Friday, August 25, 2017

THE VAN JOHNSON BLOGATHON: State of the Union (1948)

Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood is hosting The Van Johnson Blogathon running from August 25 to 27. Click HERE for all the contributions on the popular and versatile actor.

Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

The couple above are Mary and Grant Mitchell, and they are preparing for a political rally. Grant is a self-made man, a WWI pilot turned successful aircraft manufacturer. He is being manipulated by his mistress, a publisher and daughter of a political family, Kay Thorndyke played by Angela Lansbury. Mary has agreed to campaign alongside her husband with hopes of winning him back. The other newcomers to their circle include political operative Jim Conover played by Adolphe Menjou and newspaper reporter Spike McManus played by Van Johnson.

Adolphe Menjou, Angela Lansbury

State of the Union is Frank Capra's 1948 film adaptation of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse's Pulitzer Prize winning play which ran on Broadway for 765 performances. Ruth Hussey and Ralph Bellamy played the Mitchells on stage. Kay Johnson played Kay Thorndyke, with Minor Watson as Conover and Myron McCormick as "Spike". 

Van Johnson as reporter "Spike" McManus

Grant has fallen under Kay Thorndyke's spell, and Kay Thorndyke is a slave to her own ambition. Her late father and their publishing empire was dismissed by the Republican Party, and she intends to own them by putting the next man in the White House. Conover is more than willing to go along for the ride. For Spike McManus, this is just a paycheque.

"Spike" is not impressed with Grant's stunt flying.

When the Mitchells are together, it is easy to see that Mary's opinion means a lot to Grant, and her opinions are generally the opposite to the machinations of a political campaign. While Mary wants Grant back as her husband and father to their two children, there are a lot of opposing forces whose goal is power.

Grant starts out as someone who relates to many different people because of a straight-forward honesty. However, he soon wants whatever Kay wants and becomes convinced that the only way to get to be president is to play the game as the professionals demand.  The story becomes a battle of wills and a battle for a man's integrity.

"Spike" has put together an impressive broadcast.
Yes, that is indeed Charles Lane you see.

1948 is an interesting year of releases in Van Johnson's film career. The Bride Goes Wild is an amusing romantic comedy co-starring June Allyson, the engrossing wartime drama Command Decision is another award winning Broadway adaptation, and then there is State of the Union.

The character of Spike McManus acts more or less as a Greek Chorus, wryly commenting on the action and the characters. Van Johnson has just the right attitude and timing to get the idea behind the lines across.

The political maneuvers, which are considered so deadly serious by Kay and Conover, are joking matters for Spike. Nonetheless, he has a soft spot for Mary and will tend toward anything that is on her side.

"Spike" comforts and inspires Mary to take action.
Is the effect exactly what he envisioned?

The hoped for culmination of Grant Mitchell's ride to victory at the upcoming Convention is a live radio and television broadcast direct from his home. Mary has even agreed, very reluctantly, to the presence of Kay Thorndyke. Secrets are revealed, scales fall from eyes, hearts are broken and mended.

"Spike" is fired, but he's happy!

The cast is filled with familiar faces from Capra films of the past: Margaret Hamilton, Irving Bacon, Raymond Walburn, Charles Lane, Tom Fadden and Carl Switzer. Maidel Turner as a tipsy Judge's wife is the only cast member from Broadway to appear in the movie, and she is a hoot.

Frank Capra knew how to fill the screen with the great character actor faces, and how to pace a story to keep it fresh and interesting. State of the Union skewers the lazy voter and the cynical politicians who take advantage of them. While it looks clearly at the problems in the system, it offers no solution beyond that of honesty. The themes and the issues are as relevant today as in 1948, and I imagine if we took it backward to 1901 or 1832, audiences would nod knowingly in recognition.

Kay Thorndyke: "He's beginning to wonder if there is any difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party."

Jim Conover: "Now that's a fine question for a presidential candidate to ask. There's all the difference in the world. They're in and we're out!" 

I close with this picture of Margaret Hamilton as Norah, Conover's maid. She is beaming at Spike played by Van Johnson. It is the look shared by all of us Van Johnson fans.


  1. I love this film and think Van is so funny in it! I love the look Spike gives Norah every time she makes heart eyes at him, haha.

  2. How perceptive that you refer to Van Johnson/Spike as a Greek chorus! In that way, his character here reminds me a bit of Gene Kelly's newspaperman in another Spenser Tracy movie, Inherit the Wind. Thanks for sharing.

    1. True. Of course, Spike is more likeable than Hornbeck, but they could both play in musical versions!

      It really is a knack to be that kibitzer, yet still put over a true personality. Van had that knack.

  3. How right you are about Margaret Hamilton's look!

    Considering his enormously talented and charismatic co-stars, it is a testament to Van's abilities that he leaves such a big impression on the viewers' minds. I love him in this role and you have expertly picked up on all the reasons why.

    1. Thanks for hosting this blogathon and giving me the opportunity to appreciate Van all over again in this role, and to write about his fine work.

      I couldn't resist using a picture of the adoring Nora.

  4. This one ought to be worth viewing just to see Margaret Hamilton smile... Although I have to admit that picture
    makes me feel a little leery....:-D

    1. Yeah? Well, just wait until you see Spike's reaction.

      Bobbysoxer admiration knows no age boundary.

  5. That does it. I'm putting my afternoon plans on hold to watch "State of the Union". It's been too, too long since I've seen it. It was that photo of Margaret Hamilton looking at Van Johnson that did it.

    1. I couldn't resist adding Nora. Spike just does it for me!

  6. A fun review and some terrific photos, especially the ones of Angela Lansbury (that piercing look!) and the smiling Margaret Hamilton.

    1. I must admit to having fun putting this together.

      A couple of years ago hubby, daughter and I saw Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit. We were in the last row of the balcony, but hubby took our binoculars, focused on the stage, and reported that Ms. Lansbury still had "those eyes that tantalize".

  7. I don't even have an excuse now: I own this film on DVD and still haven't watched it! I'll be sure to fix this mistake soon, even though I'm saving in order to not run out of Kate Hepburn movies to watch!
    Thanks for the kind comment!

    1. I understand. It's a terrible feeling to run out somebody's movies, but then you get to start all over again.

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