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?

Enter Bunny, the reference department's fearless leader. She sweeps into the room all abuzz about a new dress she snagged at Bonhams when her co-workers ambush her to warn her about this Sumner guy. Richard asks to speak to Bunny alone, leading Bunny to give her friends a hilarious "I-have-no-idea-who-the-hell-this-is" look as she follows him into her office. Their conversation doesn't really help solve the mystery, either. Richard says he is a sort of efficiency expert, but before they
can speak much more, Mr. Azae calls for Richard to come to his office. The girls burst into Bunny's office, but she says there is nothing they can really do but go back to work. I could watch a whole two-hour movie of just Katharine Hepburn at an office job, I find her that spellbinding, but Desk Set is amazing because Hepburn plays a character that is so brilliant and so completely true to herself -- there is nothing phony about Bunny Watson, or any of the women in this movie. They all have jobs that they love and that they strive to be good at, and their focus is never getting married and leaving the workforce forever. As Ruthie says, they worked too hard to get where they are and they want to stay there.

Anyway, in Azae's office, Richard uses a lot of technical gibberish in reference to whatever special mission he is on and Azae asks him to keep the nature of his work at FBC a secret. They're not totally sure that Richard's work will be a success, and the company has a big merger coming up so word can't be leaked. The reference department can't even know what's going on, although Richard will be hanging around there for a while for research.

Back in Bunny's office, she shows Peg her pretty, new dress, one that she bought in preparation for an upcoming dance that she is hoping her boyfriend and boss Mike Cutler (Gig Young) invites her to. Bunny and Mike have been an item for seven years, but Peg thinks the guy is overrated and she doesn't appreciate that he makes a fool out of Bunny by consistently waiting last minute to ask her on dates, knowing full well that Bunny always keeps a clear schedule just in case. Peg advises her
friend to stop being so available: "You're like an old coat. Every time he opens his closet, there you are. Don't be there once." Bunny is too afraid, though: "He'd just go out and buy a new coat." It's sad to see such an incredible gal be so insecure, but Bunny can't help it -- she is dreamy-eyed over Mike, despite him not deserving her. This is immediately clear when he comes in a minute later. He's smug and arrogant, but still a touch charming so I can somewhat believe that Bunny would fall
for him. Somewhat. Bunny tries to play it cool and casual when he finally asks her to the dance, but once he leaves, she goes running to Peg. Humorously, Peg takes her friend's excitement to mean that Mike proposed, only to chide Bunny when she finds out it's just about the stupid dance. In other words, Mike's invitation should have been a given, not something for Bunny to hang her hopes and dreams on. You tell her, Peg!

Richard returns to the department and asks Bunny to lunch later. She accepts, only to be kept waiting when the time comes. When Richard does appear, he surprises her by taking her up to the roof for a sack lunch in the winter air. I absolutely adore this scene. If anyone had any doubt as to the authenticity of Tracy and Hepburn's chemistry, they should watch this because it is magnificent. Richard tests Bunny with math questions and puzzles. To his amazement, she aces it all. I love it when
he gets a satisfied look on his face, thinking he finally has a riddle that will stump her, only to be bested once again. This scene is so simple, yet the acting is so superb. Eventually, Bunny reveals that she did quite a bit of checking up on Mr. Sumner before their lunch. She knows his whole background, and more importantly, she knows that he is the inventor of the computer EMERAC, the "Electromagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator." Interesting...

