Fox // 1957 // 103 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // December 29th, 2013
"No...tough roast beef."
It's hard to argue that Katharine Hepburn (Bringing up Baby) and Spencer Tracy (Bad Day at Black Rock) are the royal couple of Hollywood romantic comedies during their time and for all time. They starred in eight films together and, from their first pairing in 1942's Woman of the Year to their last a quarter century later in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, they were magic, whether the movie was a comedy or a drama. I don't know if they were necessarily better in their later years, but in Desk Set, their next to last film together and fifteen years into their off-screen romance, their comfort together is both perfectly clear and delightful to watch.
Bunny Watson (Hepburn) is the brash head of the research department at a major television station. She's not yet married, but she has a not-so-secret thing going on with young, up and coming executive Mike Cutler (Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They). Her life gets turned upside-down, though, when Richard Sumner (Tracy) shows up looking to install his massive new computer in her department. While the workers are frightened that they'll lose their jobs to technology, Mike starts to get angry about the growing heat between Bunny and Richard.
Desk Set, adapted by Phoebe and Henry Ephron (Daddy Long Legs, and parents of writer/director Nora Ephron), initially wasn't actually a romantic comedy. In William Marchant's original play, Sumner was a very small character and the action was centered on the fear of technology and office antics. Hepburn had one request before she agreed to star, though, that they expand the character to something more fitting of Tracy's talent and star power. In doing so, the story goes from a simple comedy of errors to a brilliant display of comic performance.
Tracy's ability to make an audience laugh with a single word, look, or gesture never had a better platform. It might not be as zany as some of his earlier comic work, but I found myself laughing at this understated character more often than nearly all the rest of his comedy work. He plays Sumner perfectly, with enough warmth to make him seem genuine, but with the right amount of aloofness to make the workers' fear of him believable. That fear is the heart of the story and Hepburn is brilliant as the counterpart to both parts of his character. She's the John Henry of the movie, driving facts rather than steel, able to easily match wits with the computer while both trying to score her man and being taken in by this new guy's obvious charms. The scene in Bunny's apartment that pits Sumner against Mike is absolutely priceless, worth the price of admission alone.
They're boosted by the great supporting cast as well. Gig Young is always good to see, but we also get strong stuff from favorites in Joan Blondell (Topper Returns) and Dina Merrill (Operation Petticoat) -- in her first screen role -- as Bunny's pool of researchers. The lesser known Neva Patterson (Dear Heart) steals the show with her freak out when Bunny's brain finally breaks the machine.
The whole cast is fantastic and worth watching alone, but the most interesting character might be the production design. Shot in the relatively new Cinemascope, to move into the opening credits, director Walter Lang (The King and I), starts with a crane shot of a room, sparsely decorated with then-new computer equipment and meticulously designed in ultra-modern mosaic style, with sharp lines and angles. It moves down and zooms in on an IBM printer, which then proceeds to print the credit. It's a great looking shot and, though Lang mostly keeps everything wide (showing off Cinemascope was more important than one's own style much of the time), he lets the office style shine. And then there's the look of the computer. With its flashing lights and weird computer-y noises that would be more appropriate in Lost in Space, it seems to have a mind and personality of its own. None of it is distracting, though; the performances are at the forefront, but the design of the sets really takes advantage of the widescreen format and makes the movie look as good as it feels.
That design is shown off pretty well on Fox's Blu-ray of Desk Set. The 2.35:1/1080 image is bright and colorful, with very good detail clarity most of the time. The split-screen process shots and exteriors of New York look a little soft and lacking in detail and there's one scene that starts looking normal and ends looking like it comes from a completely different source. No matter, though, it's a small thing that barely distracts from an otherwise good looking transfer. The sound is a little less interesting, but still strong. The single channel Master Audio mix has its limitations, but the dialog and Cyril Mockridge's bouncy score both sound clear and noise-free.
The slate of extras isn't as good as I would have hoped, though. It starts with a good audio commentary with Dina Merrill and John Lee, who does not appear in the picture. They were clearly recorded separately, so it's a little disjointed and it doesn't populate the audio that much, but what's said, especially from Merrill, is fantastic, with funny stories and insightful comments on the onscreen action. There is a minute-long newsreel about fashions for the newly coined "desk set" and a trailer, but that's all.
Desk Set might not be the best film that Hepburn and Tracy ever made together, but the duo is so clearly comfortable with each other at this point in their careers that they've never been easier to watch as they are here. It's a delightful movie with great performances and, with a strong Blu-ray release, it's an easy recommendation.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 1957
MPAA Rating: Not Rated