1957 – CinemaScope – Color by De Luxe – 20th Century-Fox
A couple of days ago, we had the pleasure to watch Desk Set, a crackling comedy which scored a genuine acting triumph for the romantic team of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.
One of the newly acquired DVDs to our archive, Desk Set invites one to the Research and Reference Department of the fictitious Federal Broadcasting Company in New York. Located on the 28th floor, this department is run by the self-assured, and regretfully unmarried, Bunny Watson (a newly rejuvenated Katharine Hepburn) who works congenially with smart, clean appearing co-workers: Bunny’s breezy ally and sturdy supporter Peg Costello (comedienne Joan Blondell, chosen over actress Thelma Ritter); Sylvia Blair (dashing Dina Merrill, daughter of billionaire Marjorie Merriweather Post, in her début role); and Ruthie Saylor (Sue Randall, aka. Marion Burnside Randall in her youthful freshness).
Equipped with a library containing a wide range of informative data for their manual reference, their responsibility in that corporate environment was to answer almost any query for information covering a wide field. Their motto: Be on time, do your work, be down in the bar at 5:30. As often as not, the kind of abstruse questions they encountered goes like: “What is the highest lifetime (baseball) batting average?”; “I’m trying to find out the truth about the Eskimo habit of rubbing noses. Do they rub noses, or don’t they?”….
Into their cheerful work place walked in a strange character who identified himself as Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy). His face appeared stern, mask-like, almost as though he was trying to keep his feelings hidden. No sooner had he appeared, for reason initially unbeknown to these girls, he looked around the office and started measuring the layout with a tape measure – at one stage, seeking assistance of the girls for this purpose. Maybe he’s an interior decorator assigned to redecorate their department? – or to build a Midget golf?, or is it going to be a Snack bar?, or maybe they are getting an air-conditioning unit, finally? But he didn’t look anything like an interior decorator – rather like one of those men who’s just suddenly switched to vodka.
When Bunny met Richard upon her arrival back from an appointment at IBM and a small shopping at Bonwit’s, she had wondered if he is from the story department. But that was soon cleared when he revealed he’s a methods engineer – adding that every time he mentioned what he does, people go into a panic. Before she could extract further information, Richard was called upstairs to meet the company’s boss Mr. Azae at his office.
In fact Richard is the efficiency expert assigned there on secret orders of Mr. Azae (Nicholas Joy) to investigate ground setup to install an ingenious electronic brain which Richard has invented. The machine is to be initially activated at Bunny’s reference department. For that reason, Richard intends to hang around that department for a couple of weeks, maybe a month, to get a comprehensive picture of its working. According to Mr. Azae, it’s vital that this be kept a secret from everyone, especially the girls in Research. Of course, it’s almost impossible to keep anything a secret around there.
When Bunny accepted Richard’s invitation for lunch, Peg in her wisdom suggested she try the chicken with truffles, Poularde truffée, expecting Richard would take her to the marvellous Le Pavillon, the finest French restaurant in New York. In all sincerity, Richard’s idea of place for lunch was the rooftop of their building in that grey, chilly weather. What an ideal place for concentration where they can cheerfully banish thoughts of waiters, people, telephones, central heating – save for some pigeons up there – so what?
At the rooftop, a table was soon set. Bunny’s face looked as if she had suffered some bereavement. She noted that he had brought along roast beef, ham, cheese and plenty of hot coffee for a square meal. Their lunchtime conversation illuminated him about the little research she undertook on him and she showed off her knowledge that he is one of the leading exponents of the electronic brain in USA. Richard was just ahead of his time. He is the creator of an electronic brain machine called EMARAC…. the Electromagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator – an electronic information retrieval system which offered quick access to enormous amount of detail – the machine she had seen at its demonstration at IBM earlier.
Of late, Peg was the first one to fear from the mistaken notion that the electronic brain will replace them sooner or later. Indeed, the electronic brain in the Payroll of their Federal Broadcasting Company was designed by Richard and no sooner had it installed there to perform tasks faster than the staff, half the department had disappeared. Worries about their jobs proved to be a persistent cloud over the heads of Sylvia and Ruthie while Bunny found herself drifting closer to Richard in spite of her affection for her conceited paramour Mike Cutler (Gig Young), the in-charge of her Reference Department, who found his relationship interfered by the intrusive methods engineer.
