Desk Set (1957)

At the Federal Broadcasting Network in Midtown Manhattan, Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn) is in charge of its reference library, which is responsible for researching facts and answering questions on all manner of topics, great and small. Watson has been involved for seven years with rising network executive Mike Cutler (Gig Young), with no marriage in sight.

The network is negotiating a merger with another company, but is keeping it secret. To help the employees cope with the extra work that will result, the network head has ordered two computers, or “electronic brains.” Methods Engineer and efficiency expert Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy), the inventor of EMERAC (“Electromagnetic MEmory and Research Arithmetical Calculator”), is brought in to see how the library functions, to figure out how to ease the transition. Though extremely bright, as he gets to know Bunny Watson, he is surprised to discover that she is every bit his match.

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When they find out the computers are coming, the employees jump to the conclusion they are being replaced. Their fears seem to be confirmed when everyone on the staff receives a pink slip printed out by the new payroll computer. Fortunately, it turns out to be a mistake; the machine fired everybody in the company, including the president.

Richard Sumner reveals his romantic interest in Bunny Watson, but she believes that EMERAC would always be his first priority. Sumner denies it, but then Watson puts him to the test, setting the machine to self-destruct. Sumner resists the urge to fix it as long as possible, but finally gives in. Watson accepts him anyway.

Reception

Bosley Crowther, film critic of The New York Times, felt the film was “out of dramatic kilter”, inasmuch as Hepburn was simply too “formidable” to convincingly play someone “scared by a machine”, resulting in “not much tension in this thoroughly lighthearted film”

Today the film is seen far more favorably, with the sharpness of the script praised in particular; it currently has a rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 17 reviews.Dennis Schwartz of Osuz’ World Movie Reviews called it an “inconsequential sex comedy”, but contended “the star performers are better than the material they are given to work with” and that “the comedy was so cheerful and the banter between the two was so refreshingly smart that it was easy to forgive this bauble for not being as rich as many of the legendary duo’s other films together.

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Very enjoyable comedy

4 March 2003 | by Robert J. Maxwell (rmax304823@yahoo.com) (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

Well, I suppose it lacks the deeper moral carried by “Adam’s Rib,” although it does deal with issues that have so far turned out to be less important than gender equality, such as the impact of automation on the work force. But none of that is very important anyway. It’s a light romantic comedy set in the research department of a major broadcasting company. And Hepburn’s name is Bunny, but again, so what? Would it be a better movie if she were called Mildred?

It has the closed-in act structure of a play too, and it’s obvious. There are other theatrical staples as well. How many plays include a drunken party at the end of the second act? (Exactly two hundred and forty-two.) Movies are similarly put together, especially those based on plays: “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “The Boys in the Band,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Often the alcohol consumption takes place at a Christmas party, as it does here, and in “The Apartment.” Understanding that the characters’ higher reasoning centers are partly paralyzed and their judgment impaired gives the writer a chance to have them behave outrageously without having to explain why they’ve lost their senses, and the audience understands this convention. Drunken conviviality doesn’t always work on screen. It can leave the viewer feeling like the only sober person at the bash, which is why John Ford largely left the events up to the viewer’s imagination. It doesn’t work too well here, either. It’s not the actors’ fault. They convey that chemically induced jollity very well; it’s that the lines are sometimes silly — that “Mexican Avenue bus” business, for instance. You’d have to have been there to find it as amusing as Hepburn and Joan Blondell do.

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None of this undermines the amusement quotient of the film. It’s relaxed, pleasant, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. The story is well laid out, dated though it may seem to some, the interpersonal relationships clearly delineated and squeezed of every chuckle.

But it’s the performers that get the job done here. Blondell’s role seems to have been made for her, the down-to-earth blonde. Gig Young too is smooth in his usual careless charming playboy part, a touchstone for his career, as in “That Touch of Mink” and “Ask Any Girl.” There are certain lines that no one can deliver better than he. Hepburn has been trying to get him to marry her for a long time and when he finally suggests they tie the knot, there is an argument, and he storms out the office door, but not before delivering his exit line: “Seven YEARS I’ve waited!” The other “girls” are intelligent and sexy. I have to mention Neva Patterson too, as Emerac’s nurse. When the obscene machine begins to pant and puff out smoke, the other staff rush to help, but a hysterical Patterson screams at them, “Don’t you TOUCH her!”

