Hepburn and Tracy match wits in... Desk Set (1957)
I love everything about this poster... except that man that's supposedly Spencer Tracy. It reminds me of some other actor, but I can't quite put a finger on it. Anyway, despite touting for years that Katharine Hepburn is my everything, including on this blog, I have yet to review one of her films. How is that possible, you ask? I'm not sure. It might be because I try to use my blog to introduce people to lesser-known films, or at least films that don't get reviewed as often as Adam's Rib, The Philadelphia Story, The African Queen, or many other Hepburn vehicles. Kate's 109th birthday yesterday is the perfect occasion to discuss one of her movies, particularly one that co-starred Spencer Tracy. Not only is Desk Set my second favorite Tracy-Hepburn flick, it's also #8 out of the nine films the couple did.
Desk Set is notable for a lot of things -- it was Kate and Spence's first color film together, their first CinemaScope film, and their first film away from MGM; it focuses on computers taking over the workplace, foreshadowing today's landscape; it's directed by Walter Lang, the king of colorful, breezy pictures; and it features Joan Blondell! That last tidbit is important because in my book, Blondell is a queen and seeing her pal around with Hepburn makes you wish they had made at least twenty films together. The script was written by Henry and Phoebe Ephron, who also penned another favorite, Daddy Long Legs (1955). Desk Set was originally a Broadway play by William Marchant, starring Shirley Booth as the character of Bunny Watson. While the material did have Spencer Tracy's character Richard Sumner, Sumner was more of a supporting player and only had a few scenes -- clearly, the Ephrons needed to change that if they were going to capitalize on the chemistry of Tracy and Hepburn.
The film starts in glorious 1950's New York, where the Federal Broadcasting Company (basically NBC) resides. We meet Richard Sumner as he introduces himself to a secretary and asks to see FBC president Mr. Azae, only to be informed that he's a day early. No worries, Richard will just go ahead and check out the reference department while he waits. It's all very mysterious, leading the secretary to call the reference department once Richard leaves. The phone is answered by
Peg (Blondell), who is puzzled by this Sumner guy. She shares the news with her co-workers, Sylvia (Dina Merrill) and Ruthie (Sue Randall), but they hardly have time to discuss it -- calls regularly come in with questions ranging from the astrological signs to the names of Santa's reindeer, and these gals are ridiculously good at their job. When Richard finally appears, he stupefies them as he measures the room without any explanations. Who is this stranger?
this because it is magnificent. Richard tests Bunny with math questions and puzzles. To his amazement, she aces it all. I love it when
Downstairs in her office, Mike arrives with the news that he has been promoted to vice president of the company's west coast operations. Once he and Bunny move out there, they can get married -- isn't that great? Bunny comes up with valid concerns, but Mike brushes them off. What about her apartment? Peg can get rid of it! What about her job? She's in charge of taking care of him! And her friends? Oh, they can visit! The more they talk, the louder the sound of bongos becomes, irritating Mike as he discovers that it's own bongos being played by Richard. It doesn't take long for the conversation to turn bitter and angry, ending with Mike leaving in a huff.
Richard goes to fix the payroll machine, but when he sees Mike head towards Bunny's office, he goes back and fiddles with EMERAC while keeping an eye on them, Bunny's body language indicating that she is breaking up with Mike. Richard interrupts them to ask Bunny for help with Emmy; once they're alone, he explains that he asked Emmy a question, but she had trouble computing an answer. "What question?" Bunny inquires, to which Richard responds by typing into EMERAC "Should Bunny Watson marry Mike Cutler?" Unsurprisingly, the answer is "no." Richard then types in "Should Bunny Watson marry Richard Sumner?" The answer is again "no." Oops!
You can see Desk Set on Netflix Instant, or you can watch it on YouTube in twelve parts. Enjoy!
This is my contribution to the Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, a delightful celebration hosted by Margaret Perry. You must check out the roster here. That's an order.