Tonight: On the eve of the presidential election, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, with Van Johnson and Angela Lansbury in Frank Capra’s four-star classic State of the Union.
State of the Union was the fifth of nine films starring Tracy and Hepburn together. He was 47 and she was 40.
As celebrated director Frank Capra expressed it: “When they played a scene, cameras, lights, microphones and written scripts ceased to exist.
“And the director did just what the crew and other actors did—we sat, watched and marveled.”
The film’s genesis began with an idea from stage actress Helen Hayes shared with playwrights Howard Lindsey and Russell Crouse in the summer of 1944, during the presidential conventions.
Hayes imagined a drama involving a Republican presidential candidate rather like Wendell Willkie, who ran against Roosevelt in 1940.
The story would portray how a successful businessman, inexperienced in politics, separated from his wife, having an extramarital affair, would reconcile with his spouse so they could campaign together for the presidency.
The dramatic conflict would pit a wife’s wits and courage against, as Capra put it, “the hard-boiled Republican kingmakers for the soul of the man she loved...”
When Miss Hayes lost interest in the project, Lindsay and Crouse bought out her position in the play. Signed to star in the Broadway production of State of the Union were Ralph Bellamy and Ruth Hussey. (Margaret Hussey and Katharine Hepburn turned the part down.)
They gave 765 performances at the Hudson Theater in New York before taking it on tour across America.
To keep the show fresh, Lindsay and Crouse added new dialogue every week incorporating news of the day.
The show opened in New York on November 14, 1945. Frank Capra attended the first three performances.
He had previously adapted another Lindsay and Crouse property for the screen (Arsenic and Old Lace) and Capra decided he wanted to film this soon-to-be Pulitzer Prize–winning play as well.
Capra had previously enjoyed great success with political pictures, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941), so this seemed like a natural.
Throughout the 1930s, Capra worked for lowly Poverty Row Columbia Pictures. After the war, he formed an independent production company, Liberty Films, with equally renowned directors William Wyler and George Stevens. This, he thought, would be the fulfillment of his postwar dreams.
Capra’s initial contribution to Liberty Films was It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
The financing and distribution were handled by RKO. But this unforgettable film, so beloved today, actually lost money in its initial release. So RKO balked at financing the $2.8 million budget proposed for Liberty’s second film, State of the Union.
Capra turned next to mighty MGM in hopes of reuniting his romantic stars from It Happened One Night, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. But Metro refused to loan Gable to Liberty for the picture.
After long and complicated negotiations, an agreement was finally signed on March 10, 1947 with the underfinanced Liberty Films.
The authors were paid $300,000 for screen rights, plus 50 percent of the gross, minus the cost of production. Shooting would take place at MGM, which would also handle distribution.
Colbert’s fee as the estranged wife was set at $200,000, but instead of Gable or Gary Cooper (Capra’s second choice), the male lead became Spencer Tracy (who had been the playwright’s first choice from the beginning).
Tracy really wanted the role.
“After all, I’m getting old,” he said, joking with columnist Bob Thomas. “And I’ve never done a film with Capra.”
Tracy and Colbert had successfully teamed in Boom Town (1940).
As an MGM picture, besides getting Tracy, Capra was also able to cast the picture from Leo the Lion’s star-studded stock company, which included Lewis Stone, Van Johnson and 22-year-old Angela Lansbury, who would play the vixenish, career-oriented “other woman.”
Principal photography on a 75-day schedule was set to begin on Monday, September 29, 1947.
Colbert had been announced for the part since April 3. $15,000 had been spent on her wardrobe. But she and Capra had battled before on two pictures. And she was well cast as the calculating, spoiled woman she portrayed in It Happened One Night.
Before shooting her first scene, the actress announced that she would not be working any time after five P.M.
Everyone else worked until six P.M. and this prima donna knew it.
Against his better judgment, and over the objections of Spencer Tracy, Capra had already fired a cameraman to please the fussy Ms. Colbert, and now she insisted on being permitted to quit work each day at five P.M. on the orders of her doctor (who happened to be her husband) and her agent (who just happened to be her brother).
“This is ridiculous,” Capra said. “I can’t give you that privilege.”
“Then I won’t do the picture,” Colbert replied.
“Well, okay, sister, get the hell out,” Capra shouted. “Check in your wardrobe and go home.”
Capra later reflected, “I blew my stack!”
And the real reason Colbert backed out of making the movie? She had finally read the script carefully and realized it was Tracy’s picture, not hers.
Louis B. Mayer told Capra to call Tracy immediately, so he wouldn’t read the news of Colbert’s departure in the paper.
“God damn you little bastard,” Tracy replied, only half in jest. “I thought you were a nice guy. I may have to report you to the Actors Guild.”
But then he laughed, and said, “So you told Frankie Froggie Colbert to go to hell, did you?”
