The magic hour chemistry between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn – always a money-maker – tops out in Walter Lang’s Desk Set (1957); a rather dated spoof about the computer age that has Tracy’s ‘efficiency expert’ Richard Sumner (Tracy) and his electronic brain – EMERAC – pitted against the hard-boiled wit and intelligence of plucky research analyst, Bunny Watson (Hepburn). Hepburn and Tracy: has there ever been a more perfect embodiment of the old married couple on the movie screen? And it’s a curiosity at that, since the pair only played an ‘old married couple’ twice in their tenure of nine movies. For the rest, they were either romantically sparing singles on the definite road to matrimony or kept apart by fate and circumstance. In Desk Set there’s a little of both conflicts at play and, at least in retrospect, this tends to water down the quixotic scenarios fleshed out in Phoebe and Henry Ephron’s occasionally mechanical screenplay. Tracy and Hepburn are at their best when left to their own accord and lumped together, given the full lay of the land to use as their platonic boxing ring. Desk Set doesn’t really give them this opportunity and it’s a shame but not a deal breaker.
The movie works, despite its misfires. For starters, Hepburn is just a tad long in the tooth to be convincing as the vacuous and adoring appendage to Gig Young’s blueblood exec, Mike Cutler. Hepburn’s exuberant “Oh Peg, he asked me!” after Mike has inquired about Bunny’s availability to attend a work-related social function, rings with all the giddy froth of a high school girl rather than a mature – and noticeably middle-age sharpshooter like Bunny. It doesn’t work. Then again, is there ever any doubt that Hepburn will leave this self-serving WASP for the more shrewdly matched Mr. Sumner? Of course, the answer is ‘no’. This is a Tracy/Hepburn movie and anyone who’s seen at least one other knows exactly where the plot is headed. Perhaps this is why the machinations that bring the couple together seem more contrived than challenging; not so much obstacles on the bumpy road to l’amour but obligatory ‘cute meets’ and ‘joyous defeats’ built around a premise we’ve already seen done elsewhere and to better effect.
What the screenplay has difficulty articulating exactly is the moment Bunny’s affections turn from Mike to Richard. After all, there doesn’t seem to be any transitional sequence to suggest Bunny’s waning affections for Mike. He’s been keeping her on the hook for seven years! She’s enraptured by the prospect of spending a cozy weekend with him. But after these plans fall apart due to company obligations, and Bunny shares a car ride in the pouring rain with Richard, fellow employee, Smithers (Harry Ellerbe) and his wife and mother-in-law, Bunny suddenly begins to favor Richard instead. It is problematic structuring like this that blunts the overall appeal of Desk Set.
Of course, the rest of the plot has something to do with this too. Desk Set is really a spoof on the modern age; the looming reality that ‘manpower’ must yield to the technological era of primitive digital computing. This sends the entire Federal Broadcasting Network into a tizzy with the prospect of overnight obsolescence and unemployment. Nowhere could the cuts be more devastating than to the firm’s research department, presently helmed by the elegant Ms. Watson and her three enterprising cohorts; Peg Costello (Joan Blondell), Sylvia Blair (Dina Merrill) and Ruthie Saylor (Sue Randall). What none of them are, as yet, aware of is that somewhere on the twenty-third floor a tête-à-tête between FBN’s president, Mr. Azae (Nicholas Joy) and efficiency expert Richard Sumner is taking place. Azae wants Richard to do a feasibility study on his research department and assess whether it is a candidate for the installation of a new ‘electronic brain’.
Of course, secrets don’t last too long around the steno pool. Soon, Smithers is telling Bunny that Azae has sent down for her employment record. It’s enough to leave any gal off her game. If only Bunny had made in-roads towards her seven year enterprising relationship with her boss, Mike Cutler. But Mike’s a rather devious sort, plying Bunny with gifts of affection while baiting her with the promise of marriage, yet never quite getting around to the proposal. Bunny’s ever the optimist. But Peg urges, ‘make yourself less available’. Regrettably, Bunny’s the “faithful as a birddog type and can’t be devious”. She wants Mike – or, at least, thinks she does. But Richard is an unknown quantity about to loom large on the horizon. In point of fact, he’s an odd duck just like Bunny. They’re a pair, and realize as much after Richard escorts Bunny to the rooftop terrace in the middle of a frigid November to quiz her on a skill’s test designed to stump her practicality and intelligence. Richard is absolutely fascinated when Bunny not only navigates the questionnaire with ease but also manages to analyze him in the process; pointing out that he is single simply because he’s wearing a pair of mismatched socks. She could certainly teach EMERAC a thing or two!
