Walter Lang’s Desk Set, Tracy and Hepburn’s eighth (and next to last) screen collaboration, is a mildly amusing comedy about the battle of the sexes, this time around in the context of the workplace and the new threatening technology.
Set at the Federal Broadcasting Network in Manhattan (modeled on NBC), the screenplay was written by Phoebe and Henry Ephron (Nora Ephron’s parents), based on William Marchant’s 1955 play, starring Shirley Booth. The Oscar-winner Booth (Come Back, Little Sheba) was originally set to reprise her stage role.
Hepburn plays Bunny Watson, a stern, dedicated supervisor, who with her staff of Peg, Sylvia, and Ruthie, run a reference and research department for a TV network. Their goal is to try and answer questions as quickly as possible on any subject.
Things change when into their office comes Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy), an efficiency expert, who measures the premises for the installation of a computer brain that would take over some of the routine work done by the employees.
Needless to say, the employees think they will be replaced, and their fears are confirmed when they pink slips, printed out by the new payroll computer. Fortunately, it turns out to be a mistake–the machine managed to fire all company members, including the president.
Watson is a middle age woman (Hepburn was actually 49) romantically involved for seven years with rising network executive Mike Cutler (Gig Young), but there are no definite plans for marriage.
Sumner reveals his romantic interest in Watson, but she believes that EMERAC would always be his first priority. He denies that, but Watson tests him by setting the machine to self-destruct. Sumner resists fixing it as long as possible, but finally gives in.
The film plays on the familiar theme of the old order versus the new order, or emotionalism versus rationalism. There is resistance to change, and at first the women take an adverse attitude toward Richard, perceiving him as a threatening intruder who’s going to eliminate their jobs. This premise leads to expected conflicts and misunderstandings for all concerned.
But at the end, courtesy of a serviceable (but no more) script from the Ephrons (husband and wife Henry and Phoebe), working from a play that was not great in the first place, the problems are resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.
Side benefit: At a Christmas Party, Hepburn begins (but doesn’t finish) singing Cole Porter’s melodic tune, “Night and Day.”
The computer referred to as EMERAC is a homoiophone metonym for ENIAC (“Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer”), developed in the 1940s and the first electronic computer.
It’s good to see Tracy and Hepburn on screen even if this film represents their weakest collaboration, due to the fact that the Ephrons don’t write as sharp and witty dialogue as Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin (Adams Rib, Pat and Mike) and Walter Lang is not as good a director as George Cukor.
Tracy-Hepburn Screen Pairings
Desk Set was the eighth pairing of Hepburn and Tracy, after a five-year respite since Cukor’s 1952’s Pat and Mike in 1952. It was the duo’s first non-MGM film, their first color film, and their first CinemaScope feature. After Desk Set, the couple made only one more film, the Oscar-winning interracial comedy, Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? in 1967.
Produced by Henry Ephron
Director: Walter Lang
Screenplay: Phoebe and Henry Ephron, based on a play by Robert Fryer and Lawrence Karr
Camera: Leon Shamroy
Editor: Robert Simpson
Music: Cyril Mockbridge
Art Directors: Lyle Wheeler and Maurice Ransford
Set Decoration: Walter Scott and Paul S. Fox
Special Effects: Ray Kellogg