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Frank Capra's film State of the Union was well-timed to be released during the election year of 1948 the year that President Truman defeated Thomas Dewey in one of the biggest upsets in US political history. The story of a Republican candidate for President finding himself sucked into the dirty side of politics was originally a stage play written by the famous team of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. The play had been written with Helen Hayes in mind, but when she turned it down it was offered to both Margaret Sullavan and Katharine Hepburn, who also refused. Ruth Hussey took the role of political wife Mary Matthews and Ralph Bellamy starred as the candidate Grant Matthews. It opened in New York on November 14, 1945, running for 765 performances and winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1946.
Capra was still recovering from the financial failure of It's a Wonderful Life (1946), which he had produced with his own company, Liberty Films. RKO, who had financed It's a Wonderful Life refused to put up the money for State of the Union, even though Capra wanted Gary Cooper for the male lead. After RKO's refusal, Capra learned that Spencer Tracy was interested so he went to MGM, who agreed to finance and release the film. In addition to Tracy, Capra could have Van Johnson and Angela Lansbury, two of their contract players. The leading lady would be Claudette Colbert.
As Capra wrote in his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, disaster struck on the Friday before filming was to start. Colbert suddenly appeared in his office and told him that an important clause had been left out of her contract. Her brother, who was also her agent, and her husband, a doctor, always made sure that Colbert had a quitting time of 5pm written into every contract. Capra refused to redo the contract or slow production down with only a seven-hour shooting day, so Colbert was out of the picture. Her costumes had already been made and tested and with two days before shooting, Capra was left without a leading lady. He called Spencer Tracy to tell him the news personally and Tracy told him that not only was Katharine Hepburn not currently working, "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 theater nut, you know. She might do it for the hell of it." As Capra wrote, "On the phone, Hepburn wasted no words on contracts or salary or billing. A show was in distress. She was being asked to help. And help she did. Monday morning at nine sharp, we shot our first scene with Tracy, [Adolphe] Menjou, and Hepburn. For many of the cast and crew it was the first indication that Hepburn had replaced Colbert. There were no tears and no jeers. MGM crews were not easily impressed. They, too, had eaten of MGM's Superman spinach. But one man on the set was impressed the director. [...] And when Tracy and his 'bag of bones' played a scene, cameras, lights, microphones, and written scripts ceased to exist. And the director did just what the crews and other actors did sit, watch, and marvel. And the name Claudette Colbert, only days ago synonymous with disaster, now became associated with serendipity."
Off the set, things were not as harmonious. Adolphe Menjou, a staunch right-wing Republican was supportive of the House Un-American Activities Committee, currently investigating supposed Communists within Hollywood, while Hepburn was an outspoken opponent. Menjou said of Hepburn, "Scratch a do-gooder, like Hepburn, and they'll yell, 'Pravda'." This remark angered Tracy who said, "You scratch some members of the Hepburn clan and you're liable to get an ass full of buckshot." Hepburn, in turn, called Menjou, "Wisecracking, witty a flag-waving super patriot who invested his American dollars in Canadian bonds and had a thing about Communists." Consequently, the two did not speak unless absolutely necessary.
Angela Lansbury, then only twenty-two but playing Tracy's 40-something mistress, wrote of her fear at working with two acting giants, "I slithered up to Spencer Tracy in a slinky robe and tried to seduce him while Katharine Hepburn watched us from the sidelines. Somehow I got through it, but under that robe my knees were literally knocking together." She later spoke of Hepburn and Tracy's kindness to her and marveled that Tracy's "greatness as an actor had a lot to do with his own persona. He had an extraordinary understanding of the common man, which he was, and which he always played. He never played the aristocrat. He understood that person he enacted, had a brilliant knowledge of all his reactions and never let his own personal demons intrude on the character."
State of the Union was shot quickly from September 29 December 6, 1947, two weeks before schedule and under the approximately $2,600,000 budget. It premiered at a black-tie event at the Capital Theater in Washington D.C. with President Truman as the Guest of Honor. Capra and his wife were seated in the box with Truman and his daughter, Margaret, but the nervous director could not stay in his seat. Wearing a small lapel pin which identified him to the Secret Service, Capra prowled the lobby, walking up and down the stairs, preferring to listen to the audience rather than watch Truman's reaction because many of the jokes in the film concerned the President. One of the Secret Service told Capra that he knew Truman liked the film because "When he sees something on the screen that really excites him he lifts himself up and down on his seat like a small boy watching a chase. Watch him." Capra wrote, "The picture was coming up to a remark about Truman. I held my breath. On the screen, Menjou brags to Hepburn about Tracy's chances: "He's going to be the next occupant of the White House." Hepburn's answer: "Do Mr. and Mrs. Truman know about this?" sent the President bouncing merrily up and down in his chair, while the whole house rocked and boffed."
Capra feared the press would "crucify" him the way they had over Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), but the reviews were generally positive when State of the Union was released on April 30, 1948. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote "Regardless of partisan reactions-and there are bound to be plenty of those, in view of the frank and intensely topical nature of the yarn-it cannot be denied that this picture which Frank Capra has made from the popular Lindsay-Crouse stage play, is a slick piece of screen satire. If anything, it is sharper in its knife-edged slicing at the hides of pachyderm schemers and connivers than was the original. For Anthony Veiller and Myles Connolly have actually worked into their script even more withering commentary on current issues and compromises than was in the play. And Mr. Capra, whose penchant for lance-busters and reformers has been frequently displayed, has given his most sarcastic treatment to the back-room politicians on the screen." State of the Union went on to gross over $3,500,000, making it one of the most successful films of 1948.
Producer: Anthony Veiller, Frank Capra
Director: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Anthony Veiller & Myles Connolly, based on the play by Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse
Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Urie McCleary
Music: Victor Young
Film Editing: William Hornbeck
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Grant Matthews), Katharine Hepburn (Mary Matthews), Van Johnson ('Spike' McManus), Angela Lansbury (Kay Thorndyke), Adolphe Menjou (Jim Conover), Lewis Stone (Sam Thorndyke), Howard Smith (Sam I. Parrish).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Capra, Frank The Name Above the Title
Crowther, Bosley "State of the Union, with Tracy and Hepburn, Makes Bow at the Music Hall", New York Times , 23 Apr 1948
Davidson, Bill Spencer Tracy: Tragic Idol
Edelman, Rob and Kupferberg, Audrey Angela Lansbury: A Life on Stage and Screen
Edwards, Anne A Remarkable Woman: A Biography of Katharine Hepburn
Fisher, James Spencer Tracy: A Bio-Bibliography
The Internet Movie Database