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« Technical Difficulties | Main | HMWYBS: The Saddest Children in the World Trilogy »
Wednesday
Aug062014

A Year with Kate: Desk Set (1957)

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.)

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Reader Comments (7)

This is my favorite of the Tracy/Hepburn pairings and one of my favorite Kate movies.
As you said Anne Marie it's very sharp looking with Kate, bun in place and as she says her hair naturally natural, fashionable in timeless business wear. Much more so than in her last few films she appears in what is close to her more signature look and everyone else looks like a million too, excepted for the rumbled Tracy which was his usual style and fit his character anyway. Aside from the wardrobe the production design, both the office's and Bunny's apartment, are knockouts.

It is much more her vehicle than his and she acts more girlish than she's been in years in her initial scenes with Gig Young. But once Tracy enters the pair have the comfort level of long married partners. Kate does seem looser and more comfortable in the film than she has for a while too. Her Bunny may be unmarried and wants to be but it's not the pained longing of The Rainmaker or the closed up repression of Summertime. Her recitation of "Curfew Will Not Ring Tonight" gives her a chance to be slightly goofy and her little happy dance during Neva Patterson's meltdown is a delightfully unguarded moment.

I love that the reference department is fully staffed with women and except for a few jokes by Gig Young which are meant to be amiable they are all presented as fully capable of having those jobs. Sure Joan Blondell is a tad man hungry but it's not a defining characteristic of Peg. Speaking of Joan Blondell, hers is a gem of a performance and another reason I love the movie. She's sassy and clear eyed and a great sounding board for Kate so she and Tracy aren't as isolated from the rest of the cast as they sometimes were in their films.

The entire supporting cast is terrific. Poor Gig Young is stuck playing his usual snook who ends up out in the cold but he does it so well. Dina Merrill, effortlessly chic as always, and Sue Randall don't have much to do but they make believable office companions to Kate and Joan. Then there's Ida Moore's wordless bit as the company's original mascot which is great. Best of all though is Neva Patterson as the beleagued Miss Warriner, she's aces as she progresses from brisk efficiency to unhinged hysteria.

It's also a great movie to show kids who think computers just popped up in the tiny travel size they are now. It hints at the way computers would prevade our lives but of course how could the Ephrons know the extent that would be.

One last thing which really has no great import on the film. When the pair are having dinner and drying out in her apartment she serves floating island for dessert. It sounded so exotic when I first saw it as a kid I spent years trying to find some place that made it, not a simple task as it turned out! I finally found it in a restaurant when I was on vacation in Rouen about 25 years later!! Happily though it was worth the wait, it was amazingly delicious.

August 6, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I love this film, I saw it again recently and did not feel it had lost any of its appeal. It is also the last true Hepburn-Tracy film, in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Kate's is almost a supporting role with the focus on Poitier and Houghton. Interestingly enough in the UK it was called His Other Woman which was also the working title for the movie.

August 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterUK Joe

UK Joe - I didn't know that! I did trip across the French title last night, which roughly translates to "A Woman's Head." I guess "Desk Set" must have been a specifically American colloquialism.

August 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Desk Set is one of my favourite movies from the 50's, it is a timepiece of good craftsmanship.
There is light witty dialogue, good ensemble acting, and best of all the timeless appeal of the classic Kate Hepburn. Single, intelligent, competent, and with an independence of spirit that is inspirational.

Notice that she rejects the man that takes advantage of her intelligence but doesn't really value it, and falls for the guy who falls for her because of her intelligence and attractiveness.
Phoebe and Henry Ephron co-wrote this and I like it just as much as some of the Garson/Kanin vehicles. It's certainly just as much fun as Pat & Mike which always gets more attention. The lunch scene is a gem, both for the writing and the acting.

Nora Ephron certainly wrote films with a similar love for New Yorkers and that really is the only flaw in Desk Set. It was clearly shot on a studio back lot, and suffers for it.
Nowadays that picnic scene on the roof would be in central park, or some other classic New York landmark. Nora Ephron picked up where her parents left of and gave us some great comedies without the gross out humour that pervades the current films of today.

Desk Set represents the first very real fears of where computerization and automation would take us. Technology as the double edged sword, will it be there to help us, or will it replace us? The answer is both. But since this was a comedy, the technology brings the couple together. A really fun Wednesday offering, thanks Anne Marie!
Btw. in Nora Ephron's "You've Got Mail" a new technology to bring another couple together.
Nora clearly learned from her parents.

August 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

This was on AMC all the time when I was growing up, and if I flipped to it I'd always finish it. My dad always refers to it as one of Hepburn and Tracy's "silly" movies, of which he is quick to say Adam's Rib is the best. (I might agree with him.) One thing I adore about Hepburn here - and I've missed many movies along the way, but you've inspired me to catch up on quite a few - is her comfort in her own skin. As much as I loved earlier comedies, there is an ease with owning the room that automatically makes the movie more interesting. The script may be cheesy, but this is the kind of performance that should have modern romcom ladies taking notes.

August 6, 2014 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

I've only seen this movie once, when I was about 10yo but for some reason still remember bits of it. I was surprised by the premise of the movie and remember how one character (Hepburn's?) kept mentioning some obscure data about forestry they'd researched in the past and also how at some point Tracy's character listed Santa's reindeers' names to some on the phone.

August 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCarlos

I have never made (until this post) the connection in Nora Ephron movies of holiday scenes. I wonder if her sisters performed the Orchestra Song at some distant past family gathering?

August 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

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