When Bunny returns from lunch, Peg is in a sweat, having heard that Richard is there to replace their department with EMERAC, just like he did with his machine in payroll. Bunny calms her down, but the office is tense over the weeks as Richard sticks around. One rainy day, Mike shows up to cancel his and Bunny's date for the dance due to a business trip. She is disappointed and works late, accidentally locking up the office with Richard still there. They leave together and wind up catching a
car ride with another employee and his irritating family. Bunny invites Richard to her place to dry off and have dinner. She lets Richard use the robe she bought for Mike for Christmas and they have a lovely conversation over homemade fried chicken that Richard makes. As they're eating dessert, the doorbell rings and Mike is there! He is quietly furious that another man is in Bunny's apartment, particularly one that looks so cozy being there. When Richard comments that Mike should've phoned
first out of common courtesy, Mike retorts that he never expected to find anybody but Bunny there. "Thank you," she acidly replies. Mike then insinuates that Bunny and Richard are sleeping together, which is finally the last straw for Bunny. They've been together for seven years and he jumps to that conclusion? Not to mention the fact that he was the one who cancelled their plans and then randomly appeared. Richard tries to explain why he is there, but things get worse when Mike realizes
Richard is wearing his new robe. Peg then arrives and she and Richard make themselves scarce so Mike can apologize to Bunny. She doesn't really accept the apology, but she doesn't throw him out on his ear, either. Once he leaves, the mood is instantly lighter. Richard pretends to be drunk and makes himself look disorderly. Apparently this moment was improvised by Tracy, with Hepburn and Blondell's laughter being the real deal.

Some time passes and it's now very close to Christmas Day. The whole FBC building is celebrating their last workday before the holiday, with every department throwing huge parties. Figuring that this will be their last Christmas party together, the women in the reference department decide to live it up. Champagne is flowing like crazy, leaving Bunny and Peg very inebriated, much to Richard's (and our) amusement. When Peg begins a story with "I got on the Mexican Avenue bus
the other day," Bunny bursts into adorable giggles. "The Mexican Avenue bus! You mean the Mexington Avenue bus, don't you, Peg?" Bunny says, neither one of them correct. They then present Richard with a gift from the department: a striped scarf. This film excels in subtly building Bunny and Richard's relationship, the scarf being a good example. It took a lot of work to find since Bunny wanted it to be in Richard's college colors, making it a very thoughtful present.

Mike bursts in with his presents for Bunny, including a giant stuffed bunny. (Really?) Instead of the robe, Bunny gives him a set of bongos, which he actually seems to appreciate. He can't stay for the reference department's shindig, though, thanks to some meeting with Azae, and it doesn't take long before those bongos find their way to Richard. (Symbolism!) He plays them while Bunny drunkenly warbles "Night and Day" as she twirls his scarf around. We then cut to a little later at the
fete, where Bunny and Richard are now on the second floor of the department, pretending to be ship passengers departing for a trip. They sit on the floor to have some more champagne, their conversation slowly becoming more intimate. She asks him why he has never married and he tells her that he came very close to it at one point. While he was away during WWII, his fiancee wrote him many letters, all of them about fashion and silly things. She soon married a buddy of his, but it was no big
loss. Bunny accuses Richard of really being in love with EMERAC. "That's the reason your socks never match," she reasons, recalling a moment from the first day they met when she surmised that Richard lived alone because no one told him before he left his house that his socks were mismatched. "My socks match today! Look!" Richard replies. "They've matched for some time, you just hadn't noticed it" he adds, implying that he has been paying more attention to his appearance for her sake. Noticing how serious things are getting, Bunny gets up to leave when Richard stops her with "I'll bet you write wonderful letters." How sweet is that?! Watch it here.

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.

The party having dwindled, Sylvia, Peg, Ruthie, and Richard invite Bunny to come with them as they take the soiree to a bar. As they start to go, however, a woman named Ms. Warringer comes in, looking for Richard. She works for his lab and she is all ready to begin the installation of EMERAC. Richard isn't pleased -- she was supposed to come after Christmas and he clearly wanted to break the news to the girls more gently than this. Ms. Warringer's comments about moving desks and saving FBC man-hours is brutal for Bunny and Co. to hear, confirming their fears about being replaced by the machine. It's a pretty sobering scene, made all the more poignant when Richard and Ms. Warringer exit, leaving the women to silently stand and contemplate what they'll do next.