Richard decides then and there to get to know Bunny better. In the meantime, Bunny’s plans for a weekend retreat with Mike are dashed after the firm decides to send him on an impromptu conference in Chicago. After sharing a ride in the pouring rain to Bunny’s fashionable brownstone, Bunny encourages Richard to change out of his wet clothes and into the plush bathrobe she’s bought as a Christmas gift for Mike. She also invites him to stay for dinner. It’s all so quaintly domestic and – regrettably – utterly misconstrued by Mike, who arrives unexpectedly for a last minute stopover after his plane has been grounded due to inclement weather. Sumner is amused by Mike’s jealousy; the mood souring between Bunny and Mike after she finds his insinuations disgusting and insulting. However, Bunny does nothing to quell Mike’s suspicions. In fact, she fuels them. Peg arrives and is mildly intrigued by this turn of events. But Mike storms off in a huff. Sumner regales Peg with their ordeal, getting a rousing chuckle out of both ladies.
We fast track to Christmas Eve at the Federal Broadcasting Network; the entire office imbued with more than a cup of good cheer. In fact, they’ve been hitting the liquor pretty hard. Amidst all the holiday hullaballoo Bunny arrives with packages. She’s already two sheets to the wind but manages to give Mike the rather incongruous gift of a set of bongo drums. “What do you get the man who has everything?” she muses. Her gift for Richard is more personal; a scarf with his old alma mater colors. Popping champagne corks around the room and indulging in the gaiety with all her intoxicated fellow staffers, Bunny retreats to an overhead balcony with Richard where they share an introspective moment, each realizing that the other is the only one for them. Richard encourages everyone to join him for drinks at the Plaza. But the holiday atmosphere is deflated when his assistant, the overly officious, Miss Warriner (Neva Patterson) arrives to inform everyone that EMERAC will be installed the first of January inside the research department. Perhaps unemployment for Bunny and her brethren isn’t too far behind.
We turn over a new leaf, this one in the New Year; Peg, Ruthie and Sylvia inadvertently causing minor infractions (leaving a door open, attempting to light a cigarette) to EMERAC’s new ‘clean room’ policy. Miss Warriner has been ambitiously programming the computing system with a series of punch cards, storing vast quantities of data into its mainframe. Richard brings Azae and a group of executives down for a demonstration of this bulky vacuum-tubed apparatus. But only a few questions into the test EMERAC suffers a technical failure; Bunny and her research team coming to the aid with good old-fashioned know how and their finely honed research skills. Azae is impressed, but elects that there is room for both EMERAC and the ladies in his company. Afterward Richard assures Bunny that installing EMERAC was a precautionary measure since Azae has plans to ‘expand’ – not ‘close’ – the research department. There’s going to be too much work for even the girls to handle. Realizing how much she loves Richard, Bunny throws her arms around him and EMERAC signals it’s approval by spelling out the words ‘the end’ across its massive screen.
Desk Set isn’t a bad film. It isn’t even a bad Tracy/Hepburn movie. Arguably, the couple never made one. What it is - with very few exceptions - is bland; Fox relying on Cinemascope and color by DeLuxe to snazzy up the proceedings. Prior to this movie Tracy and Hepburn had only appeared in B&W. Charles LeMarie’s costuming is a 1950’s pastiche of flamboyantly collared, synched waist business attire. Maurice Lansford and Lyle Wheeler’s production design takes full advantage of the expansive widescreen frame, as does Leon Shamroy’s superb palette of bold and enriching colors. Yet for all its eye-popping visual appeal, Desk Set doesn’t necessarily benefit. Tracy and Hepburn keep the film alive, ably abetted by some slick writing from the Ephrons. When the screenplay clicks, excising the superfluous characters and concentrating on the chemistry between its two stars, then Desk Set sparkles with renewed brilliance as only a Tracy/Hepburn comedy of errors can. But these very fine moments are always being intruded upon by the secondary cast; each given precious little to do once they’ve entered the frame except look gorgeous as they stick their noses in places they ought not.