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Tracey and Hepburn, no longer kids, are superb. They’re top notch all the way through, and they have a couple of set pieces that are about as funny as anything they’ve done on screen. One is a sort of quiz Tracey gives her on the roof. Another, the best in the film, takes place while Tracey visits her apartment to dry his clothes and is caught in a bathrobe by Gig Young, who happens to drop in at the incriminating moment. I defy anyone not to laugh as Tracey clumps out the door with his shoes smoking and his hat pulled down around his ears. The third, having to do with EMERAC’s nervous breakdown, is also well done if a bit frantic.

Not a comic masterpiece. It’s too relaxed for that. But recommended without qualification.

Trivial Pursuit with Emirac

7/10
Author: bkoganbing from Buffalo, New York
1 May 2005

Desk Set was the next to last teaming of Tracy and Hepburn and the first one away from MGM. It does have a different look to the product they did at MGM. Still good, but different. Probably because this was done in Cinemascope and Technicolor.

Hard to believe that Cinemascope would be used on a film essentially set indoors and on one set, the set being Hepburn’s office. But that was to show the immense size of Emirac the giant computer being installed there which Katharine and her staff think is going to replace them.

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Desk Set had been on Broadway two year ago and had a respectable run. It starred Shirley Booth in Katharine Hepburn’s part and the rest of the cast were not names by any means. I’m sure Spencer Tracy’s role had to be built up from the stage version.

Even so, the film is essentially Hepburn’s. As usual in their films she has a rival to Tracy. In the past that part was played by such people as Melvyn Douglas, David Wayne, William Ching, and now Gig Young. It seemed like every movie comedy in the late 50s and early 60s had either Young or Tony Randall as the defeated rival role. Young gives his patented performance here.

A running gag throughout the film are the calls handled by Hepburn’s staff at the broadcast network for inane information. Like someone up in the corporate headquarters is playing trivial pursuit.

Also look for good performances by Joan Blondell, Sue Randall, and Dina Merrill as Hepburn’s staff and Neva Patterson as Emirac’s installer and keeper.

A good addition to the Tracy-Hepburn pantheon.

I adore this movie.

10/10
Author: budmassey (cyberbarrister@gmail.com) from Indianapolis, IN
2 May 2001

It comes as no surprise that the 30-second attention span generation finds this jewel a little dull. There is no quick-cut music video cinematography. The characters are all actually old enough to be believable in their roles. which are not based on clothing or haircuts. It depends on talent rather than hype. And most of all, it is far too intelligent, witty and literate for today’s garbage-numbed Philistine.

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The story is simple, as all good stories are. Hepburn feels her job, and those of her staff, are threatened by Tracy and his ominous computer. It may not sound like much in this day of computer ubiquity, but substitute dot.com flop or outsourcing for computer and you have a contemporary comedy that still works.

Let’s ignore the leads for just a moment. The supporting cast, which includes Joan Blondell as the arch-typical right-hand man, or should I say woman, and Gig Young as the chauvinistic, corporate climbing fiancé, easily outclasses what passes for marquee stars today. Husband and wife team Henry and Phoebe Ephron, parents of Nora Ephron, contribute a brilliantly witty script that, unfortunately for modern moviegoers, isn’t peppered with vaudevillian pratfalls to help point out the funny parts. Instead, it relies on the intelligence of the audience and draws on that of the cast to produce a humor that never ages.

Hepburn is almost universally considered the greatest film actress ever. Tracy is utterly magnificent, and the chemistry between the two of them, owing of course in part to their long-standing relationship, is palpable.

I adore this movie, and if there were a Canon of Cinema, this would be in it.

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