A few weeks go by and after compiling all of the department's data onto punch cards to be read by EMERAC, the monstrous computer is all set up. Ms. Warringer proudly oversees the machine, and if you ask me, she's a bit too obsessed with it. She seems more comfortable (and gentle!) with EMERAC, or Emmy, than she is with human beings, as evidenced by her constant scolding of the reference department -- no smoking! keep the door closed! don't touch that! The
women then have to endure a demonstration Richard holds for the FBC executives to show how great Emmy is, its purpose being to spit out information in a fraction of the time it took the women to search for it. Bunny slyly asks it a question that took Ruthie three weeks to find, but annoyingly, Emmy has it within seconds. It's an interesting parallel of that rooftop scene, Bunny getting a taste of how Richard felt when he attempted to outwit her. When the ladies' paychecks arrive, they find the inevitable pink slips that means they're fired.

Bummed, they start packing up their desks and decide to let Ms. Warringer take care of the ringing phone. It doesn't take long for her to completely crack under the pressure, as she struggles to take down a simple question and Emmy churns out the wrong answer. The women are utterly bemused, and Bunny sends Peg to get the right answer. Another question comes in and this time, Ms. Warringer accidentally spells Corfu, the island, as "curfew," inciting Emmy to print out the very long poem
"Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight" by Rose Hartwick Thorpe. By this time, Richard has walked in and while Sylvia goes off to get the correct answer, Bunny has a grand time dramatically reciting the poem. Both EMERAC and Ms. Warringer break down, thrilling the ladies who are obviously superior to the machine. Richard, meanwhile, is confused. Why aren't they answering the phone? When Bunny replies that they've been dismissed, he can't believe it. He then gets his own pink slip, despite
not being on the payroll! Richard gets on the phone and angrily accuses Azae of breaking his promise in regards to keeping the reference department employed. He gets chewed out by Azae, however -- his machine in payroll malfunctioned and everyone in the building got pink slips! Finally, Richard sets the record straight with the ladies: EMERAC is supposed to help them, not replace them. Its function is to answer the easy questions so they can tackle the more difficult requests.

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!

Bunny is charmed, but she doesn't think a marriage between them would work out. Richard is too involved with EMERAC, and Bunny Watson is no longer accepting second place. To prove she is wrong, Richard lets her press a button that makes Emmy malfunction and acts like he doesn't care... until he can't stand it anymore and grabs a hairpin from Bunny to quickly fix it. Bunny accepts it, though, because you know what? She can definitely defeat Emmy any day of the week.

Kate Hepburn and Spencer Tracy had been together since 1942, when they first worked together for the film Woman of the Year. By the time of Desk Set, they had been a couple for about fifteen years and would continue to be one until Tracy's death in 1967, just days after they had completed their last partnered film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? Dina Merrill, heiress to the Post fortune and the actress who played Sylvia, recalled that Tracy and Hepburn were "so generous and so nice and kind." Tracy had grown fond of Merrill and tried to get her cast in his next movie, Ten North Frederick, but when the studio wouldn't relent, he left the picture and was replaced by Gary Cooper.

You can see Desk Set on Netflix Instant, or you can watch it on YouTube in twelve parts. Enjoy!

With love,
Michaela

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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.

Comments

  1. First, I need to say your blog looks gorgeous with the new layout - it's clean, lovely and cute!
    Second, I own this film on DVD, but never watched it. I heard it's a great flick to see near Christmas, and maybe I'll do exactly that this year.
    Kisses!
    Le

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much! I'm super happy with the new layout, which doesn't happen often. Thanks again for noticing!

      Yes, this is a good film for Christmastime -- it's a feel-good charmer, for sure!

      Delete
  2. Nice review. I've never seen the movie, but you certainly make its charms clear. As for that poster at the top of your blog, of course it couldn't possibly be him, but the guy resembles Matthew Perry more than it does Spencer Tracy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha, Matthew Perry! You're right! I have a feeling you'd like this one. Hepburn is just such a delight (it's one of her goofiest roles, in a good way), and Tracy is fun as an oddball engineer. Thanks for reading!

      Delete

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