Desk Set May 28, 2015
Desk Set is a middle-of-the-road romantic comedy, a love story that finds its fifty-plus-year-old actors fascinated by feelings they had given up on pursuing years ago. The romance in Desk Set is I-had-given-up-on-marriage-until-now love, I-love-you-but-I-also-like-you-love, never to pander to the cheapened studio ilk.
It’s impossible not to admire Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy's repartee. Though real-life lovers, their nine films together were never exactly defined by their sexual chemistry; never an issue was a will-they-or-won’t they hot and heavy love scene. If anything romantic occurs between the two, they first must size the other down, figure out the other’s IQ. Maybe they will find the time to peck the other on the cheek in spite of repressed affection, but partaking in particularly witty conversation is much more fruitful than tiresome romance.
Desk Set is their most underrated two hours; most favor 1949’s wonderful Adam’s Rib or 1942’s Woman of the Year (whose popularity I'm perplexed by). Released in 1957, there is more studio flavor than usual, lavish CinemaScope photography having something to do with it. But a dexterity akin to Designing Woman is becoming for the two aged stars. The loud colors of the atmosphere, along with energy abundant dialogue, only reflect the pair’s million-miles-a-minute personalities. We find comfort in seeing them together, relishing each other’s company at the hands of a budget happy studio.
Hepburn plays Bunny Watson, the head honcho of a TV network’s research department. Knowledge hungry individuals call on an hourly basis, loaded with statistically minded questions. Bunny and her female associates, hardly breaking a nail, are almost human computers, able to recite obscure factual evidence as if it were a golden memory from their childhood.
Problems arise when Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) arrives on the scene. An efficiency expert hoping to increase productivity in the research department, Richard hopes to eventually replace Bunny and her associates with a supercomputer. He doesn’t make this quite clear right away, though; he instead inserts himself in the area, analyzing every moment, only slightly hinting at his ulterior motive. It doesn’t take much time for a relationship to develop between Richard and Bunny, two lonelyhearts who never had the time, or the drive, to distract themselves with marriage. If only Bunny’s longtime boyfriend (Gig Young), who hardly has plans for the future, would stop getting in the way.
Desk Set’s premise is dated, but its charm has hardly faltered. Not much imagination is put into the direction or the set design — most of the film is locked in one setting — but Hepburn and Tracy kill (as does their always welcome co-star Joan Blondell), and the screenplay, written by husband and wife team Henry and Phoebe Ephron, glides thanks to its seamless wit. It’s all lightweight and busy. But Desk Set is a shining fixture in the Hepburn/Tracy canon. B+