has been urged to run for president by his mistress, Kay Thorndyke. By the end, he has been completely corrupted by the political machine, in a story that’s kind of a reverse Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. That’s a much better film, and all that idealism is definitely not on show here.
Thorndyke (Lansbury) is a Republican newspaper magnate, and her plan is to use her newspapers’ influence to tie up the Republican Convention so that Matthews emerges as a dark horse candidate. Interestingly, almost all of the candidates mentioned were the actual candidates for 1948, making it sort of an alternative universe film. It does go on a little too long, as is the case with some of Capra’s movies, so it could have benefited from a little cutting.
It’s an interesting movie, and of course Tracy is great, as is Katherine Hepburn as his idealistic wife. She has a great scene where she realises how messed up politics really is and gets very drunk. It’s fun seeing her hate on Democrats as well, given that she was a hardcore Dem her entire life.
State of the Union plays kind of funny now, because the Republican Party of 1948 was a very different party than what they are today! And while Gore Vidal’s The Best Man is a much better look at this world, it’s still a interesting movie. It’s a more mature film than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which works because it’s such a naïve film. The interesting thing about Matthews is that he’s a genuinely good person, but politically he’s terrible—the reverse of James Stewart’s candidate Jefferson Smith.
Lansbury is playing a version of the same role she later takes in The Manchurian Candidate: she’s very icy, and Frankenheimer surely would have seen State of the Union and recognised the possibilities. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition between Hepburn’s warm persona and her cold demeanour.
The Indicator Blu-Ray release is packed with top-quality extras, including a new audio commentary with writers Claire Kenny, Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme; an 89-minute audio recording to Lansbury in conversation with critic Rex Reed; a new appreciation on Lansbury’s career with academic Lucy Bolton; original trailer, image gallery and promotional materials. The accompanying booklet features a new essay by Raquel Stecher, archival interviews with Capra, an account of the working relationship and contrasting politics of Hepburn and her co-star Adolphe Menjou (who plays a conniving Republican strategist), and an overview of contemporary critical responses.