Desk Set is usually given a low standing among the string of Tracy/Hepburn movies. It may not be as inspired as Woman of the Year or as beautifully written as Adam's Rib, but this comedy about career insecurity in the newly-established corporate America has a lot of relevance today, even if its concept of the supposed threat posed by computers is way off base. Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are professional and charming, and the story is fun even when we know exactly where it is heading.
Mysterious efficiency expert Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) spends a lot of time in the Federal Broadcasting Company's corporate research department, but avoids telling the staff why he's there. Research assistants Peg Costello (Joan Blondell), Sylvia Blair (Dina Merrill) and Ruthie Saylor (Sue Randall) fear for their jobs. Their department chief Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn) has two things to worry about -- her job, and her engagement to junior executive Mike Cutler (Gig Young), from whom she has been expecting a proposal ... for the last seven years.
FBC is the epitome of the corporate conglomerate celebrated in The Organization Man and other prophetic books of the 1950s. Divided into many departments, the giant company offers great opportunities for some and the promise of boring but secure jobs for most everyone else. As with satirical shows like The Apartment and even How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the subject is the political structure of the company, not the business being transacted. Harry Ellerbe is a water-cooler gossip eager to tell Bunny that it looks as if her neck's on the pink slip chopping block. Delightful Ida Moore is a doddering old lady kept on the payroll because she posed as the company's mascot back at the turn of the century. The "coffee break" is an essential mid-morning ritual.
Hepburn's sense of security is turned upside down when the CEO installs an "observer" in her office without so much as a word of explanation. Tracy is really there to prepare the installation of a super computer he's invented called E.M.I.R.A.C., but the natural thing for the staff to do is expect the worst. The straightforward story charts the rather dignified way Hepburn's assistants accept disaster. None of them ever think to demand to know what's going on, or even to solicit some off-the-record words of assurance. It's assumed that nobody has that right, even though Hepburn could probably get an answer if she tried: she's kissy-kissy with an upwardly mobile young Turk (Gig Young) being groomed for a top slot. 1
The romantic angles are simple but well done. It's November, but eccentric genius Tracy invites Hepburn to lunch on the freezing roof. Both have a good laugh when circumstances put them in a seemingly compromised situation in her apartment. Wide-eyed Joan Blondell (the heart of the film) and jealous Young get to react to the sitcom-like sight of the two stars in their bathrobes. There is no great novelty to Tracy and Hepburn's eventual co-gravitation but the feeling of ease and comfort is there. That's what this particular star pairing has always been about.
The computer E.M.I.R.A.C. is a huge prop of blinking lights that should look very familiar. 2 It's designed as a wide slab to suit the CinemaScope frame. Tracy explains that E.M.I.R.A.C. is really nothing more than a database. Its workstation keyboard sounds like an electric typewriter and its paper printout unspools rather inconveniently away from the operator (but toward the audience). Punch cards are apparently used but we don't see that function. We're told that the four researchers have in just a few weeks fed an entire library of information into its memory banks.
E.M.I.R.A.C. is accompanied by an assortment of silly noises, ringing bells and submarine klaxons, with a couple Forbidden Planet- like tonalities mixed in. Naturally, when it breaks down it shoots punch cards all over the room and flashes its fancy lights in distress. Tracy fixes these electronic tantrums with a hairpin. The function of an always-handy red lever on top of the main console appears be to "crash and go nuts," something Apple Computer never thought of. E.M.I.R.A.C. is midway between the quaint science giggles of Alexander Mackendrick's The Man in the White Suit and the sinister technological menace of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Tracy gives a primitive explanation of GIGO (Garbage in, Garbage out) to explain that E.M.I.R.A.C. is only as good as the information it is given, i.e., only as good as the researchers that tend it. The last few pages of the script have Tracy's other computers in the company making rather creative mistakes, mainly firing the entire staff. Hepburn and company enjoy themselves as the snooty E.M.I.R.A.C. technician Miss Warriner (Neva Patterson) overloads trying to do reference work on her own. The "expert" can operate the machine and nothing else: she can't spell and lacks the research know-how, educational background and organizational skills of Kate's workers. Her search for info on the Watusi tribe brings back press information about the movie King Solomon's Mines. That "joke" is a routine today for anyone using a web search engine.
Joy of joys, the mistake with the pink slips is cleared up and Hepburn is finally told that E.M.I.R.A.C. will require more staffers, not fewer, to keep it up to date (shades of MOLOCH in Fritz Lang's Metropolis). The corporation kept its plans secret to maintain the stability of company stock. Tracy's mysterious insensitivity to the research department's worries was just a thin plot device.
