Will GOP Welcome or Rue New Take on Frank Capra's "State of the Union"?

Will GOP Welcome or Rue New Take on Frank Capra's "State of the Union"?
Meet the candidate: Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in "State of the Union"
(© 1948 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.)

Frank Capra’s 1948 political drama “State of the Union,” which was the fifth of the nine movies to co-star Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, is to be remade.

Variety reports that the independent companies Identity Films and Flat Penny Films have acquired the underlying rights to Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse’s 1945 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which ran for 765 performances on Broadway. Producers Anthony Mastromauro of Identity and Amy Lanier of Flat Penny are currently seeking screenwriters for the project.


Hollywood excels at animating dinosaurs, so reinvigorating the out-of-touch Republican Party might be part of the thinking behind the reboot – but don’t bet on it. It’s the story of an airplane industrialist, Grant Matthews (Tracy), who has left his wife, Mary (Hepburn), for his much younger mistress, Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury). A newspaper proprietor with Lady Macbeth’s ruthless ambition, she plans to set him up as the Republican dark horse presidential candidate.

The playwrights based Matthews and Thorndyke’s relationship on Wendell Wilkie’s affair with Irita Van Doren. He was the liberal GOP dark horse candidate who ran against FDR in 1940. She was the longtime editor of the New York Herald Tribune book review.

Thorndyke intends to use her newspapers to deadlock the 1948 Republican Convention so it will choose the idealistic Matthews over the likes of Thomas E. Dewey (who stood and lost in the 1944 and 1948 presidential elections) and Robert Taft. Matthews is persuaded to run and is supported in public during the campaign by Mary, leading to a rapprochement worthy of the Clintons.

After drastically compromising his principles by making deals with special interest groups, Matthews realizes he has become a puppet of chicanery and corruption. He denounces his supporters and manipulators in a live radio broadcast, and withdraws his candidacy. Mary touts the 1948 Democratic candidate Harry S. Truman as the next president. Truman loved the film and saw it many times. Capra later bragged in his autobiography that Charles Alldredge, a Truman campaign aide, wrote in Variety in January 1949, that “this writer believed this film confirmed his courage, determination not to quit” the race. 

Because of the war, Hollywood made few films dealing with domestic politics in the 1940s. Of the others that were made, the most significant were Capra’s “Meet John Doe” (1941), a virtual appeal to demagoguery; George Cukor’s “Keeper of the Flame” (1942), also starring Tracy and Hepburn and influenced by “Citizen Kane”; and Robert Rossen’s “All the Kings Men” (1949), based on Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer-winning novel, which was inspired by the life of assassinated leftist Louisiana politician Huey P. Long. (Whereas the latter won the Best Picture Oscar, the 2006 remake was a failure.)

Although Capra’s naïve or willful belief in the idea that one honest man can stem the tide of corruption in America acquired a mythic resonance in “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936), “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939), and “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), it is an idiotic myth – a dangerous rejection of the grinding mill of politics and the kind of necessary deal-making depicted in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”  

By the time he came to make “State of the Union,” Capra was not only out of touch with the political zeitgeist but beginning to lose his touch as a filmmaker. RKO, which had lost money backing Capra’s Liberty Films on “It’s a Wonderful Life,” refused to shell out $2.6 million for “State of the Union.”

Although Clark Gable and Gary Cooper has been sought to play Matthews, when Capra learned that Tracy wanted the part, the film landed at MGM, Tracy’s studio. In his biography “Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success,” Joseph McBride notes that Claudette Colbert, scheduled to play Mary, forced Capra to accept her cameraman of choice, but then dropped out when the director refused to allow her to finish each day at 5 p.m., an hour earlier than was the industry norm. She was replaced four days before shooting by Hepburn, who had been working with Tracy on the script. Capra made the film for $2,150,000, bringing it in ahead of schedule. 

Adolphe Menjou, who played the movie’s Republican strategist, was a devout anti-Communist member of the McCarthyist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and in 1947 had cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee. This brought him into fierce conflict during shooting with Hepburn, who was a member of the liberal Committee for the First Amendment, which had supported the blacklisted Hollywood Ten.

Turner Classic Movies’ website records that Menjou said, “Scratch a do-gooder, like Hepburn, and they’ll yell, ‘Pravda.’” Tracy allegedly retorted, “You scratch some members of the Hepburn clan and you’re liable to get an ass full of buckshot.” Hepburn said that Menjou was “Wisecracking, witty ­– a flag-waving super-patriot who invested his American dollars in Canadian bonds and had a thing about Communists.”

Generally well reviewed, “State of the Union,” which opened on April 3o, 1948, made $3.5 million in domestic rentals, becoming the year’s 13th highest grosser. Myles Connolly and Anthony Veiller’s adaptation lacks the play’s teeth, however. Also missing is the vitality and visual mastery of Capra’s 1930s films and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Because Capra was a closet reactionary who coated himself in a veneer of righteous liberalism, as McBride revealed in his book, he comes across as a fence-sitter. His films’ championing of the neighborliness of the common man is a trite response to political exigencies. Matthews’ abandonment of his political career, McBride says, made “State of the Union” Capra’s “elegy for his abandonment of socially conscious filmmaking.” Ultimately, it’s as pessimistic and defeatist a work as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” given the collapse of George Bailey’s personal American Dream and his near suicide.

Whether the makers of the new “State of the Union” will have their would-be presidential nominee follow in the footsteps of Tracy’s Matthews remains to be seen. But, whatever his leanings and quandaries, political disengagement is as useless an option in the 2010s as it was in the 1930s and ’40s.