One of my all-time favorite movies, DESK SET, finally came out on DVD on May 4th. For me this is a joyous occasion that warrants reprinting a little piece I wrote last winter:
Among the holiday films that show up this time of year, the one I’m really waiting to see again, for the umpteenth time, is DESK SET. It’s not available on DVD, and I refuse to buy even one more VHS tape, so I depend on one or more of the cable channels showing it at least once a year. Made in 1957. Stars Tracy and Hepburn. Set in the corporate offices of a fictional TV network called the Federal Broadcasting Corporation, or FBC. On the small chance you couldn’t figure it out for yourself, it's NBC and NBC headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Center (“30 Rock” to quote Benjy Stone in MY FAVORITE YEAR, another film about a TV network in the ‘50s). The screenplay was written by Henry and Phoebe Ephron, 40 years before their daughters Nora and Delia would whip up another little cyber rom-com, YOU'VE GOT MAIL.
Hepburn plays Bunny Watson, head of the network’s Reference Department. Kate and co-workers Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill and Sue Randall [aka the Beav's teacher Miss Landers], toil merrily --or, in Dina’s case Merrilly--all day long, forming a gal-powered search engine which serves the network as a kind of ur-Google. "The girls" spend their daily 9 to 5 tracking down answers to questions such as:
What kind of car does the king of the Watusis drive?
How much damage is caused annually to American forests by the sprucebud worm?
In short: these women have my dream job, and it's *still* my dream job just as much now as it was way back when I first saw this movie, probably 30 years ago or more.
Kate and her staff, when not busy researching myriad fascinating topics, are forever going downstairs to the corporate lunch counter for a coffee break, or spending the noon hour drooling over fabulous outfits at Bonwit Teller, or dishing via the company grapevine, a secretarial backchannel that keeps everyone instantly updated on who’s been promoted and who’s getting the dreaded pink slip.
Kate/Bunny is a valued corporate commodity, compensated well enough to wear Adrian and St. Laurent duds and live in a swanky midtown apartment with a fireplace and vaulted ceilings. There she spends her off hours preparing the kind of desserts nobody makes in 2004, like “Floating Island”, whatever that is, and waiting for phone calls from her up-and-coming VP boyfriend who has a problem with commitment, as that kind of executive boyfriend always does. His looks are of the flippant, smarmy, Gig Young variety; possibly because he’s played by Gig Young. Kate fusses and sighs over him and pays him all the expected attentions, Gig being a real Catch and all, but it’s clear that she’s just going through the motions; doing her best 1950s career gal swoon while wondering if she will ever meet her intellectual equal… her soulmate… the man of her dreams.
Right on cue, Spencer Tracy comes shambling into the Reference department and wordlessly begins measuring the floor space, making cryptic entries on a little notepad, reading over the women’s shoulders, and generally being a giant pain in the patoot. Eventually he introduces himself as Richard Sumner, an efficiency expert hired by the head of the network. Tracy/Sumner is an absent-minded scientist type who wears mismatched socks and has no perceptible social skills. He’s a great admirer of Beauty With Brains, plus he’s cute as a Gund teddy bear himself, so it’s perfectly obvious what will happen next. Kate eyes him and simultaneously is drawn to a fellow egghead, is appalled by his proto-geekiness, and suspects that he’s the harbinger of corporate downsizing for her beloved troop of research gals. But even so, how can she resist? He IS played by Spencer Tracy, after all. Sh-boom! It’s love!
Being such a couple of whizkids, it’s no time at all before Kate deduces that Tracy is actually the developer of one of those newfangled “electronic brains”, and Tracy learns that Hepburn can solve logic problems and deconstruct palindromes while sitting outside in sub-zero temperatures eating a roast beef sandwich.
Falling hard, Tracy compares Kate to a rare tropical fish, an analogy that sends shivers through the besotted Hepburn even more than the Arctic blast raking across the rooftop the eccentric Tracy has chosen as the site for a late-November lunch date.
Kate guesses that Tracy is planning to install his invention, a livingroom-sized computer named EMERAC, in the reference department. She also surmises that EMERAC is meant to replace her and Joan and Dina and Sue. Oh! What will happen? What will happen??! (as the soon to be spoiled by success Rock Hunter was wont to say in that very same year of 1957).
And that's the set up. The rest of the movie is all false assumptions, mistaken identities, witty ripostes, banter and silliness. Kate and Joan get plastered at the company Christmas party and keep calling the Lexington Avenue bus “the Mexican Avenue bus”, which for some reason is hilarious. Tracy gets soaked in a rainstorm and has to take refuge in Hepburn's apartment, where he must doff his wet clothes and innocently don the gift bathrobe meant for Gig, who of course puts in a surprise appearance just in time to Assume the Worst. (Kate, you slut!) Then Tracy puts the finishing touch on his conquest of Hepburn's heart by doing a comedic impression of a disheveled drunk guy, which reduces her to a snorking, guffawing puddle of mirth.
EMERAC arrives along with Miss Warriner, an operator-technician who is obviously a tight-sphinctered prig, which we of course know instantly because she wears a drab business suit, glasses, and her hair all neurotically clenched up in a bun. Hilariously, Miss W is also such a cultural illiterate that in the climactic scene she incorrectly inputs the name of the island Corfu as “Curfew”, which makes EMERAC go all haywire and inspires Kate to render a few melodramatic verses of the Rose Hartwick Thorpe chestnut “Curfew Must Not Ring To-night!”.
It should be noted that EMERAC, one of the very few computers that can be fixed with a single bobbypin, is portrayed in this film by a 8' by 12' rectangle of synchronized flashing lights which went on to co-star in the movie and TV series “Voyage To the Bottom of the Sea” and a couple episodes of “Star Trek” a few years later.
Ultimately everything works out fine. Tracy and Hepburn end up in a clinch, and the credits roll...on perforated-paper computer printouts, of course.
I just love it. Always have. Everyone else seems to rank this movie way down with the lesser entries in the Tracy-Hepburn ouevre, such as SEA OF GRASS and KEEPER OF THE FLAME. But for me, DESK SET sits squarely up on top of the heap. Even the classic ADAM'S RIB can’t exceed it in providing sheer, perfect enjoyment.
And finally, how could anyone resist a movie where Katharine Hepburn plays a character named Bunny? I rest my case.
Crossposted on Tild~.