Movie Night: Desk Set

“Not only is it hilarious, it has fabulous midcentury (ugh, that word) interiors, jokes only librarian/book/research nerds understand, an awesome supporting cast including EMERAC and Kate gets to get blotto and talk about the “Mexican Avenue Bus” (the Lexington Avenue Bus, that is).”

Desk Set Spencer Kate
["Curfew shall not ring tonight!" Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Desk Set. A RomCom about 30somethings played by 50somethings falling in love under the benevolent gaze of EMERAC.]

Four.75.Stars
4 ¾ Stars!

From 1957: «Desk Set», my personal favorite among the nine Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy films. Not only is it hilarious, it has fabulous midcentury (ugh, that word) interiors, jokes only librarian/book/research nerds understand, an awesome supporting cast including EMERAC and Kate gets to get blotto and talk about the “Mexican Avenue Bus” (the Lexington Avenue Bus, that is).

The synopsis:

“A computer expert tries to prove his electronic brain can replace a television network’s research staff.” TMDb

TMDb

I’m beginning to think The MovieDb folks need better synopsis writers.

Movie Metropolis‘ James Plath «wrote this review» in 2013:

“Desk Set catches them 15 years into their affair and 10 years before Tracy’s death. You can sense their level of comfort with each other—something that actually works against them in a romantic comedy in which opposites and antagonists are supposed to eventually attract. Tracy plays Mr. Sumner, an efficiency expert hired by the Federal Broadcasting Company to find departments in which his new-fangled computers (the size of a room, by the way) might save work-hours. Hepburn is Bunny Watson, who runs the research department rather than the always-absent boss (Gig Young) with whom she’s been having a seven-year relationship … waiting for a ring and running out of patience. … “The formula is pretty basic, but it’s the characters (and the actors) that make “Desk Set” fun to watch. It might also be one of the best films to document those legendary wild office parties from the ‘50s and ‘60s, with everyone imbibing so much Christmas cheer that they all start to get a bit of a Rudolph nose. “Desk Set” weaves machines vs. humans and gender-role themes into a pleasant battle-of-the-sexes film that feels more leisurely than most gender bender scripts that come out of Hollywood. This adapted screenplay, interestingly enough, comes from the pens of Henry and Phoebe Ephron, whose daughter, Nora, would receive Oscar nominations for her own work (“Silkwood,” When Harry Met Sally…,” “Sleepless in Seattle”). The script gives Tracy and Hepburn just enough to work with, and whatever charm that “Desk Set” has comes from the two stars and their interaction with each other and a decent supporting cast. Joan Blondell is particularly funny as Bunny’s sometimes abrasive co-worker, with Dina Merrill and Sue Randall also cutting up in the research department.”

James Plath, Movie Metropolis

Joan Blondell is fabulous as always and the film marks an appearance by Sue Randall, who would later play Beaver’s teacher on Leave It to Beaver. Neva Patterson is awesomely uptight and Dina Merrill is far too glamorous to be a research assistant, but it works. The would-be pairing of Gig Young and Katharine Hepburn is a bit far-fetched, and both Kate and Spencer seemed just a little long in the tooth for a RomCom, but those are quibbles. It works and works raucously well.

A short bit about a rainstorm and a guy from legal and his wife, kids and mother-in-law is hilarious and reminds you of I Love Lucy. But the best bit is a silent one by Ida Moore, an unnamed “Old Lady” who wanders in from time-to-time, checking out a book or enjoying the spiked punch at the office Christmas party. Supposedly, she was, way back in the day, the original model for the giant sculpture which is Federal’s logo, and she has had the run of the place ever since. Ida Moore does this with such aplomb and excellence that even Kate seems to be in her shade.


Best quotes:

Besides the “Mexican Avenue Bus,” there are many great lines/bits:

Bunny Watson: “Have some tequila, Peg.”

Peg Costello: “I don’t think I should. There are 85 calories in a glass of champagne.”

Bunny Watson: “I have a little place in my neighborhood where I can get it for 65.”

Desk Set

Richard Sumner: “Hello? Santa Claus’s reindeer? Uh, why yes I can… let’s see, there’s Dopey, Sneezy, Grouchy, Happy, Sleepy, uh Rudolph, and Blitzen! You’re welcome!”

Ibid

Bunny Watson: “Just for kicks. You don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to. I mean, don’t dwell on the question, but I warn you there’s a trick in it: If six Chinamen get off a train at Las Vegas, and two of them are found floating face down in a goldfish bowl, and the only thing they can find to identify them are two telephone numbers – one, Plaza Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh, and the other, Columbus Oh-1492 – what time did the train get to Palm Springs?”

Richard Sumner: “Nine o’clock.”

Bunny Watson: “Now, would you mind telling me how you happened to get that?”

Richard Sumner: “Well, there are eleven letters in Palm Springs. You take away two Chinamen, that leaves nine.”

Bunny Watson: “You’re a sketch, Mr. Sumner.”

Richard Sumner: “You’re not so bad yourself.”

Ibid

Bunny Watson: “I don’t smoke, I only drink champagne when I’m lucky enough to get it, my hair is naturally natural, I live alone… and so do you.”

Richard Sumner: “How do you know that?”

Bunny Watson: “Because you’re wearing one brown sock and one black sock.”

Ibid

And of course my personal favorite, Curfew Shall Not a-Ring Tonight!:

Richard Sumner: [Watching the computer result on “Corfu”, which is mistaken as “curfew”] What the devil is this?

Bunny Watson: [Also having a look] It’s the poem, “Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight.” Isn’t that nice? [reciting] “Cromwell will not come till sunset, and her lips grew strangely white… as she breathed the husky whisper, curfew must not a-ring tonight.”

Miss Warriner: [while Bunny goes on] Mr. Sumner, what can I do?

Richard Sumner: Nothing. You know you can’t interrupt her [the computer] in the middle of a sequence.

Miss Warriner: Yes, but, Mr. Sumner…

Richard Sumner: Quiet! Just listen.

Bunny Watson: “She had listened while the judges read, without a tear or sigh, at the ringing of the curfew, Basil Underwood must die.”

Richard Sumner: Uh, how long does this go on?

Bunny Watson: That old poem has about 80 stanzas to it.

Richard Sumner: Where are we now?

Bunny Watson: “She has reached the topmost ladder. O’er her hangs the great dark bell, awful is the gloom beneath her like the pathway down to hell. Lo, the ponderous tongue is swinging. ‘Tis the hour of curfew now, and the sight has chilled her bosom, stopped her breath and paled her brow.”

[telephone rings]

Bunny Watson: “Shall she let it ring? No, never! Flash her eyes with sudden light, as she springs and grasps it firmly…

[answers the phone]

Bunny Watson: …curfew shall not ring tonight!”

[audible click]

Bunny Watson: They hung up. And I know another one! “Out she swung, far out, the city seemed a speck of light…”

Ibid

Four.75.Stars
My rating: 4 3/4 stars for, ironically, casting.

Desk Set. 1957. TCM. English. Walter Lang (d); Phoebe Ephron, Henry Ephron, William Marchant (w) Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Gig Young, Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, Sue Randall, Neva Patterson, Henry Ellerbe, Nicholas Joy, Diane Jergens, Merry Anders, Ida Moore, Rachel Stephens, Don Porter, Sammy Ogg (p). Cyril J. Mockridge (m). Leon Shamroy (c).