Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn were one of the great screen couples in Hollywood history. Longtime lovers in real life, they made nine films together over a 25 year span, starting with Woman of the Year (1942) and ending with Tracy's last film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). Desk Set, their eighth film together and the first in color, may not be their funniest, but it does make for a very pleasant night at the movies.
Adapted from William Merchant's stage play by Phoebe and Henry Ephron (parents of writer/director Nora), Desk Set is most memorable as a clever 1950s era workplace comedy. I find its setting particularly charming: the research archives of a TV network, run with a loving hand by brainy Bunny Watson (Hepburn). One day, affable engineer Richard Sumner (Tracy) begins poking around the department, measuring between the walls and generally reviewing the efficiency of the work done by Bunny and her three assistants: best pal Peg (Joan Blondell), glamorous Sylvia (Dina Merrill) and bright rookie Ruthie (Sue Randall).
Sumner is the designer of an early "super computer" called EMARAC (Electromagnetic Memory And Research Arithmetical Calculator) which the company plans to install in the department. The women become increasingly concerned that Sumner's machine will put them out of business, displacing their hard-earned expertise and customer service skills with cold, ruthlessly efficient circuits.
Despite this, they can't help warming to Sumner, especially Bunny, who appreciates the kind of attention she rarely gets from her long-time boyfriend Mike Cutler (Gig Young), an ambitious executive upstairs who takes Bunny's affections for granted. Mike catches on to the budding romance between Bunny and Richard before they do. But will the arrival of EMARAC render the Research Department staff obsolete, as the ladies fear? And if so, can Bunny forgive Sumner for letting this happen?
Desk Set is a breezy, relaxed comedy. No frenetic pratfalls here, just a bunch of good actors playing likeable characters in a easygoing story. The romance between Tracy and Hepburn is a slow burner, but we buy it because the pair work so well together. Tracy is just so solid and natural onscreen. What he does he makes look completely effortless. He's not handsome, he's a bit old and doughy, dressed in a fairly nondescript suit through most of the film, yet he totally commands the screen whenever he's appears. It's a completely different sort of charisma than most other "manly" screen icons, like Clark Gable, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood or Humphrey Bogart. It's a quieter sort of presence, but just as powerful, and accompanied by his consistently wry sense of humor.
Hepburn, of course, is a powerhouse of a different sort. She's an actress who flourishes when playing intelligently-written parts and she's got a good one here. There's a wonderful extended scene between her and Tracy, when they have lunch on the rooftop, he quizzes her memory skills, and she blows him away with the speed and accuracy of her complex weave of mental associations. Hepburn possessed a particularly glorious, megawatt smile that transformed her bony, patrician features into a look of warmth and true beauty. She also is a proven master of fast, hyperactive dialogue, and gets some great stuff to do here. She and Tracy by this time in their careers fit comfortably together like the proverbial pair of old slippers; she's the busy, dazzling, dramatic yin to his craggy, unruffled yang.
Joan Blondell is good value as no-nonsense friend Peg, and perpetual also-ran Gig Young plays a slightly more caddish beau here than he did in Teacher's Pet and The Tunnel of Love (both 1958). It's hard to imagine the debonair Young as the dissipated murderer he would eventually become. Harry Ellerbe reprises his stage role of nosy Smithers from Accounting, and gets some memorable reaction shots. It's nice to see Dina Merrill here, an attractive screen presence who knew her way around a barbed one-liner; she also stars in one of my favorite 50s comedies, 1959's Operation Petticoat. 50s and 60s TV standby Sue Randall has less to work with but is nevertheless entertaining as the wide-eyed junior member of the team.
The supporting cast is all fine, no grandstanding performances allowed here - this isn't the type of laugh-out-loud comedy that requires a lot of heavy-handed face pulling or other kinds of schtick. Everyone seems to fit naturally into this very 50s office workplace environment. The extended Christmas party scene is a highlight, as we see the staff really let their hair down and guzzle a shocking amount of alcohol on company premises, something that would never pass in today's corporate culture.
And we mustn't forget EMARAC, another one of those improbably huge early computers (the movie opens with a "special thanks to IBM" credit) that must have seemed ultra-futuristic to moviegoers back then, but which looks quaint and clunky to modern eyes. This gentle swipe at the mechanization of the modern workforce adds a little thematic weight to the proceedings, and the bulky design of the super computer adds a nice visual touch in the final moments of the film.
The movie has always suffered in past TV airings, as it's CinemaScope frame was heedlessly butchered and hacked into the full frame 4:3 ratio, losing director Walter Lang's careful-designed widescreen compositions and split-screen effects. I remember watching it as a kid and sometimes wondering what was going on, so bad was the image cropped. This film and The Man from Laramie are two prime examples from my early movie watching days where, long before I had any knowledge of aspect ratios and directorial intent, I just knew something was very, very wrong with what was being broadcast. Most prints local TV stations aired of 2:35:1 films weren't even panned and scanned; they were just cropped down the middle, so, in the case of Laramie, I'd see Jimmy Stewart's nose on one side of the screen and Arthur Kennedy's on the other (and sometimes, as a sort of compensation, pretty Cathy O'Connell's face in the middle.) That's one of the greatest boons of the DVD and Blu-Ray era: simply being able to watch so many of these great widescreen films the way they were meant to be seen.
Desk Set is the sort of classy Hollywood romantic comedy that is miles more enjoyable and witty than what passes for such fare nowadays. A large part of its appeal is a cast of seasoned pros, of course, but what really marks the difference is the scripting. Desk Set might not seem to have much of a plot on the surface, but the unhurried nature of the story allows it to unfold naturally out of events and personalities, rather than the rigidly-imposed generic structures that shackle most offerings today. And there's just something ineffably appealing about the bright, Technicolor world presented in these 50s comedies, with their fascination with "futuristic" design and burgeoning technology, and their optimistic outlook on the future. It's the sort of film to curl up with on the sofa when you're feeling a little bit under the weather, and let its cheery banter wrap around you like a warm blanket.
DVD Note: Fox's Studio Classics DVD offers a solid, correctly-framed (hooray!) presentation, which looks nice enough but would certainly benefit from a spruced-up Blu-Ray release. Since this is stingy Fox we're talking about, the chances of this happening are slim.
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