Posted by: gdevi | January 4, 2016

Movie Review: Desk Set (1957)

I like Katharine Hepburn’s movies; she reminds me of all the real teachers I know. Katharine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall are my favorite actresses from the golden period of Hollywood cinema.  I don’t like Hepburn in the pretty-looking exploitative vapid comedies about middle class sexual escapades such as A Philadelphia Story.  I don’t watch them at all, if I can help it. I know mine is the minority report since that is what sells here.   But Hepburn is truly unforgettable in movies with real stories such as A Lion in Winter, The African Queen, Little Women, The Trojan Women, Guess Who Is Coming to Dinner, On Golden Pond, and all the movies she made with Spencer Tracy.

Desk Set, directed by Walter Lang who also directed the wonderful The King and I tells the story of Richard Sumner (Tracy) a computer engineer from MIT who has been asked to install the EMERAC (modeled after the real ENIAC, the first popular computer in the 50s), a high capacity computing machine in the research department of the Federal Broadcasting Network, where Bunny Watson (Hepburn) works with her staff. The computing machine is believed to be a replacement for Watson and her team of efficient researchers with formidable memory of all facts at their fingertips. Desk Set is thus a topically current movie in the 50s–it is about the real anxiety of machines replacing people. Hepburn plays Watson with the sweet combination of a highly intelligent woman who discovers a gentle vulnerability within her for Sumner. I loved Tracy as Sumner–just a charming, highly intelligent character impressed by the sweet and smart research librarian. The scenes with Tracy and Hepburn–Tracy testing her IQ on the terrace–are wonderfully fresh and humorous even now. It is truly remarkable how a good actor can make being cold so unforgettable. Or a disquisition of that feared tome of every high school student, The Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight! Only Hepburn’s perfect comic timing can make this melodramatic poem sound interesting.

The plot has the expected suitor for Watson, Mike Cutler (Gig Young), an ambitious executive who is climbing the management ladder and who has nothing else to speak of. The complication in the plot revolves around the anxiety of Watson and her research team that Sumner and his computer would get them all fired. The complications resolve humorously and naturally since as Sumner explains to Watson–the machine makes no errors–only the humans who program it do. Thus the quality of the human mind matters in the marketplace of machines. And Bunny Watson has a formidable mind.

In keeping with the irresistible-force-meets-immovable-object motif–and this is true for both characters, Sumner and Watson; they are both irresistible and immovable–the soundtrack features Johnny Mercer’s “Something’s Gotta Give,” and Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” Watson (Hepburn) sings this as Sumner plays on the tom tom drum; it is a great scene.  It is so refreshing to see these songs used in a movie without smut, leering and bodily fluids. Apparently the character of Bunny Watson was based on the real life CBS reference librarian Agnes E. Law.

This is a light-hearted comedy with a brain. It will stay fresh for another seventy years with no problem.

 

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