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Desk Set (1957) - DVD Review

By ScottC - posted 04.10.05 @ 4:01 am
Desk Set DVD

Film:
DVD:

Written by Henry & Phoebe Ephron, based on the play by William Marchant
Directed by Walter Lang
Starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, Gig Young

Features:

  • Running audio commentary by actress Merrill and film historian John Lee
  • Movietone News Short
  • Still Gallery
  • Theatrical Trailer

Released by: Fox.
Rating: NR
Region: 1
Anamorphic: Yes.

My Advice: Rent it.

If anyone at the Federal Broadcasting Company needs information, Bunny Watson (Hepburn) is your solution. As the head of the Research Department, her and her staff can tell you anything from the names of Santa's reindeer to what car the King of the Watusi drives. Her efficient manner doesn't apply to her relationship with the self-involved and commitment-phobic executive Mike Cutler (Young). Her friend and co-worker Peg (Blondell) thinks Bunny should be less accommodating, but Bunny doesn't want to upset the applecart. Things do get upset by the arrival of George Sumner (Tracy), the blunt designer of the "electronic brain," or computer known as EMERAC. He asks a lot of questions, but giving few answers in return. Sumner takes an interest in Bunny because she's as intelligent as he is. Bunny finds his casual manner about himself refreshing and his attention to her appealing. The rumor mill is buzzing that the girls in Research are going to be replaced with EMERAC or "Emmy," and this puts an obstacle in their budding relationship. Can two smart people deal with the other people in their lives to form a perfect Desk Set?

This movie has Tracy and Hepburn. For most film aficionados that's enough. Both were excellent actors in their own rights, but together it was something special. They made the romantic comedy genre their own with their razor sharp wit and onscreen chemistry. But they never acted like dewey-eyed teenagers. The relationships they portrayed on the screen were never unrealistic storybook romances or hormonally driven hook-ups. It was adult in the non-smutty sense of the word, but that doesn't mean they didn't have their fun. Watching the two verbally fence with parries and feints, neither wanting to give too much ground is a delight.

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in 'Desk Set'

Added to this is a solid supporting cast with Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, and Sue Randall who play Bunny's co-workers and act as a modern Greek chorus by adding their two cents unbidden by the principals. I think special attention has to be paid to Gig Young, who plays Hepburn's erstwhile suitor. I was impressed with how he never lets the character act like the broad stereotype of a bad boyfriend. He is, of course, having Bunny write his reports and leaving her for business trips. Still you do sense that he does care for her, but doesn't see how atrocious his behavior is. And Bunny is too afraid of losing her version of a sure thing.

While watching this again after a long while, I had a revelation that should help our readers feel more at home with this classic. The two characters Tracy and Hepburn portray are proto-geeks. Sumner is, in essence, a computer systems consultant who cares little about his mismatched socks or anyone else's opinion of him. Bunny Watson loves knowledge and information for its own sake and is rather eccentric with her humongous philodendron and her passionate recitation of poetry at odd moments. Added to this is the annoyance of the consultant poking his nose into every nook and cranny and the fear of layoffs and this could have been made today (I'll whisper that part so Hollywood doesn't see it as a potential remake, though). Of course there are reminders of when this movie was made, such as the mammoth mainframe complete with a multitude of flashing lights. There's the building-wide Christmas party complete with flowing alcohol and out-of-control merriment as well. I was green with envy with the swinging bash where you had Hepburn singing with Tracy accompanying on the bongos. Ah, the good old days.

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy from 'Desk Set'

Compared to other releases in the Fox Studio Classics line, the special features for this disc seem a little spare. First up, there's the obligatory trailer and still gallery. I wish DVD makers would put captions in their galleries so we have some idea of whom or what we're looking at. Without any context, the photos are next to meaningless. There is a commentary that has a film historian and an actress from the movie. Dina Merrill does give some good anecdotes of working with Tracy and Hepburn during the film and after, but she spends too much time on her own career even plugging her own current projects. I found that tacky since she is only a minor supporting character in the movie. The historian, John Lee, was far more informative. Not only did he give wonderful bits of trivia about the film and its stars, but compared the changes made from the play this was based. He also covers some of the technical aspects especially in the use of Cinemascope, still a new process at the time. I hope we get more commentaries with him.

So Desk Set is worth a rental, but I would hold off on purchasing. Anyway, who needs a constant reminder that the best romantic comedic couple we can come up with these days is Nick and Jessica. Bleah.

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ScottC's full name is Scott Campbell: writer, actor, critic, and debauched libertine who serves as Need Coffee's Minister of Naughty Bits. When not engaged in matters of perfume, sex, and rock lobsters, he lends his body to The Mickee Faust Club and his voice to Curious Echo Radio Theater. He can be found on Twitter sexually harrassing all and sundry. He has written 435 posts. See them all here.

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