Desk Set - 1957
Desk Set is one of nine Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn collaborations of their famous twenty-five-year-long love affair. Separately they have each been considered one of the best of their time, but together they are really a sight to be seen. The plot centers around the research department of the Federal Broadcasting Network in Manhattan, led by Hepburn. The creator, Tracy, of the EMERAC (“Electromagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator”) is brought in to install the computer in the department.
Adapted from a Broadway play by the name “The Desk Set,” and for the most part it feels like a play put on screen. It is directed almost invisibly by Walter Lang (The King and I). There are multiple beautiful wide shots were a scene completely plays out between the actors without a single cut between them. The movie benefits from large and detailed sets that allow the actors to play out long scenes in a wide-open space. At times, it felt like an episode of a long running sitcom in which the actors were completely comfortable with each other.
Katherine Hepburn plays Bunny Watson, a quick witted human Google search bar. She answers multiple phone calls and provides the information multiple departments are searching for right off the top of her head. Hepburn has often been criticized for being a one note actor, always playing the same person repeatedly, but it’s such a pleasure to watch her at work that I can’t fault her for staying in her comfort zone. She flows from word to word with such ease, giving her line delivery a unique touch that can only be described as Hepburn’s.
Spencer Tracy plays Richard Sumner, consultant hired to improve the efficiency of the Research Department. His character introduction is hilarious, completely ignoring everything around him and measuring out the space where his computer will be installed. Tracy gave his character quirks and mannerisms that added depth to what could be described as a straight forward, one-note character. He has a great dry line delivery that lands almost every time, making him the funniest element of the movie.
While their character’s work on their own, they shine the most when together. My favorite scene between them comes during their first lunch together. Tracy had designed a set of questions to test the level of intellect of a person and he brings Hepburn to the top of the building to eat and talk. Hepburn blows him away with all her answers, while she shivers at the cold weather on the roof.
Desk Set’s message of computers taking over a human’s job is still relevant sixty years after its release. While for the most part, Google has replaced a traditional Research Department, it still needs the human element to effectively work just like EMERAC does in the movie. Even though the ending of the movie is far more upbeat than real life, with the entire department getting to keep their jobs, the message doesn’t get lost in the Hollywood ending.
Desk Set at times feels underwhelming when it comes to the actual film, but it’s always entertaining thanks to its co-stars. Their chemistry is something to envy and something actors nowadays should strive for. I would watch them read the phonebook and enjoy every second. Seeing two legends at work is why I love movies.
Desk Set is currently streaming on Netflix. Ask your Research Department if you should see it.
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