Honoring the careers and loving relationship of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, this blog post shares my adoration of their eighth movie together, Desk Set, as a part of The Third Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, hosted by Crystal of The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood. Thanks for the opportunity to participate!
Of the nine movies featuring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Desk Set (1957) stands at the top of the list for me. Set in the offices of a major television network in New York City (“Federal Broadcasting Company” [FBC]), the story revolves around the company’s research department, a rumored corporate merger with another company, and the threat of an incoming computer possibly taking away the jobs of the research librarians and payroll staff members. The company purports to be located, based on the exterior shots, at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Rockefeller Center, which was then known as the RCA Building, and is now the NBC Headquarters. Leading the tale is the relationship budding between Bunny Watson (Hepburn) – the brilliant and detailed head reference librarian – and Richard Sumner (Tracy), the eccentric and seemingly offbeat efficiency expert bringing in the behemoth of the computer, known as EMERAC
(“Electro-Magnetic Memory and Research Arithmetic Calculator), and that in itself takes over everything. Considering that Bunny is involved with Mike Cutler (Gig Young), an executive of the network, the story gets juicier since he finally seems to realize how much Bunny means to him once Mr. Sumner pops in the picture (literally) and the office folks subtlety begin to notice. (“Itch-nay, itch-nay” – I guess my Pig Latin spelling is correct; nevertheless, see movie and you’ll know what I mean.) However, when watching those two, it’s not just watching Bunny and Richard Sumner; it’s clearly Kate and Spencer and it’s beyond worth the weight of gold to witness every moment they share on screen.
Adapted from the Broadway play by William Marchant, written for the screen by Henry and Phoebe Ephron (parents of Nora and Delia Ephron who co-wrote You’ve Got Mail; of course, I could go on and on about the other films between them (!), but not right now) and directed by Walter Lang, Desk Set brought the two leads together for their eighth film. As their first color film together, it’s filled with charm, sharp wit, and dashed with absolute moments of hilarity in a scene that I still believe to be completely unplanned and subsequently kept on film: the cast seems to break in one scene and the viewer is apt to do the same. After a long day at the office, Bunny and Mr. Sumner (I call him that as that’s how he’s only addressed in the film) are caught in the rain, after which they go to Bunny’s apartment where she offers to dry his clothes. While they dry, she cooks and over dinner, they talk and get better acquainted. She’d lent him a brand new man’s robe from a gift box for him to wear during during his stay. Needless to say, Mike stops by, sees the robe, and jumps to all conclusions. Sadly, he discovers this way too that the robe was to be his Christmas gift. Bunny’s co-worker in Reference, Peg Costello (Joan Blondell), had also stopped by and at this time they discover smelly smoke coming from the kitchen. Mr. Sumner had placed his shoes in the oven to dry, of which he’d forgotten about. At that point, after discovering the culprit and removing them from the stove, they are all cracking up and Spencer Tracy takes it steps farther by adding more jokes as he tells a story and none of them could contain themselves. It’s really hilarious to watch.
Desk Set is an interesting study of Man vs. Machine in the mid-20th century. Computers were, of course, not at all in the grand scheme of mainstream life then, so, they frightened any and everyone who had no knowledge about them, other than what they could do to either make things easier as planned, or help eliminate jobs with the aim to do what people do. Hmm… sounds no different than the concerns of today, I guess. To the relief of the reference department, they learn how invaluable their services remain – to feed the computer its knowledge over time. (I never question as to whether or not they’re phased out or not; I’d prefer not to think about it.)
In Me: Stories of My Life, Kate Hepburn shared that when she and Spencer Tracy got scripts to work together, they didn’t rehearse at home together, nor did they talk often about them at home. Home was home time. “Never rehearsed together at home,” she wrote. “Almost never used to discuss the script. I always loved to work on the script. Not Spence. He’d read something. Say yes or no. And that was it.” Learning this, I can see how it made their studio time so much more organic. They brought out the best in each other on film, that’s for sure. Not only that, what we got was real, genuine, and the sight and feel of the care, passion, and respect for each other’s craft and above all person.
Kate had, also in her memoir, acknowledged how particular she was in how she wanted and expected things to be. This trait was not just for herself, but also for roles she’d undertaken, as evident by her friend, Garson Kanin’s account about that uber-long philodendron in Bunny’s office. That meandering plant along her ceiling had long been a guide for a
philodendron that I’d had ages ago. Sadly, it didn’t make it that long to get that length, but I’ll get another one and try again as I think about it. Kanin, actress Ruth Gordon’s husband and her screenwriting partner, shared in his memoir about the couple, titled Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir, his account about the philodendron brought in from the props department. To Kate, it was not a philodendron; it was too small to be considered so, in spite of the fact that’s what it was – even according to the studio gardener. A couple of hours later, she took it upon herself to have a much larger plant delivered to her office set, which was a character in its own right since it covered about twenty-five percent of the top area of that office border!
It’s been many years since I first watched Desk Set and there have been countless viewings after. One scene in this movie between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy has been with me since that first time and will never leave me. It warms me to no end – even thinking about it now, it does. Aside from his impassioned speech about race, life, and love in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and the reverence and admiration for that man in her eyes as he spoke, their Christmas Party scene (whew, quite an office party to say the least! “Anything goes, as long as you don’t lock the doors,” tells Miss Blair [Dina Merrill] to a co-worker) in Desk Set was a time to behold. As they’re sitting upstairs between the stacks above the rollicking revelry below them, drinking wine from Dixie Cups, Mr. Sumner tells her about the Dear John letter he’d received from a girl during the war. One of the first things that Bunny had noticed about him when he walked into her office was the fact that he was wearing mismatched socks, prompting her to express her (correct) assumption that he was single because no woman would let her husband leave the house with mismatched socks. Surely, it was this moment he realized this woman was just as eagle-eyed as he and had met his intellectual match… and it was on! For work and for himself. His story of being jilted brought that to her mind once again along with his penchant for the computer work that takes up much of his time, bringing them both laughter. When I see them here, I can’t help but feel that I’m intruding. It doesn’t feel like I’m watching a movie anymore; I feel like I’m watching two folks in love having an intimate conversation in which they just know that no one else is around, even though major partying nearby is going on. As she rises to leave… and here’s where I get verlempt – he gently touches her arm and tells her, “I’ll bet you write beautiful letters”. The pause between them, the look between them, that whole suspension of their time – my eyes are clearly watery. Every time.
It’s soooo beautiful and it’s pretty much the whole reason I thought of writing this post for the blogathon.
“I’ll bet you write beautiful letters.” – Richard Sumner to Bunny Watson, Desk Set (1957)
Their next film together after Desk Set wouldn’t be for another ten years: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It’s the one film Kate never watched since Spencer passed away just seventeen days after filming it. Sigh…
I can’t say too much more other than – if you haven’t yet, watch Desk Set when you get the chance. Enjoy the comedy, the sweet and fun banter, the wonderful ensemble cast, and just let this darling, romantic couple just take you away. Oh, and by the way, you may not hear “Night and Day” in your head any other way after viewing – I don’t. Ha ha! Great Christmas movie; truly a lovely movie for anytime. (Also starring Neva Patterson and Sue Randall (The Beav’s teacher, Miss Landers [Leave It to Beaver]). Please share your thoughts about the movie below!!