Director: Walter Lang
Writer: Phoebe Ephron & Henry Ephron
Cinematographer: Leon Shamroy
by Jon Cvack
Here’s an interesting film that anticipates the inevitable automation of work, in this case focusing on a television station’s reference section, headed by Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn) who manages three employees whose job it is to fact check and provide obscure trivia, such as providing the news team the sixth verse from Dante’s Inferno or the weight of Earth with the entire population included. But management has brought in new consultant Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy), who holds a Phd from MIT, having recently designed a computer that looks to replace the entire department. It was based off a play “The Desk Set” by William Marchant, serving as a type of technological satire/rom-com hybrid.
It was encouraging to watch Katharine Hepburn, who was nearly fifty years old at the time, as she kept hoping her paramour Mike Cutler might finally limit his commitment to moving up the corporate ladder in order to marry Bunny and settle down. In an age where women like Carrie Fisher profess the ageism affecting Hollywood women over the age of forty, it was a pleasant surprise to see a story that wasn’t focused on a woman’s age, and instead just let the performers be. You could see the Studios nowadays petitioning the filmmakers to cast a younger woman for the role, dishonoring the core material, in order to make the film more accommodating to younger audiences. It wasn’t the most successful film upon its release, but it’s now considered one of the great films from 1957, with two dynamite performances.
The commentary on where technology was headed is especially poignant, especially in an age where all of the questions the department is asked would be available at the tip of your fingers in just thirty years time. We get to see a story from the heyday of economic robustness, near the eve of analog dismantling, years before computers were seen for their vast potential. Of course, when the machine doesn’t work, we discover the same paradox that films like WarGames explored - that at the end of the day, the nuances of human communication and need aren’t necessarily understood by a machine - though how much longer this remains an issue is subject for debate.
Spencer Tracy plays an aloof and modest genius with such strong conviction, playing down his vast intelligence - where we’re torn between believing he knows the act he’s putting on and whether he has malicious intentions - that we’re drawn into each scene that discusses the future of the company. Paired with Hepburn’s incredible IQ which never feels fake, phony, or forced, we get to witness what always makes for a great scene - where two incredibly smart and sharp performers spar with one another, with the added bonus of sexual tension, told as both approached or exceeded middle age. In one brilliant scene, Marchant asks Bunny a series of IQ questions, and she responds in a way that makes you feel like she knew the answer. I imagined how hard this must have been to achieve - with Hepburn finding the perfect balance between contemplation and natural ability. It reminds you of the great scenes from Good Will Hunting, where Matt Damon led us to believe that he possessed this genius mind.
It makes you wish for more films that involved older characters without having to be about older characters. I think of recent films like The Exotic Marigold Hotel, Something’s Gotta Give, or It’s Complicated, or the interviews I listened to about these films and it’s so often focused on what it means to be old. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Desk Set shows us a story that leaves all that behind. We watch two people attempting to hold onto their jobs, and have a good life, who like to get drunk and have a good time, not necessarily concerned with getting older, as there are far more important and interesting things to worry about.
BELOW: Best scene of the movie
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