Director: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Anthony Veiller, Myles Connolly
Based on a Play by: Howard Lindsay, Russel Crouse
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Van Johnson, Angela Lansbury, Adolphe Menjou, Lewis Stone
Country: USA
Running Time: 124 min
Year: 1948
BBFC Certificate: PG

State of the Union (1948) is notable as both a Frank Capra film and a Hepburn & Tracy vehicle. It was the director’s last typically ‘Capraesque’ film, probably because his wholesome, virtuous style was falling out of favour with post-WWII audiences. In fact, the film was made following the box office failure of It’s a Wonderful Life (which gained its now classic status much further down the line). State of the Union seemed like a safe bet, being based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play from 1945, as well as starring the dream team of Tracy and Hepburn.

Sadly, it ended up only being a modest success, bringing in a middling box office return and mixed reviews. As such, it wasn’t enough to save Capra’s relatively new but already floundering Liberty Films production company.

Over the years, as Capra’s films of this period have become more respected, State of the Union has been better received and appreciated, though it’s never gained the same level of love and attention as his major classics.

Shining a light on the film are Indicator, who are releasing State of the Union on Blu-ray in the UK, with their usual stellar treatment. I got my hands on a copy and my thoughts follow.

The film tells the story of Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy), a successful businessman who is persuaded to run for President of the United States by a wealthy newspaper publisher, Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury). She’s his lover and sees his bid for presidency as a chance to wield some power over the country herself, after promising her dying politician father that she would “make them heads roll”.

However, it’s desirable for a presidential candidate to be a family man, so any rumours of extra-marital affairs like Matthews and Thorndyke’s could be damaging. To defeat these, Matthews’ team, featuring Republican strategist Jim Conover (Adolphe Menjou) and campaign manager Spike McManus (Van Johnson), convince Matthews’ estranged wife, Mary (Katharine Hepburn), to join her husband on the campaign trail.

Spurred on by Mary’s support for his honest approach, Matthews begins his tour by badmouthing big business and big labour. This appeals greatly to regular folk but riles up the ‘important’ people that are needed to support his campaign, so Jim and Spike attempt to guide Matthews in their own, safer direction.

As the campaign progresses, Matthews must confront his own principles and decide whether to stay true to his often quite controversial beliefs or to compromise them in order to win the election. Meanwhile, Mary struggles to reconcile her love for her husband with her disdain for the political system and the compromises it demands.

State of the Union, as you might expect, contains a lot of those classic ‘Capraesque’ traits, with stirring speeches calling for honesty, democracy and good old-fashioned family values. It also attempts to critique the American political system and the role of the media in its machinations. In these latter aspects, the film feels a little less impactful. Whilst its targets are still relevant today, the jabs are pretty soft by the standards set by later satires. Network this ain’t. Matthews’ conflicting political opinions don’t help matters either, though these didn’t bother me too much, as it works for the character and his clashes with his Republican ‘handlers’.

The stage background of the source material also shows in its talk-heavy, largely static, set-bound approach. What Capra lacks in visual style he makes up for in wit, charm and pace though. It’s quite a long film, running just over two hours, but it races along nicely and is always a pleasure to watch.

Key to the success of the film is its cast. Tracy is perfect in the lead role of Matthews and does a great job of his numerous speeches. However, Hepburn is the film’s dynamo, igniting the screen whenever she appears. Claudette Colbert was originally meant for the part but after she and Capra clashed during pre-production, she left and had to be swiftly replaced. Hepburn seemed a no-brainer to set alongside Tracy and, whilst Colbert would have likely been wonderful too, Hepburn is a delight.

Lansbury also impresses, though she’s sadly sidelined for a good portion of the film’s mid-section. She was only 22 when she made the film and looks it during the opening prologue but then is effectively made to look older through costumes and hairstyling as the film moves on. She makes a big impact from the offset in the film’s attention-grabbing opening scene, delivering a winning mix of stern authority and touching pathos by the scene’s closure.

I enjoyed Menjou too as Matthews’ campaign manager. He’s one of Hollywood’s greatest character actors, but doesn’t get enough attention. Just check out his filmography online to see the vast array of classics he featured in throughout his lifetime.

I didn’t like Van Johnson though. He’s the only weak link in the otherwise perfect cast. The script might be more to blame for his failures though, as his goofy comedy skits are poorly connected to the film and tonally play at odds with the wittier side of the political rom-com at the core of the production.

Whilst I might have picked a few faults with State of the Union, overall it works a treat. It may lack the bite of later political satires, like the vaguely similarly themed A Face in the Crowd, but State of the Union remains an intelligent and enjoyable political comedy-drama. Bolstered by some fine performances and a witty script, it’s a rousing success.


State of the Union is out on 27th March on Region B Blu-Ray, released by Indicator. The picture looks great, with rich textures, clear details and minimal damage. It sounds great too, with surprising depth and clarity for a film from the 40s, though there are some expected source issues in places.


– High Definition remaster
– Original mono audio
– Audio commentary with critics and writers Claire Kenny, Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme (2023)
– The John Player Lecture with Angela Lansbury (1973, 89 mins): archival audio recording of the celebrated star of film, stage and television in conversation with Rex Reed at London’s National Film Theatre
– National Treasure (2023, 29 mins): academic Lucy Bolton discusses the life and eventful career of the much-loved performer Angela Lansbury
– Original opening and closing titles
– Original theatrical trailer
– Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials
– New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– Limited edition exclusive 40-page booklet with a new essay by Raquel Stecher, archival interviews with director Frank Capra, an account of the working relationship and contrasting politics of co-stars Katharine Hepburn and Adolphe Menjou, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and full film credits
– UK premiere on Blu-ray
– Limited edition of 3,000 copies for the UK

Claire Kenny, Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme’s commentary is intelligent but very listenable due to the friendly interplay between the trio. They’re honest about some of the flaws, particularly the lightweight political rhetoric in the film, but also praise the performances and well-paced direction.

The Lansbury interview is a pleasure. In the lengthy piece, she talks about her long and varied career and has some enjoyable stories to tell. This is backed up by an interview with Lucy Bolton about the actress. Bolton is quick to remind us that there was more to Lansbury than the “cosy” image she adopted over the years after her long run on the ‘Murder She Wrote’ series and her Beauty and the Beast vocal performance. Bolton then proceeds to tell the fascinating story of Lansbury’s life and career. It reminds us how underrated the actress was and why her death resonated with many of us last year.

On top of your usual coverall essay (which is expertly provided here by Raquel Stecher), you get an interview with Capra that’s particularly interesting in that it took place when It’s a Wonderful Life had only just come out so it was yet to bomb. As such, his hopes for his production company, Liberty Films, are depressingly high (he only made three films through it, in the end). There’s also another archive interview with the director discussing the political tightrope being walked by producing the film during a time of very polarised opinions in the US. There’s also an interesting piece on the conflicting political interests of Hepburn and Menjou.

So, it’s another fine package of a Hollywood classic from Indicator. An easy recommendation.


State of the Union (1948) - Indicator
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