GLENN (KENNY): So, not to be all “I’d never thought it’d come to this” or any such thing, but do you realize that the last installment of this project was posted six years and change ago? And that it ended with a promise that we would not let eight months elapse between installments, as had happened prior to our getting around to Sea of Grass? How crazy is that?
We have no excuse except the perennial “Do you have any idea how busy we got?” But that’s not even the whole story. There’s a sense in which this 1948 film defeated us. If my recollection serves, which it may not, we watched it all the way through once, let too much time elide without writing about it, then tried to get through it twice more, failed, and only finally the other night got all the way through. In the aggregate, I’ve seen this film more often than I’ve seen some of my favorites. Which maybe makes me resent it all the more.
CLAIRE (KENNY) : I recall the same, and yeah, I share your resentment. Maybe we could argue that there’s a kind of resonance in the film now that we couldn’t have foreseen six years ago, in that it has Things to Teach Us, about The Way We Live Now, except I mean…not really?
Just to bring people up to speed if they haven’t seen this (which I assume most people haven’t? Seriously, there are so many better ways to spend our precious hours on Earth), this is a Frank Capra film, with Tracy as Grant Matthews, a wealthy businessman recruited to run for president (COUGH) by his not-so-secret other woman, Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury, below right, somehow possibly even chillier and more forbidding as a political mistress than she would be 14 years later as Mrs. Iselin, about which I have some further thoughts that I will get into later), with a game-time assist from his semi-estranged but devoted wife Mary (Hepburn). Oh, also there is Van Johnson.
I would just like to say that, to your great credit, in spite of how endless and tedious the whole thing seemed this time around, you diligently took detailed notes throughout, which I frankly did not even consider doing. I pretty much spent the whole movie sewing a bunch of buttons on a dress, which, insofar as that is exactly the kind of retrograde shit Kate H. gets up to throughout the film, I suppose could be considered a sort of immersive, meta-experiential viewing choice. But really I just couldn’t be bothered to write anything down.
GLENN: Let me provide some more boilerplate: The picture is adapted from a play by Lindsay and Crouse, a three-act piece with three settings: the house of politician James Conover in D.C.., a hotel suite in Detroit, and the Matthews home in New York. Despite its “opening up” by screenwriters Anthony Veiller and Myles Connolly, those three settings and the scenes therein, depicting persuasion, rebellion, capitulation and rebellion again, are the meat of the movie. As far as the ways it’s opened up are concerned, Matthews the industrialist—“Our Planes Have Wings, But Not Our Ideas” is the cover line quote below his Time magazine portrait—gets to have fun doing stunts with his own plane in one of the film’s most interminable and pointless scenes.
I kind of love the movie’s macabre opening, in which media mogul Lewis Stone tells Lansbury’s Kaye, his daughter, “I used to hate you for being a girl,” and then praises her brains, and by extension her mendacity, before blowing his own brains out. (It’s not a gratuitous gesture; he’s dying and doesn’t want to go out like a normal person.) After that, this aimless self-serious satire, which means to condemn smoke-filled-room deal-making in a similar vein as Capra’s rather more successful Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, and puts forward as an alternative to this system the directive that we just BE DECENT TO EACH OTHER (as another, more recent failed satire had it), slogs along being neither fish nor flesh nor good red herring. By which I mean it fails as satire, as drama, and as romantic sort-of comedy.
One problem is that it’s a complete misuse of Katharine Hepburn. Her role as the estranged but loyal and sensible wife of Tracy’s entitled philandering Lout With Grand Ideas is a particularly humiliating one, I think. Hepburn was capable of playing a lot of things, but ordinary and ordinarily sensible are two that I don’t think she was born for. The character’s dutifulness and rectitude throw buckets of cold water on whatever sparks she might have conjured with her leading man practically before she even steps into a frame.
CLAIRE: Oh yes, I think that’s not just one problem, it’s close to being THE Problem, although probably if we really forced the call, we’d have to say that the film’s (impractical, incoherent) politics are the REAL real problem. (A moment of silent awe, please, for an era in which a hard-line Republican character could be plausibly written to advocate for a universal currency. A universal currency, Glenn.)
But as to the Hepburn problem, narratively speaking at least, it’s as much of a millstone as the political issues. She’s playing so much against type here that, in what one can only assume was an effort to counterbalance her natural sharpness and steel, the filmmakers have created a secondary Lansbury Problem, wherein the only place left for Lansbury to go in the way of portraying the urbane, dominant inverse of Hepburn’s traditional-helpmeet Mary is to just go full-dictator. And from there, one can’t possibly subscribe to the premise that this is a woman who recruits her lovers for political runs; you can’t groom someone for office if you kill all partners immediately after mating, as she most definitely does.
Imagine instead a version of the film in which Hepburn is cast as Kay Thorndyke, and is allowed to play her as written, with the counterpart of an ingénue-Mary, also allowed to play the part as written. Suddenly everything makes so much more sense--there is a pairing where campaign-as-seduction would have clicked right into place. Never would’ve happened, of course, but what a missed opportunity to help clean up this mess. Though even that still wouldn’t address the dumpster fire of the film’s politics.
GLENN: And I’m not going to address that dumpster fire either, except to note perhaps redundantly that the movie lacks the courage of its lack of conviction.
There’s also the matter of the film’s Jeb-Bush-like low energy. Despite its better-than-competent production values and the old-college-try consistency of the acting, the film never seems to achieve any momentum. When Adolphe Menjou’s crafty kingmaker Conover character is first conniving, there’s a flicker of enjoyment to be had. But that’s doused and we’ve got cornball huffing and puffing and a general attitude of “there’s nothing wrong with this scene that another monologue for Spencer Tracy won’t fix” for what seems like hours. The movie only perks up with the entrance of Charles Dingle, whom we shall remember from, among other things, Wyler/Hellman/Davis’s The Little Foxes, here as a corrupt labor guy who’s made a secret handshake with Marshall; that’s followed by the introduction of Florence Auer as an oddly intimidating fixer. These two have an underplayed sinister current that would have buttressed a smarter film; here they stick out like welcome sore thumbs. The power of their presences is ameliorated alas by the entrance of Raymond Walburn going full Guy Kibbee and beyond (see left), mugging like there’s no tomorrow in a sitting room drinking scene replete with shots that always come in handy when the likes of Chuck Workman need to cobble together a “vintage movies laughter” montage (as you see, below right). Ugh.
This was Capras’ followup to It’s A Wonderful Life, the now-classic that at the time was a rather ignominious failure for the director and his independent outfit, Liberty Films. I don’t have Joseph McBride’s excellent Capra bio at hand for consultation, but our friend Mark Harris writes movingly of Capra being rather at sea after World War II, in his wonderful book Five Came Back. What State of the Union indicates is not a lost talent but rather a talent that doesn’t know what to do with itself. And in the case of Tracy and Hepburn, doesn’t know what to do with them.
CLAIRE: Oh yes, about those Tracy monologues, of which there are…I’m going to say 65? 70?--in this movie: not only are they embarrassing self-indulgences on the part of the filmmakers (honestly, if you’re so puffed-up about your freshman-seminar ideas, just put together a book of essays, see how well that sells), each one eats up time that could be so much better spent at the thing for which people watch Tracy-Hepburn movies in the first place: the dialogue. What a horrible little lead weight in my chest each time I watched him talking at her, with her denied any response. No better when she finally gets her couple of puny speeches--no one wants to watch these two reciting; we’re here for the conversation.
GLENN: Which our next film—which we will rush to as if we were weary desert travelers just sighting an oasis—has plenty of…and it won’t be six years before we cover it.