Let’s just get this one out of the way: Gig Young’s Mike Cutler isn’t even a third wheel, but a minor nuisance despite Young’s congenial self. When he dares attempt to play opposite Hepburn she eats him alive – practically unintentionally. He just can’t hold the same space as her and probably knows it because all of Mike’s dialogue seems to better inform the audience of his own insecurities and chauvinism rather than make even the feeblest outreach to ignite the fair Ms. Watson’s flames of desire (not that he could). Contrast this with Tracy’s relaxed and uncomplicated sparing and we know from the start he’s Bunny’s guy. Still, Mike continues to linger. It’s rather painful and pathetic to watch; like Eddie Fisher trying to hold his own between Liz and Dick.
The other great travesty of the screenplay is its short-shrift of Joan Blondell. While Dina Merrill and Sue Randall were never considered anything better than second string starlets, Blondell’s career stretched all the way back to the early 1930’s playing hot and sexy in some very fine films. In Desk Set she’s Bunny’s appendage – period! Peg fields calls and chats up our star like a treasured gal-pal. But the Ephron’s screenplay gives Blondell no moment to shine; no snappy one-liners to rattle off as only she could; no appeal to reflect on that sassy gal we remember so well from yesteryear. No, she’s just present and accounted for, and it is saying something of Blondell’s presence that her lack of on-screen time does not equate to a dearth of appeal. It’s great to see Blondell again. One simply wishes she had been given a more impressive part to play.
Desk Set won’t win any awards for romantic comedy of the year. But it is effortless fluff – easy on the eyes and ears and with the added bonus of seeing Tracy and Hepburn nearly their emeritus years together. They would appear only once more as a team – this time as man and wife (a role they never managed to play in life despite a thirty-seven year ‘affair’) in Stanley Kramer’s superb Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Tracy and Hepburn will always be fondly remembered as the pluperfect couple. But they’ve done their best work elsewhere. Desk Set is a minor effort.
Ugh! I am not loving Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray at all! The entire image is bathed in an aquamarine hue. A goodly number of vintage Cinemascope movies put out by Fox on Blu-ray have favored this bluish tint. I’m not exactly certain why. Never having seen Desk Set in Cinemascope projection I cannot say that this is not how the movie looked in 1957. But the DVD from 2002 exhibited superior colors. Whereas the DVD favored a warm palette with clearly delineated browns, greens, greys and reds, the Blu-ray looks as though someone at Fox fell asleep at the controls and turned every other color in the spectrum off except for the teal. Greys are now grey-blue. Flesh that was a warm orange is now a wan pink. Reds look more ruddy orange than anything else. Tracy’s black suits (at least, black on the DVD) are now a dark navy. Ditto for the laces of his shoes. Whites have adopted this bluish caste too. I also detected a few shots where eyes leaned toward an incredibly unhealthy looking blue-green. Worse, the image hasn’t tightened up all that much in hi-def. Yes, it’s tighter than the DVD as one ought to expect. But does the image pop with robust fine detail? Hardly. Not even in close up. Contrast too seems a tad weak. Film grain is practically non-existent. DNR scrubbing? Hmmm.
Cinemascope was hardly a perfect widescreen process. But Blu-ray’s of The Robe, How To Marry a Millionaire, Bigger Than Life, and so on illustrate that its overriding weakness was decidedly not color fidelity or favoring a bluish tint. I can’t imagine Desk Set looking this way in 1957. Certainly, it didn’t look like this on DVD – or even VHS (the worst of all possible formats to view any movie). So what happened?!? I can’t accept that what we’re seeing is vinegar syndrome for the simple fact that Desk Set looked quite good (strictly speaking of its colors) on DVD. I also cannot imagine Fox not going back to the restoration masters made from that minting to crib their new 1080p derivative. It just doesn’t make any sense. It’s also a curiosity that Fox has stuck with a mono mix for this new DTS. Vintage Cinemascope offered six channels of stereophonic sound. Fox has also skimped on the extras; same audio commentary from Dina Merrill and historian John Lee. It’s fairly boring and not altogether an informative affair. You can easily skip out. And that’s about it. Desk Set on Blu-ray doesn’t get my recommendation, primarily because of the flubbed color and generally soft image. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)