Sunday, January 29, 2012

Film Review: STATE OF THE UNION (1948, Frank Capra)

Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 124 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Angela Lansbury, Van Johnson (THE CAINE MUTINY, BRIGADOON), Adolphe Menjou (PATHS OF GLORY, A FAREWELL TO ARMS), Margaret Hamilton (13 GHOSTS, THE WIZARD OF OZ). Based on the play by Howard Lindsay and and Russel Crouse (LIFE WITH FATHER, THE SOUND OF MUSIC). Screenplay by Anthony Veiller (THE KILLERS '46, THE STRANGER) and Myles Connolly.
Tag-line: "How's the state of the union? IT'S GREAT!" Not quite nailing the nuance, there.
Best one-liner: "No woman could ever run for President. She'd have to admit she's over thirty-five."

What with the state of the union address last week and the primary circus reaching new heights of wondrous absurdity, the timing feels right for a look at Frank Capra's STATE OF THE UNION.

I'd seen most of the "big" Capras as a kid, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, ARSENIC & OLD LACE, and LOST HORIZON– and of them, only MR. SMITH really made an impression. I'd sort of written off Capra as something of a craftsmanly sentimentalist, and that was a terribly reductive way to look at who's now, really, one of my favorite directors. While I was working on this ongoing "Junta Juleil's All-Time Top 100" list, MR. SMITH came up, and J.D. of Radiator Heaven strongly recommended some "bleaker Capra," which led me onto a real Capra kick, one that ended with a trio of hard-hitting, gut-ripping, compassionately progressive but bitterly true films: MEET JOHN DOE, MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, and STATE OF THE UNION. As I wrote in a comment previously– I'm almost shocked that these things were allowed to be made, in that they highlight the *gasp* "socialist" ideals of the Founding Fathers; attack nearly all kinds of mass media; and rise above the pettiness of politics and instead piling on dollop after dollop of pure, bright-eyed Humanism in a world on the brink of tearing its own throat.

STATE OF THE UNION feels ridiculously prescient, though I suppose it's arrogant to believe that the problems of our era are in any way unique. We've got fights over government deregulation, pre-nomination doubletalk, fear-mongering politicians, a media kingmaking "primary" that's more important than the actual votes (see the much-spoken of "Murdoch Primary" for comparison) - the film even boldly dares to ask if there's any real difference between Democrats and Republicans anymore. And the line "Politicians have remained professionals only because the voters have remained amateurs!" has to be one of my favorite zingers in the history of political cinema.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, but it involves Spencer Tracy as an industrialist ("Any man's made as much money as him is a good sound American") who's pushed into running for president by the kingmakers and who decides to do anything he can to get the nomination. The respective angel and devil on his shoulders are his reluctant, conscionable wife (Katherine Hepburn) and the ruthless, power-hungry media magnate (Angela Lansbury). And, as anyone will attest, an evil Lansbury in your movie is always a good thing. (Futhermore, Lansbury is the most vicious, calculating character in a movie whose cast includes Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West!)

Evil Lansbury refuses to acknowledge the help.

So go see STATE OF THE UNION. It's pretty damn good, and it's extremely damn relevant. Which makes it all the more hilarious that Google offered the old chestnut "I'm sorry, did you mean to search for XXX 2: STATE OF THE UNION?"

So on to my secondary point: I watched STATE OF THE UNION later on the same day that I rewatched BARTON FINK, which is probably my favorite Coen brothers film. I was treated to some extremely bizarre and possibly intentional coincidences; some so specific that I probably never would have noticed them had I not happened to view the films back to back. Since the Coens love to repackage and adapt past works (CUTTER'S WAY and THE BIG SLEEP become THE BIG LEBOWSKI, THE GLASS KEY and RED HARVEST become MILLER'S CROSSING, etc.), I'm probably not way off base here.

Now, BARTON FINK and STATE OF THE UNION are both set in the 1940s, so there's nothing extraordinary about overlapping fashion and decor and popular slang of the time like calling guys "heels," yet, as I watched on, these general tonal similarities began to strike me as odd. And, you know, Judy Davis is kind of like 1991's answer to Katherine Hepburn in her own way.

There's nothing terribly remarkable about that. But then I realized that the plots are basically the same– a man fighting to be in touch with the common man is whisked from one opportunity to another by soulless and strange entourages and handlers who use him as a tool to advance their own self-interests. Also, both films take place largely within the confines of hotel rooms. And, hey!– there's even a creepy little bellhop who prefigures the bizarre-itude of Buscemi in BARTON FINK.

Then, IMDB lists the infamous (of Ed Wood, Jr. fame) Tor Johnson as an uncredited wrestler. It must have been a blink and you'll miss it walk-on, because I must have blinked and missed him, but aficionados of BARTON FINK will take note of the wrestling connection.
But finally, the last parallel, and the one that vindicates my craziness: there's a scene whereupon Tracy and Hepburn are going through the campaign mail bag. They finish reading a letter and marvel, in a strange little moment, about how it's signed "Madman Mundt..."

...who is John Goodman in BARTON FINK!

I'm not sure what I've proven, precisely, outside of "The Coen brothers must love STATE OF THE UNION," but I suppose I'll take that.

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

Fascinating connection you made there between BARTON FINK and STATE OF THE UNION. This isn't the first time the Coens have cribbed from Capra. Parts of THE HUDSUCKER PROXY pay homage to MEET JOHN DOE (including direct quotes of dialogue and a bit where a guy is scraping a name off a door) in a way that is quite uncanny when I rewatched JOHN DOE again last month.

STATE OF THE UNION may be my fave Capra film. It's a tough call but I really love the chemistry between Hepburn and Tracy and the message that the film is eerily relevant as you pointed out. Plus, it is just a well-made film, dammit!

Plus, Van Johnson stole nearly every scene he was in. His character provides just the right amount of comic relief. Man, you've got me all fired up to watch this film again.

Sean Gill said...

Thanks for your comments, J.D.! I never caught the HUDSUCKER/MEET JOHN DOE connections because it'd been a matter of years in between my respective viewings, but it makes a lot of sense.
And it IS such a well-made film, dammit!- definitely in my top 3 Capras.
And you're certainly right about Van Johnson, it was probably shameful for me not to mention him in the review.