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Desk Set is usually given a low standing among the string of Tracy/Heburn 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" of 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.
FBC is the epitome of the corporate conglomerate celebrated in The Organization Man and other prophetic books of the 1950s - a giant company divided into many departments, with 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 structure of the company, not the business being transacted.
Hepburn's sense of security is turned upside down when her CEO installs an "observer" in her office without as much as a word of explanation. He's 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 ask for some words of assurance off the record. It's assumed that nobody has that right - even though Hepburn is kissy-kissy with a mobile young Turk (Gig Young) being groomed for a top slot and could probably get an answer if she tried. 2
The romantic angles are simple but well done. Eccentric genius Tracy invites Hepburn to a freezing lunch on the roof in November, and both have a good laugh when circumstances put them in a seemingly compromised situation in her apartment. Wide-eyed 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, and that's what this particular pairing is all about.
Nowadays, everyone mostly talks about the computer E.M.I.R.A.C., a huge prop of blinking lights that should look very familiar. 1 It's designed as a wide slab to fit the CinemaScope frame. Tracy explains that it's really nothing more than a database with a workstation keyboard that sounds like an electric typewriter and a paper printout that unspools rather inconveniently away from the operator (but toward the audience). Punch cards are apparently used but we don't see that function, and we're told that the four researchers have fed an entire library of information into its memory banks in just a few weeks.
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 The Man in the White Suit, and the sinister technological menace of 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 who 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 watching the snooty technician who came with E.M.I.R.A.C. overload trying to do reference work on her own. The expert can operate the machine, but that's it: 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 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 Metropolis' MOLOCH). The corporation kept their plans secret to maintain the company's stock stability. Tracy's mysterious insensitivity to the research department's worries was just a thin plot device.
All of these events will be either charmingly cute or insidiously ominous to modern corporate workers. The script now plays as an apology for Corporate 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. All is well and big 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 left 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 assistant 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?
The light comedy throughout is peppered with amusing reference questions and foolish-sounding intelligence tests that might or might not appreciated by librarians. At least the research assistants here are all well-balanced people 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.
Fox's Studio Classics release of Desk Set is the first time I've seen the entire picture and the first time it's looked presentable on home video. The sharpness of enhanced DVD gives enough detail to make the mostly wide shots look good - there's always some bit of business happening in the corner of the frame. An oft-screened cable TCM featurette demonstrating the necessity of letterboxing used a clip from Desk Set to show how pan-scan can ruin a shot - an exaggerated demo, however.
I'm also going to wager that Desk Set was filmed with the improved CinemaScope lenses of 1957. The first shot is a long truck-in to a teletype printout in a stylized set with furniture laid out in a grid of colored lines. The lines don't distort much as the camera moves, and the picture doesn't squash out (the CinemaScope "mumps") as the teletype comes into a close-up.
There aren't many extras on the disc. A newsreel short about fashions for the movie is just a snippet, and there's a still gallery with a lot of unidentified people visiting the set. The original trailer does its best to maximize the hanky-panky in every harmless situation on screen.
The DVD box lists commentary by actresses Dina Merrill and Neva Patterson but the track on the disc is with Merrill only, augmented by John Lee's research-driven comments (Note: I've since learned that the unacknowledged author of Lee's commentary is Avie Hern, sometime Savant correspondent). Lee reads us the lowdown on the production and the stars and the state of the industry in 1957. Dina Merrill provides a very frank track that gets through her participation in this film very quickly. She then proceeds to detail her entire career, from live TV in New York to working in Cuba just prior to the Castro revolution to her run-ins with director John Frankenheimer, about whom she has little positive to say. She'll return to Desk Set for some observations here and there, but her part of the commentary is really about her career only.
The disc menu design is simple and direct, playing up the Tracy-Hepburn teaming.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Desk Set rates:
1. It's one of the most
re-used properties in Fox movies, showing up in part or whole in The Fly and Voyage to
the Bottom of the Sea. Parts of it may even be the equally capricious computer S.U.S.I.E. of
2. This situation of company secrecy harming the morale of the
employees is taken up in a great "ephemeral" film in Fantoma's
On the Job collection of educational short
subjects. It's called The Grapevine and it has a bunch of office hens jumping to conclusions
over rumors that management could have easily circumvented with a policy of less secrecy. The short
film assumes that the company's motives with its employees are totally benign, just like Desk Set.