On numerous occasions Katharine Hepburn called Spencer Tracy the love of her life, and they remain one of Hollywood’s golden couples. Trivia buffs probably know that they began their affair in 1941 while filming “Woman of the Year” and continued with their serious, semi-secret relationship for decades—despite Tracy’s other affairs and his reluctance to divorce his estranged wife.
They made nine films together: the superior “Woman of the Year” (1942), “Adam’s Rib” (1949), and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967); the entertaining-enough “Keeper of the Flame” (1942), “State of the Union” (1948) and “Desk Set” (1957); and the disappointing “Without Love” (1945), “Sea of Grass” (1947), and “Pat and Mike” (1952).
“Desk Set” catches them 15 years into their affair and 10 years before Tracy’s death. You can sense their level of comfort with each other—something that actually works against them in a romantic comedy in which opposites and antagonists are supposed to eventually attract. Tracy plays Mr. Sumner, an efficiency expert hired by the Federal Broadcasting Company to find departments in which his new-fangled computers (the size of a room, by the way) might save work-hours. Hepburn is Bunny Watson, who runs the research department rather than the always-absent boss (Gig Young) with whom she’s been having a seven-year relationship . . . waiting for a ring and running out of patience.
Sumner is instantly fascinated by this strong woman and asks permission to spend the next month or so in research “observing” her department. Of course they banter, they spar, and they make up for a disappointing “meet cute” by moving quickly to the uncomfortable phase . . . which compromises her relationship with Mike Cutler (Young), who seems finally pushed, by the new development, to marry her.
The formula is pretty basic, but it’s the characters (and the actors) that make “Desk Set” fun to watch. It might also be one of the best films to document those legendary wild office parties from the ‘50s and ‘60s, with everyone imbibing so much Christmas cheer that they all start to get a bit of a Rudolph nose.
“Desk Set” weaves machines vs. humans and gender-role themes into a pleasant battle-of-the-sexes film that feels more leisurely than most gender bender scripts that come out of Hollywood. This adapted screenplay, interestingly enough, comes from the pens of Henry and Phoebe Ephron, whose daughter, Nora, would receive Oscar nominations for her own work (“Silkwood,” When Harry Met Sally…,” “Sleepless in Seattle”). The script gives Tracy and Hepburn just enough to work with, and whatever charm that “Desk Set” has comes from the two stars and their interaction with each other and a decent supporting cast. Joan Blondell is particularly funny as Bunny’s sometimes abrasive co-worker, with Dina Merrill and Sue Randall also cutting up in the research department.
“Desk Set”—one of the winners in the Fox “Voice Your Choice” program—has a runtime of 103 minutes and is not rated—though it would probably merit a PG rating for drinking (and drunkenness).
“Desk Set” was presented in CinemaScope with Color by Deluxe—the first color movie that Hepburn and Tracy made together, and their first CinemaScope production. It’s presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, and the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer (36MBPS/50GB disc) is a good one. The film doesn’t appear overly processed and really captures the look of the period with richly saturated colors and textures from sets that were often more crowded that what we’re accustomed to seeing. I found myself marveling at how good this old film looked.
The audio is too front-speaker centric for my tastes, but in fairness it’s a dialogue-driven film and director Walter Lang (“The King and I,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business”) relies on quite a few two-shots and medium shots that automatically restrict the sound to the front center. As a result, though, there are times when the sound seems a bit trapped behind the TV monitor trying to get out. The good news is that the sound is consistent throughout the film, and it doesn’t take much to get used to it. Five minutes into the film and the average person won’t even notice.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 1.0, with a Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0 audio option and subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
Normally there are no bonus features on archive titles like this, but Fox included an old Fox Movietone News segment (“Designers Inspired for New Creation by Film Desk Set”) and also put together a commentary featuring actors Merrill and John Lee. A trailer is also included.
Something happened to the “sex comedy” in the ‘50s. It evolved from a screwball comedy into a comedy that was subtler and relied less on quick-paced, situational humor. “Desk Set” is a perfect example of that—a winning comedy that’s as leisurely as the Eisenhower years, with just a hint of the rebellion that’s coming down the pike.