Favorite Quote: I’ll bet you write wonderful letters.
I swear I’ve done more than watch movies in the past few days. I’m deep into a couple of books – Sherlock Holmes with Izzy and My Brilliant Friend on my own. I had a lovely, intimate Christmas with my little family, and we did lots of cooking and eating and gaming together. However, I caught a little head cold that’s had me feeling pretty crummy since Christmas evening. I don’t know about you, but when I feel low, all I want to do is curl up in bed and watch movies.
Last night, I watched Desk Set and half of Going My Way (which I hope to finish today). Truth be told, I’ve never been a huge fan of the Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn film pairings. Even though I adore Hepburn, Tracy has never done much for me. I think when I was younger, it was hard for me to relate to him as a leading man. I mean let’s face it, he’s no Cary Grant. (I would argue that the Grant/Hepburn film pairing is one of the most magical in all of cinematic history) Then, as an adult, knowing their personal history (their 26 year ‘secret’ affair, his alcoholism, etc.), I have a hard time seeing him as a worthy match for the great Kate. After watching this one with fresher and older eyes, however, I think I may have to revisit my assessment.
First the plot. Hepburn plays Bunny Watson (!!) who heads the reference department for a large broadcasting company (in Rockefeller Center no less). Tracy plays Richard Sumner, an engineer/efficiency expert who arrives to implement time saving technology into her department. Misunderstanding, hilarity and romance ensue. But as the true rom-com aficionado knows, it’s the journey and travel companions, not the destination, that make the trip worth your while. Desk Set delivers on both counts!
One of the most interesting things for me about Desk Set is the ages of the two romantic leads. Tracy would have been in his mid to late 50s and Hepburn would have been nearing 5o herself. Even today rom-coms featuring people much older than mid 30s are hard to find. That was the magnitude of their combined star power at this point. And I would argue that their ages turn out to be critical to the success and believability of the film.
When Richard and Bunny meet it isn’t love at first sight. It’s not even hate at first sight. They’re both too old and wise and professional for any of that nonsense. Instead, what happens is that a sincere friendship slowly blossoms between the two – a friendship built on mutual respect, intellect and humor. No fireworks here, just a slow and steady burn. Now I can see why younger me didn’t respond to this.
I’m always on the look out for little protofeminist touches in any old film I watch and I can usually count on Hepburn to deliver. For starters, Bunny is the head of a department full of women and she runs it perfectly. She has a warm relationship with the three women who work under her, and they clearly admire and respect her deeply. They talk about things like men and fashion, but they also take care of business. They’re all great at their jobs and love what they do. Some of the best moments of the film are the interactions between the women and I was definitely left wanting a little more.
However, Bunny has a rather complicated relationship with her male boss, Mike Cutler. They have a sort of casual ‘thing’ going and it’s clear Bunny would like for it to be formalized so to speak. It’s clear that Mike is using Bunny – not just romantically, but also professionally. I was glad to see his romantic hopes dashed at the end, but I’d have really loved to see Bunny promoted to his job. Nonetheless, it’s great to see Bunny find a partner who loves her brilliance. As Richard says in one of the film’s pivotal moments – ‘I’ll bet you write wonderful letters.’ Now, that’s romance!
The next thing I notice about films from this era is the fashion and set design. The set design on this one really blew me away. The majority of action takes place in the reference office and I fell absolutely head over heels in love with it’s mid-century design and orderly disorder. I could see why these women felt so passionately about their work and the space they had create for themselves. Pictures don’t do it justice – watch the film!
Another prominent location in this film is Bunny’s apartment. Not only is it one of the most charming and fun moments of the film, where Bunny and Richard start to recognize a kindred spirit in the other, but we also get to see where Bunny lives and it is everything I would have hoped for and more. It’s cozy and eclectic and looks 100% believably lived-in. Besides the carpeted floor, it is absolutely timeless and could easily be passed off in a modern movie. Of course, I love that Bunny has shelves full of books and her wrapped Christmas presents piled up on her bedroom floor. And that fireplace….
Finally, the fashion. Hepburn could really do no wrong in this department. She wore trousers earlier in her career when it was absolutely not okay for a rising young starlet to do so. Her style is classic and seemingly effortless. As a researcher who is constantly up and down and digging in the stacks, Bunny dresses sensibly and professionally and still looks like a million bucks. I also love that there’s never that overdone movie moment where she takes down her messy little bun.
I’m so glad to have given this movie a second chance. I still don’t know if I’m completely sold on Spencer Tracy. He bears a striking resemblance to Carl from Pixar’s Up and I do hate to think of Hepburn wasting so much of her life on an emotionally unavailable alcoholic, but watching this made me want to revisit some of their other film pairings with fresh eyes.
A couple bits of trivia..
This was the eighth of nine screen pairings for Hepburn and Tracy, but it was their first in color. Their final pairing would be Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner because Tracy died just 17 days after filming ended.
This film was written by Henry and Phoebe Ephron – parents to the queens of 90s rom-coms, Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle) and Delia Ephron (You’ve Got Mail).
Title: Desk Set – 1957
My Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars