Desk Set is a good example of the formula that Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy employed in their long, successful screen partnership. Unlike most of the duo’s oeuvre, it’s available to stream on Netflix.
Made and set in the late ’50s, Desk Set was based on a stage play that explored the dawn of the computer revolution on the business world. Hepburn played Bunny Watson, the whipsmart head of the research department of a major television network. She and her team of three women could rattle off sports stats, recite poetry both famous and obscure or provide information on topics like geography, politics or science. Into this mix came Tracy’s Richard Sumner, a computer engineer with a mandate to install an early generation computer to make the department’s work more efficient. Bunny and her girls feared that meant they’d be out of jobs. But sparks couldn’t help but fly between Bunny and Richard.
By this point in their careers, Tracy and Hepburn could have played urbane, upper class New Yorkers like Richard and Bunny in their sleep. The characterizations in general weren’t especially deep and the plot was mostly a pretext to throw the duo together. But that’s all beside the point. The reason fans tune into a Tracy/Hepburn production is to see those two great actors bounce off one another, trading witty jabs, engaging in complex, sophisticated wordplay and bringing out a sparkle in one another that was the basis of Hollywood legend for good reason. The plot might have been about Bunny and Richard falling for one another. But the movie was all about Hepburn and Tracy being very entertained by one another and then bringing their audience in on it. In some ways, it was “meta” before meta was even a thing.
In addition to Tracy and Hepburn, Desk Set sported two of the industry’s best “second banana” actors. The great comedic scene stealer Joan Blondell was a blast as Hepburn’s brassy sidekick. Meanwhile, All-American actor Gig Young did his usual solid work as Hepburn’s boss/non-committal boyfriend whose destiny to come out the loser in the inevitable triangle with Tracy was right up the actor’s alley.
Viewing Desk Set from a vantage point six decades later can be a lot of fun, if, for no other reason, to marvel at the very different rhythms of the business world as seen by Hollywood circa 1957 (i.e., the Mad Men effect). A computer that took up half a room was just the starting point. There was also: the open celebration of Christmas in the workplace, complete with smoking and drinking; the notion that women worked merely as a means of securing a husband; amusing depictions of an office “grapevine” in action; and that office romances not only were tolerated, but encouraged. All of it wrapped in a fantasy aura of upper crust mid-Century New York elegance.
For fans of classic movies, Desk Set is an entertaining exemplar of what Tracy and Hepburn did so well and is worth experiencing.