“I lost it,” Capra confessed. “But what am I going to do now? Who can I get to replace Colbert on such short notice?”
“Waasall, come to think of it, Katie isn’t hamming it up at the moment—what about the Madame?” Tracy said. Meaning, of course, his own Ms. Hepburn.
“Yeah,” he said, “the Bag of Bones has been helping me rehearse here at the house.
“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!”
Tracy put Hepburn on the line. Would she do the part? “Sure,” she said. “What the hell. When do we start?...What clothes do I wear on Monday?”
And that was it. Capra was amazed. “No contract, no talk of agents, money, billing—nothing,” Capra said.
“That’s sheer professionalism. She knew we were in a jam, and she helped out. I don’t know anybody in the business who wouldn’t have held us over a barrel for money—and we would have paid anything to save the picture!”
After that, Capra’s biggest problems were, as he put it, “not directorial, but political.”
The once daring filmmaker intended making a bold political statement on issues of the day, but they got lost in translation.
Capra gave in to financial pressures and sold Liberty Films during the production of State of the Union, betraying the courage he had championed making It’s a Wonderful Life.
He knew it too. He was afraid of failure and bankruptcy. He’d gotten used to success, wealth and security. He said as much in his autobiography.
Those were also turbulent times in Hollywood.
The House Un-American Activities Committee was busy investigating subversives.
Hepburn was a liberal and Adolphe Menjou, who was assigned to play a conniving political boss in the picture, was a right-winger who testified before HUAC.
The outspoken Hepburn and Menjou had worked together previously on Morning Glory (1933) and Stage Door (1937)—without incident.
“I am a witch-hunter, if the witches are communists,” Menjou told HUAC in October 1947.
“Menjou and Hepburn hated each other,” Capra observed. “But they played beautifully together. Here was Menjou, head of the Right-Wingers, and Hepburn, the bell ringer of the Left. What a parlay.
“But they never showed their animosity for one another on the set.
“They were professionals...They were wonderful to work with as actor and actress.”
“Menjou passionately believed in what he believed in,” Hepburn said. “He was trying to cut my throat at the time we made State of the Union.”
(He told HUAC that persons attending a speech Hepburn gave for a Democratic presidential nominee were “Communists.”)
“But,” she said, “we were frightfully civilized on the set toward each other. I would just torture Menjou. Menjou was ridiculous!”
Capra quoted Tracy as saying, “Well, you know Madame Do Gooder, here. She’ll donate to the Committee for the Protection of Fireplugs.
“And you know what? Her family are all bigger fruit cakes than she is! You know—ultra liberal New England aristocrats that work their ass off for the poor, poor folk, but never see one!”
As temperatures rose in Hollywood, and on Capra’s sets in particular, Time magazine wrote, “There is doubt that Frank Capra, already making State of the Union, would have started this satire on U.S. politics under present circumstances.”
Watch for the scene where Menjou says, “I’d cut off my right arm up to here to be Chairman of the Republican party!” But he’s holding up his left arm!
State of the Union was screened for the trades at the Academy Theater in Beverly Hills on March 19, 1948.
Variety reported: “Looks like a sensational money-maker for Metro. The Lindsay-Crouse stage hit has been transferred to the screen by Frank Capra with a whirlwind pace not unlike that encountered in a George Abbott musical. Add 1948’s smartest casting and the palm wringing results seem obvious...”
The New York Times endorsed State of the Union as “a slick piece of screen satire.”
But Life lamented, “By over simplifying its politics, State of the Union misses a good chance to be an important film comment on President making.”
The real watershed date was April 7, when Capra went to Washington to screen his picture for President Harry Truman and 1,600 other political power brokers at Loew’s Capitol Theater.
There were politically sensitive moments in the film and Capra sat directly behind the President so he could respond to any concerns the picture might elicit. But Truman loved the picture.
“We thought he would regard it as seditious, but he ran the picture over and over again on the presidential yacht,” Capra recalled with delight.
“Later, Truman’s manager told me that the picture, which showed how a President can fight corruption in his own ranks, gave Truman the impetus to run for another term.”
On January 5, 1949, Variety carried a story confirming as much. It was entitled “Film that Changed History,” written by Charles Allredge, former assistant to the Secretary of the Interior and advance man for the Truman campaign.
Allredge explained that Truman hadn’t made up his mind to run again when he saw the movie, and that “He was under heavy attack, not only from Republicans, but by the leaders of his own party, who were angered with the President’s strong espousal of Civil Rights.”
State of the Union received no Oscar nominations and proved a disappointment at the box office.
The domestic gross was a respectable $3,108,000, but the foreign box office was a disappointing $429,000.
It didn’t help that the picture was released in Great Britain with the ludicrous title The World and His Wife.
This was a film that didn’t have much meaning outside America.
And now—from 1948—
State of the Union