Friday, May 11, 2012
Desk Set (1957)
The Research Department of the Federal Broadcasting Corporation is a happy little all-female enclave run in a rather eccentric manner by Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn). Their job is to make sure the network gets the facts right. This was in the old days when newspapers and television networks actually cared about such things. The Research Department provides the answers on questions ranging from the annual cost to American forestry of the spruce-bud worm to the names of Santa’s reindeers. If the answer involves poetry Bunny will spontaneously start reciting the entire poem.
Everything is fine and dandy until the arrival of methods engineer Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy). He is there to study the workings of the department but the real reason for his presence is to introduce a computer system called EMERAC (which he designed himself) to do their jobs. EMERAC is like an early version of wikipedia except that EMERAC actually gives the correct answers.
The sparks start flying immediately between Bunny and Richard. Bunny is resentful of the idea of an electronic brain that has the temerity to presume to do her job but at the same time there’s a definite mutual attraction. They’re both in their own ways nerdy eccentrics and the audience knows straight away they’re made for each other.
Bunny already has a boyfriend of sorts, her boss Mike Cutler (Gig Young as always playing the romantic rival doomed not to get the girl).
Part of the reason it works so well is Spencer Tracy. He’s an actor I’ve never liked but by this time he’d mellowed somewhat and in Desk Set he’s actually rather endearing.
Modern audiences accustomed to the idea that romantic comedies are always about the young and the beautiful will have to overcome the obstacle of the characters’ ages. Tracy at 57 (and not a well-preserved 57) may seem too old for such a role but he displays sufficient crusty charm to make such objections irrelevant.
Hepburn always tended towards being abrasive but she’s funny here and the presence of Joan Blondell in the cast as her best friend Peg helps considerably. Blondell was always likable and always funny and giving Hepburn someone she can interact with in a genuinely arm and affectionate manner takes some of the edge off her abrasiveness.
Shooting the movie in Cinemascope and colour proved to be, surprisingly, a good decision. It suits the style of the movie quite well. Special mention must be made of the wonderful two-level set representing the Research Department. It not only looks great but it has exactly the right rather whimsical feel.
The Region 4 DVD is an acceptable transfer and preserves the correct Cinemascope aspect ratio.