Episode 32 of 52: In which Katharine Hepburn plays a woman named Bunny who starts a battle of wits with Spencer Tracy's computer. That's actually the plot.
Desk Set is a strange movie that feels both dated and ahead of its time. Its office setting, midcentury style, and technophobic slant are all signs of 1950s comedy. But in tone it stands apart. The 1930s screwball comedies and the 1940s battles of the sexes had given way to two subgenres in the 1950s: sex comedies (typically starring Marilyn Monroe), or romantic comedies (typically starring Doris Day or alternately Audrey Hepburn, depending on the ratio of laughs to romance).However, Desk Set fits into neither category comfortably. Nor is this second-to-last Tracy/Hepburn collaboration a throwback to their 40s battles.
So, where does Desk Set fit? Considering the flirty bickering over lunch, the playful bantering over dinner, the details about food, the major character revelations during holidays, and the amicable way the leads transition from friendship to romance, Desk Set resembles nothing so much as an Ephron romcom.
And that’s exactly what Desk Set is.
Phoebe and Henry Ephron, Nora Ephron’s parents, adapted Desk Set from a play by William Marchant for director Walter Lang, and in the process added some of what we’d later consider true Ephron touches. Kate plays Bunny, a reference librarian for the Federal Broadcast Company with an eidetic memory and an incredible wardrobe (by Charles Le Maire). A computer engineer named Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy), is assigned to create a computer for the reference department that Bunny fears will end the librarians’ jobs. Like any good Ephron comedy, these issues must be poked at. Preferably over lunch.
It’s no fake orgasm at the table, but Bunny’s quick wits earn her as stunned a look from Sumner as Sally will get from Harry in 1989. That’s begrudging awe registering between the lines of Spencer Tracy’s face, a look he wears for the majority of the film. Those who have trouble with the lady-punishing aspect of earlier Tracy/Hepburn collaborations may want to try Desk Set. It has all of the perks--loving couple, comedy, sneaky feminism--with none of the punishment.
Desk Set is Kate’s movie. Spencer was recovering from his latest bout with alcoholism, while Kate was fresh off another national theater tour. Kate brings a bundle of tricks to the film - movie star charisma, classical recitations done in a Shakespearan style, more drunk acting than we’ve seen since The Philadelphia Story, and brilliant comedic back-and-forth with Joan Blondell. Blondell plays her usual man-crazy second banana to Kate’s more prim-and-proper lead, but after three bottles of champagne at the Christmas party, their comedic machinery is, shall we say, well-oiled:
Blondell: And here was this brand-new Coupe de Ville with the most attractive-looking gray-haired man in it. And he sloooowly drove around the block three times. And I could tell by the way he was looking at me that if I had been any other kind of a girl, it would have been the start of a very beautiful romance.
Hepburn: It has usually been my experience… when a car cruises around the block slowly, it has usually been my experience that they are mostly just looking for a place to park.
And what of EMERAC, the computer? It’s a plot device in the most literal sense; something for Kate to fret over and match wits with (since Spencer isn’t always up to the task). It doesn't even appear until the third act. The comedic climax pits Bunny against the monstrous machine like John Henry with an MLIS. But the script lacks any serious insight into how drastically this loud Macguffin will change the workplace. This, more than the beautiful midcentury modern look, is what dates the film.
Desk Set was the last comedy Kate would make for over almost two decades. She set a pattern in the 1950s--one Oscar nominee, one comedy, one Oscar nominee, one comedy, etc--that broke with her next film, Suddenly, Last Summer. It was a film which would launch the most lauded decade of Katharine Hepburn’s career, a period during which she was nominated for four Oscars and a Tony, and would win two of her eventual four Academy Awards. However, it was also the decade during which she’d lose a great deal. First, Kate had to go a little mad.
Next week, Suddenly, Last Summer is part of both Hit Me With Your Best Shot AND A Year with Kate! Watch the movie and choose your "best" image - post that to your own webspace (twitter, tumblr, blogger, whatever) by Tuesday evening, 8/12. Nathaniel will weigh in, then I’ll follow up here on Wednesday, 8/13. Pull up a chair! (Available on Amazon Prime.)