State of the Union was originally a 1945 stage play written by Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay. In 1948 it was adapted into a feature film by Frank Capra, the second and last film he directed for Liberty Films, starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Van Johnson.
Grant Matthews (Tracy) is an industrialist with an aircraft manufacturing business. His lover, newspaper magnate Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury), convinces him to run for the Republican nomination for President. Thorndyke and her political guru Jim Conover (Adolphe Menjou) are initally nervous about how Matthews' semi-estranged wife Mary (Hepburn) is going to react. Mary proves surprisingly enthusiastic about Grant's campaign, and she grows even more so when Grant comes out shooting from the hip on the campaign trail, telling hard truths to labor interests and capital interests and whoever else will listen. This proves wildly popular with the common folk, but Conover and Thorndyke, who are worried about getting the nomination for Grant at the Republican convention, wind up convincing him to cast his principles aside and make a series of sleazy backdoor promises in order to win the nomination and the White House.
The original story was inspired by businessman and attorney Wendell Willkie's surprise candidacy that won the Republican nomination in 1940.
- Abhorrent Admirer: Conver's maid Norah (played by Margaret Hamilton, aka the Wicked Witch of the West) keeps casting moony glances at Spike, much to Spike's horror.
- Age Lift: Katherine "Kay" Thorndyke is a divorcée "in her late thirties," according to the play script. The film version cast Angela Lansbury in her early twenties and added a new opening scene to establish Miss Thorndyke as a young heiress.
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: A latter-day viewer may wonder why Conover is so monomaniacal about gaining the support of party power-brokers and is contemptuous of Grant's support with voters. The answer is that in those days, as had been the case throughout history and would still be true for a couple more decades, the party nominating process was controlled by power brokers. Party primaries did exist but in Real Life they were mostly beauty contests, and candidates were nominated by people controlling blocks of delegates at conventions, as suggested in this movie.
- Ambition Is Evil: Played with. Simply wanting to be President isn't inherently wrong, as Grant's goals are noble and Mary is proud to support him. But the compromises Grant feels he has to make to win the nomination corrupt him.
- Armor-Piercing Question: See Chekhov's Gunman below.
- Blonde Republican Sex Kitten: Kay Thorndyke, the movie version at least, might be the Trope Maker. She's blonde, she's very sexy, and she's a Republican power broker, bitter that her father was abandoned by the party, determined to elect Grant to the White House with her pulling the strings.
- Chekhov's Gunman: During the buildup to Grant's big televised speech, the camera takes care to show a random crewman who keeps looking intently at Grant as he's waiting to go on. When Grant veers wildly off script, attacking all the corrupt politicians and cynical power brokers who have been manipulating him, the random crewman steps forward to ask his Armor-Piercing Question, "Are you any better than they are?" Grant then admits that no, he's actually worse, because all the venal political hacks around him were after whatever they could get, while he was a Hypocrite who acted like he was working for the greater good.
- The Corrupter: Kay and Conover, who light the fire of ambition in Grant and get him to throw away his principles and become another weaselly politician.
- Deadpan Snarker: Spike McManus, the reporter hired by Conover to work for Matthews, gets off a lot of excellent lines.Grant: When I was a kid my dad took me on a two-day trip just to look at President Taft.
Spike: On a clear day you could see him for a couple of hundred miles.
- The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: In the opening scene where Kay meets her dying father, he talks about something "eatin' my guts away", and he says a little bit later that he can't stand the pain anymore. The word "cancer" is not mentioned.
- Double-Meaning Title: Besides the political meaning, "Union" also describes Grant and Mary's marriage, as shown when Mary disavows a reconciliation with Grant by saying "the state of our union is strictly political."
- Drink Order: Spike tells the Matthews' butler what drinks should be served: Judge Alexander (a Southerner) will "probably stick to straight bourbon"; his Lady Drunk wife requests Sazeracs and a lot of them.
- Driving a Desk: Flying a desk, and very noticeable in the scene where Grant is supposedly doing barrel rolls and inverting his plane, and stuff that should be falling to the ceiling isn't.
- Election Day Episode: Sort of. The whole plot is about campaigning for the Republican nomination, but Grant quits the race before the convention.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Mary calls Kay a bitch."I think Kay would be more comfortable in a kennel."
- Graceful Loser: When Grant's fiery speech and withdrawal from the race makes it clear that the game is up, Kay and Conover walk out without saying a word, Conover yammering in Kay's ear about some other political hopeful.
- Love Triangle: Between Grant, Grant's wife, and Grant's mistress.Kay: I'm the corner of this triangle that's going to take the beating.
- Malicious Misnaming: When Conover expresses irritation with Spike for consistently botching the spelling of Conover's name, Spike tells him to be grateful he didn't spell it "Conniver".
- The Mistress: Kay is Grant's, even though both of them deny it.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Grant is based on Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican nominee for President, who had been a businessman and corporate lawyer before running for office. Specifically, Willkie's affair with book reviewer Irita Van Doren informs his relationship with Kay.
- No Party Given: A notable aversion, as Grant is explicitly a Republican. Besides which, there's much discussion of real Republican politicians of the era like Thomas Dewey (the real-life nominee in 1948) and Harold Stassen.
- Sexy Silhouette: Grant is distracted by the curvaceous shadow cast by Mary as she's changing in the next room.
- Skunk Stripe: Kay, the villain of the piece who is both corrupting Matthews politically and trying to take him away from Mary, has the standard white stripe in her hair.
- Sleazy Politician: All the sleazebags who start swarming around Grant, each out for their special interests, each wanting payoffs and making demands, all out for themselves.
- Some of My Best Friends Are X: When Mrs. Alexander mentions that she's a Democrat like most Southerners, Grant says, "Some of my best friends are Democrats."
- Take That!: "I haven't enjoyed myself this much since Huey Long died!"
- Title Drop: Mary asks Jim "What's the state of the Union? What are you reports on Grant?"
- Vice-President Who?: An irritated Mary forces Grant to sleep on the floor, but not before sarcastically saying "Good night, Mr. President!" The play's Act One ends on that line, but in the movie, Grant shoots back with "You mean Mr. Vice President, don't you?"
- Your Cheating Heart: Grant has been carrying on an affair with Kay for some time.