And here’s our guy Van…
Ah, politics. It’s no secret that they’re a nasty business. It’s also no secret that they can get particularly ugly on social media. What’s easy to forget, though, is how much hasn’t changed (Side note: Jefferson and Adams were known for some sick burns in their time.). Manipulation, back door deals, image polishing–they’ve always been part of the political scene.
Frank Capra had tackled politics before in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. In 1948 he went there again, this time with Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Angela Lansbury, Adolph Menjou, and of course, Van Johnson in State of the Union. Based on Russell Crouse and Howard Lindsay’s play of the same name, it’s basically Manchurian Candidate before Manchurian Candidate, minus the communism angle. State of the Union may not be a typical Capra film, and it’s not as strong as Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, but there’s a lot that makes it all worthwhile. Plus, it’s Capra’s one and only MGM film, and the beginning of Van Johnson’s transition away from being just a screen idol.
Publishing magnate and career influencer Sam Thorndyke (Lewis Stone) is on his deathbed, and his house is full of reporters, including Spike McManus (Van Johnson). Only Sam’s daughter, Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury) is allowed to see him, and Sam charges her with carrying on in his stead. She’s a severe young lady who’s almost mannish in her mannerisms and ways of doing things while being at least outwardly feminine. Kay barely shows any emotion except to say, “I’ll miss you, Sam,” and then leaves. The door barely closes behind her when Sam commits suicide. Kay allows herself a few tears at the window.
With Sam’s death, Kay is now the head of Thorndyke Publishing. She’s every bit as powerful as her dad was, and then some. She knows who should run against Harry Truman in the upcoming election, too: Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy). She and Grant have been carrying on a discreet affair and she sees Grant as a way of expanding her own power.
Grant isn’t so easily persuaded, as he’s the owner of a successful airplane manufacturer and doesn’t particularly want to be President. However, Spike and another Thorndyke crony, Republican strategist Jim Conover (Adolph Menjou) talk him round. Grant is a plain-talking American who tells it like it is, and he might be just what the Republican Party needs.
Kay and Jim send Grant on a shakedown tour to see if the public even likes him, and they ask Grant’s wife, Mary (Katharine Hepburn) to join him for extra insurance, because a happily married man tends to go over well with voters. Mary is dependable and feisty, although she doesn’t appear to be First Lady material at first glance.
Grant and Mary are just above estranged–Mary knows all about Kay and resents her immensely. She no sooner arrives at the Republican rooming house where Grant’s been staying than she finds Kay’s glasses in Grant’s room. Grant has to talk fast to keep her there. Kay makes it all worse when she mandates that the press maintain the illusion that there’s nothing between she and Grant, while Mary is to think Kay and Grant are still involved.
A wrench gets thrown in Kay’s plans, because once on the road, the animosity between Grant and Mary disappears and suddenly they’re a team. Mary likes working with Sam, while Sam respects Mary’s intuition and rediscovers his love for her. Spike has a ringside seat for what his jaded self thinks will be an easy assignment, but the problem is that he can’t keep Grant on a short leash. Grant says what he wants, he’s honest, and the public eats it up.
Politics aren’t the only antics on offer, and Spike gets more than he bargained for with this tour. He thinks he’s seen it all, but he’s never encountered Grant Matthews before, either. Grant has a running bet that he can outmaneuver his pilots, and when they meet up with some on the way to Wichita, they go head to head with Grant. Grant’s pilot scoots over while Grant does barrel rolls, dives, banks, and all kinds of fun stuff. Spike is aghast and clutching his stomach. Mary sits calmly knitting the entire time, handing Spike her knitting bag in case he gets sick.
When Grant finally wins the bet he comes back into the cabin with a smirk on his face. Spike looks relieved until the pilot tells them Grant’s guys have bet they can land first, and one of them whips out his parachute. Not to be outdone, Grant jumps out with his own parachute, narrowly beating his rival to the ground. Poor Spike, visions of a literal dead ringer in his head, can only watch, aghast, as Grant floats to the ground.
Kay sends Jim along on the tour when Grant makes some labor magnates angry because Grant can’t afford to alienate everyone. For some reason, Grant decides to go along with what Kay wants, towing the party line and saying what he’s told to say. Mary is crestfallen and doesn’t know what to think. She starts to wonder what Grant is really after. Long story short, Kay may not have as much control over the situation as she thinks.
State of the Union is a great movie with a lot of strong messages. There are so many parallels that can be drawn to today that it’s very sobering, such as in one scene where Mary starts to wonder if there are any differences between the Democrats and Republicans. The film is incidental to what actually happened in the 1948 election: Truman ran against Thomas Dewey and won. As it was set and released just before the election picked up, things were very much in doubt, which gave State of the Union extra resonance with moviegoers.
The movie is not a typical Capra film in that Capra’s usual theme of the everyman on a journey isn’t present. Grant isn’t exactly an everyman but a tycoon, and he doesn’t seem to be taking a journey so much as go missing. Grant’s friends don’t come to bat for him–in fact, it’s tough to tell who his real friends are, except for Mary and possibly Spike. Capra’s usual humor is nowhere to be found; the airplane scene is the funniest part of the movie and his one addition to the Crouse and Lindsey’s play. Unusually for him, Capra appeared to be keeping a low profile.
There’s an excellent reason for that–its Capra-owned production company, Liberty Films, made a distribution agreement with MGM, which allowed it to use MGM’s logo and MGM stars. This could possibly be due to Capra’s previous film, It’s A Wonderful Life tanking at the box office. Capra couldn’t afford to mess up too badly again, and MGM was a big lion with lots of capital. Only thing was, they had different ideas than Columbia as to what was acceptable, and Capra didn’t have as free a hand there.
The cast in the film is immense. Tracy and Hepburn are their usual twin towers of strength. Lansbury is a smoldering villain, ably assisted by Menjou. Margaret Hamilton also has a brief appearance as a maid who’s gaga for Spike.
Speaking of Spike, Van Johnson’s portrayal is a big highlight of the film. He goes from being a jaded journalist lackey to catching Grant’s enthusiasm for bringing truth to politics. He knows a lot because he’s been around, but then he finds out he doesn’t know as much as he thinks, and when the payoff happens, Spike can’t stop grinning.
It’s a meaty part, and Johnson loved playing the role. He saw it as a way to transition away from being just a heartthrob. Johnson said at the time, “I knew to survive I had to begin and build my future as a mature actor. All I want now is more solid roles like this–and as simple a life as the complications of movie acting will allow.”
Johnson got his wish…sort of. His next film was The Bride Goes Wild with June Allyson, but his switch into more sophisticated parts was well along.
For more of the great Van Johnson, please see Michaela at Love Letters To Old Hollywood. Thanks for hosting, Michaela–it was great, as always!
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Thanks for reading, all, and see you next time…
Davis, Ronald L. Van Johnson: MGM’s Golden Boy. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2009.