All of these events will either be charmingly cute or insidiously ominous to modern corporate workers. The script now plays as an apology for policies that keep employees in the dark, with the message that "one should never assume" because those above will always look out for the interests of those below. Paternalistic companies only have the welfare of their staff -- make that "family" -- at heart. Computers create jobs, rather than increase the productivity of those few workers permitted to remain on the payroll.
The script is quite fair in its conclusion that computers need intelligent minds working with them to be effective. Tracy's pompous Miss Warriner is there to be ridiculed but she also reminds of the depressing management attitude toward technology in artistic endeavors: the expensive machine really does the work, so talented or experienced operators aren't necessary, right?
On the other hand, Desk Set's male executive Gig Young relies on the Hepburn character's skill with report writing to climb the corporate ladder. Nobody says so outright, but it's clear that Hepburn's Bunny is doing all the work and deserves the big job much more than he does.
The light comedy throughout is peppered with amusing reference questions and foolish-sounding intelligence tests that might or might not be appreciated by librarians. The research assistants here are all balanced personalities with a full range of interests -- unless one follows through on the film's implication that being well educated and female is a ticket to spinsterhood. It probably isn't fair to hold Desk Set to that kind of scrutiny.
The personalities here are fairly predictable. Tracy and Hepburn are relaxed, Gig Young is a thoughtless jerk and "the girls" are pleasant attractions. Dina Merrill could broadcast high-class manners from a mile off, while dark-haired Sue Randall is sweet and unassuming. Her general appearance is so similar to the more imposing Diane Baker, that we might think that Fox swapped the two actresses out. Queen of the Pre-codes Joan Blondell gets the good lines and also the most sentimental material.
20th Fox's Blu-ray of Desk Set is a big improvement over the earlier (2004) Studio Classics DVD. The movie's clean lines and pastel colors look better with this reduced-grain transfer. The images also look sharper and less distorted. In 1957 CinemaScope was still using the imperfect lenses that caused close-ups to warp out of shape. This probably accounts for the avoidance of very close shots, although backing off from the aging stars may have been a conscious choice too. Actually, cameramen experienced with the 'Scope attachments could get good results -- the close-ups of typewriter text were probably filmed with a long lens, avoiding the distortion associated with wide angle 'Scope lenses.
All of the sets have one wall missing and screen direction never changes, which makes the show resemble a TV sitcom with a very wide frame. But Fox's settings are so pleasing to the eye that we hardly notice -- the research department looks like a sterile place made humanly habitable through the efforts of its capable staff.
Screen grabs posted elsewhere on the web make it looks as if Desk Set's color scheme had been tweaked to bring out blues and teal colors. The image of the office just above approximates the colors on the older DVD, which are greener and lighter. I can't vouch for which color tones are more accurate. But it is true that Fox's designers had a strange affinity for cold colors, both in their Technicolor musicals and in their Deluxe Color CinemaScope interiors of the 1950s. It was a Blue World down in Zanuck-land, to be sure. This transfer is certainly attractive, and face tones and other values seem unaffected.
A brief Movietone newsreel about the fashions ofDesk Set has been retained from the earlier disc. So has commentary with the charming Dina Merrill. The research facts given by co-commentator John Lee were actually compiled by film historian and occasional Savant correspondent Avie Hern. Lee reads us the lowdown on the production and the stars and the state of the industry in 1957. Dina Merrill's candid track very quickly gets through her participation in this film. She then proceeds to detail her entire career, from live TV in New York, to working in Cuba just prior to the Castro revolution and to her run-ins with director John Frankenheimer, about whom she has little positive to say. She returns to Desk Set for some observations here and there, but her part of the commentary is more of a career story.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Desk Set rates:
1. This situation of secrecy harming the morale of company employees is taken up in The Grapevine, a great "ephemeral" film in Fantoma's On the Job collection of educational short subjects. A bunch of office hens jump to conclusions over rumors that management could have easily circumvented with a policy of more open communications. The implication is that women are by nature troublesome gossips, and that keeping them under-informed is a prudent policy. It is also assumed that the motives behind the company's keeping its employees in the dark are totally benign, just as in Desk Set. Don't believe it for a minute.
2. This computer prop is one of the most re-purposed properties in Fox movies, showing up in part or whole in The Fly and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Parts of E.M.I.R.A.C. may even be the equally capricious computer S.U.S.I.E. of Kronos.