Desk Set Review
Based on William Marchant’s stage play of the same name Desk Set pairs Hollywood legends, Spencer Tracey and Katharine Hepburn in their eighth feature together.
Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn) works for the Federal Broadcasting Company’s research department, along with her colleagues and friends, Peg (Joan Blondell), Sylvia (Dina Merrill) and Ruthie (Sue Randall). Computer specialist, Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracey) is called upon by the network to lend his assistance in introducing machines to the workplace but is ordered to keep his job there a secret. With Sumner observing the workplace on a daily basis, the girls become increasingly paranoid about him being there and soon fear for their jobs.
Bunny’s boyfriend of seven years, Mike (Gig Young) is climbing the corporate ladder and Bunny dreams of marrying him one day, but soon her attentions drift toward Sumner and an unlikely relationship begins to form.
Initially appearing as nothing more than a simple and extremely predictable romance Desk Set is actually a film that was a clear sign of the times when it was made. Taking several themes that include job security and the inevitable introduction of machines to the work place, it treads along those lines and bundles them with the romance and light hearted comedy everyone can enjoy. Beneath the surface it is making statements about the advent of technology in the modern world and tries to disperse people’s fears and insecurities as machines take over seemingly mundane duties.
What the film tries to achieve is to reassure people that technology is only as good as the people who have created it - Therefore, a database that provides all the answers to every question, can only be beneficial if it has been programmed with the relevant knowledge. We are to understand that people and machines are meant to work in harmony if the pairing is ever to be successful in future.
At heart, Desk Set is one of those fairytale like romances, where love blooms in the unlikeliest situation. I find myself accustomed to stories like this. It’s been done to death but even if Desk Set doesn’t always get full acknowledgement for being an overall good film; it at least contains some nice scenes that deserve some credit.
We have a marvellous personality test sequence, set on the rooftop of the company building and then later an equally fine moment when Richard and Bunny are at Bunny’s home, just waiting for that eventual scene when her boyfriend walks in. It is the fine dialogue that keeps the film above water.
Spencer Tracey and Katharine Hepburn had been acting together for a long time - that much shows in their on-screen chemistry as they bounce off of each other with witty line, after witty line. Whilst they are a joy to watch and huge talents, they don’t quite pull off their roles here to a fuller effect.
Spencer Tracey delivers his lines perfectly and he appears cheery but somewhat cumbersome, no doubt due to the fact that he wasn’t in the best of health at the time. He’s certainly an admirable fellow with fine qualities and in the past has made more memorable features. Here I just didn’t take to the romantic pairing between himself and Hepburn, even though it is obvious things are rushed toward the end, as director Walter Lang decides to play up the comic factor by giving us a large set piece that centres around the gigantic machine of knowledge, known as E.M.I.R.A.C. By the closing reel the effect just doesn’t seem as great after all the build up toward that eventual, romantic moment.
Hepburn is an actress that I admire off and on. It has always been my opinion that she is prone to overstate her performance in a scene. At times she is spot on and is brilliant at changing her emotions at the drop of a pin but at other times she creates her own trap by carrying on a scene for too long. There are several notable scenes in this film that look as if she is genuinely having fun, they have real qualities about them and she is giving it her all, but some of them do outstay their welcome and Lang should have tightened these up. Hepburn was very much into improvisation however, and while they are nice in some respects, they don’t always work in favour of the film.
The supporting cast all do fine jobs. In fact it is very much an ensemble piece that benefits from everyone’s input. Gig Young is fine as Bunny’s boyfriend who one minute you like, the next you’re thinking he’s a smarmy sod and don’t know why Bunny has put up with him for seven years. Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill and Sue Randall play Bunny’s likeable friends and get a few decent scenes together. Walter Lang respectfully gives each actress ample amounts of screen time and with the help of the wide lens we often get static shots featuring five or more actors on screen at one time. The actresses are enjoyable and play their parts convincingly.
Neva Patterson does a fine turn as E.M.I.R.A.C.’s "mother". Although she is introduced in the last act she displays a fine talent for comedy while Ida Moore manages to raise a few smiles on the viewer's face, as the old lady who just wanders around the building without uttering a single word.
Desk Set is filmed in Fox’s Cinemascope. At the time this was a revolutionary process and Walter Lang gets all the mileage he can from it. The film features some wonderful wide shots that show off the scale of some of the sets. It seems obvious that he had a desire to show off the beast of a machine that appears in the final act. It’s one of those films that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with having the need for scope but it works well in this instance and the shots have plenty of detail and various other things going on in the background that justify its use.
Lang also introduces split-screen techniques - a process that has been used countless amounts of time but are always effective. They create a comic book quality, primarily for phone conversation pieces and it’s another neat addition to the film that shows Lang’s willingness to experiment more with the camera.
20th Century Fox present Desk Set on a single disc, with a few extras.
The film is deservedly presented in Anamorphic 2.35:1. I don't have any major complaints for a film that is 46 years old. Suffice to say the overall look is grainy and contains some slight shimmering. The transfer is sharp and colour levels are strong, although flesh colours tend to appear unnatural at times, resulting in overly pink tones. There is also evident edge enhancement.
English Stereo 2.0 and mono tracks have been included on the disc. Both sound fine and everything is clear and crisp enough while there isn't much use for surrounds, save for the end. There is also a Spanish mono track that sounds pretty poor in comparison to the quality of the other tracks.
Not a bad little set of extras.
Audio Commentary by actress, Dina Merrill and historian, John Lee
The box, however falsely states that the track features Dina Merrill and actress, Neva Patterson. I am curious as to why Patterson never appeared.
On to the track though. Merrill and Lee do not appear in the studio together. The commentary is made up of two separately recorded tracks that has each person interject. John Lee provides much technical information, which is very interesting, whereas Dina Merrill talks frankly about her experience working on the film, sometimes straying a little and focuses herself more on her ongoing career. There are a number of moments that are silent but it is still a worthwhile listen.
Fox Movietone News
The small selection of features in this section are as follows:
Designs Inspired for New Creations by film, "Desk Set". - This is an old black and white film that takes a look at the showcased costumes from the film. It isn't of much interest and lasts for only a minute.
Theatrical Trailer - An overly long trailer that goes on and on about how great the film is, not unlike many films of the era that promoted themselves as being fresh and funny and headed by an all-star cast of faces you love.
Still Gallery - A nice collection of behind-the-scenes vintage black and white photographs.
Theatrical trailers for four major studio films, starting off with All About Eve in which I found Bette Davis to be fascinating as she quick wittedly answers an interviewer's questions about the film. Other trailers are An Affair to Remember, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and The Seven Year Itch
Desk Set isn't a perfect film by any means, but simply a charming one. Its rushed resolution is made up for by some witty dialogue and fun performances. As the old saying goes:
"They don't make 'em like they used to."