The wise-cracking, adorable Peg was trying to encourage Bunny to resist setting her heart on the elusive Mike who, having declared his love, isn’t proposing but even so, the starry-eyed Bunny seemed too willing to give it all up to become Mrs. Mike. In Peg’s book, Mike will certainly take romance but just isn’t the domestic type – he was running at least two horses.
At one instance, Bunny invited Richard to her apartment during a storm. She suggested he dine with her – well aware that the very fact they were dropped at her apartment by the office grapevine Mr. Smithers himself who had too lively a mind, would set tongues wagging soon. Inside the apartment, Richard kicked up his heels and made himself cosy in the man’s robe she lend him to replace his wet cloths and other accoutrements. This should be the starting point of a real relationship between them. But then before the dinner was over, they were taken by surprise when Mike suddenly turned up and in Mike’s amorous temperament, Richard’s mere presence in her apartment was enough to trigger misunderstanding.
Just as the girls feared, the machine was soon set up in their Reference department where a prim and officious Miss Warriner (Neva Patterson) from the lab arrived to run the EMARAC’s operation. Miss Warriner didn’t look like Dracula’s sister but, no doubt, was there to suck out their jobs. Then came the pink slips in their pay envelops bolstering their suspicion that they are to be canned – replaced by the electronic brain EMARAC or “Emmy”……
Known in UK under the alternate title “His Other Woman”, this lightweight comedy yarn produced by Henry Ephron is typical in having a sense of anxiety in an enclosed place where automation and love clash. Filmed at the 20th Century-Fox Studios lot and Rockefeller Center, Manhattan, New York City, director Walter Lang (King and I) blend the pace and the rhythm, the overtones and meaning of the screenplay as a whole. Desk Set teems with clever and witty dialogue, coffee break, 5 0’clock cocktail, rooftop luncheon, fabulous Xmas party, love affairs, few bars of songs, a good deal of tomfoolery, and that ever reigning universal compulsion called office gossip….before the happy finale.
The screenplay by Phoebe and Henry Ephron (parents of writer Nora Ephron) is based on the play Desk Set by playwright William Marchant. Before writing the screenplay, the Ephrons had gone to New York to make note of the spots where the laughs came in its Broadway stage production produced by Robert Fryer. The play had opened at the Broadhurst Theatre, New York on 24 October 1955 and starred Shirley Booth (Bunny Watson), Dorothy Blackburn (Peg Costello) and Byron Sanders (Richard Sumner). As of the closing date of 7 July 1956, it did 297 satisfactory performances.
Spirited actress Katharine Hepburn’s volatile style as Bunny Watson contrasts beautifully with the steady unpretentiousness and shrewd underplaying of Spencer Tracy as Richard Sumner – a role Spence had initially refused.
A whizz in biology, Katie wanted to be a surgeon but her fascination with acting led her to an acting career on Broadway in 1929. The Connecticut-born Katharine came over to Hollywood with aspiring actress Laura Barney Harding, and launched a magnificent career with her screen début in director George Cukor’s adaptation of Clemence Dane’s play A Bill of Divorcement (1932).
According to Cukor, Katie was quite unlike anybody he had ever seen and although she had never made a movie, she had a very definite knowledge and feeling right from the start. A Bill of Divorcement was soon followed by remarkable performance in Morning Glory (1933) based on Zoe Akins play. The movie brought her an Oscar for Best Actress – Katie’s first Oscar.
However, Katie’s public appeal was beset by her unspectacular looks and astringent quality of acting in her early films. Not unlike Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich who ignored what people thought, she too was gathering up reams of attention for wearing men’s clothes before it was acceptable. A magazine quoted her liking for dresses: “I do have a dress or two. I wear a dress only when it would look conspicuous to wear these clothes.”
Although at that time she was gracelessly branded box-office poison who emptied a theatre faster than a fire, she relentlessly worked her way to the threshold of glory through movies of some of the world’s renowned directors including John Ford, John Huston, George Cukor, David Lean, Stanley Kramer, Sidney Lumet, etc.
She is best remembered for Bringing Up Baby (1938) Katie’s first comedy; Holiday (1938); The Philadelphia Story (1940) all the above three with Cary Grant; The African Queen (1951) one of Katie’s favourite films; The Rainmaker (1956) with Burt Lancaster; and later in the screen version of Tennessee Williams’ short play, Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) with Elizabeth Taylor; besides Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967 – Oscar for Best Actress); The Lion in Winter (1968 – Oscar for Best Actress); The Trojan Women (1972) with Geneviéve Bujold; On Golden Pond (1981 – Oscar for Best Actress), etc.
The teaming of life partners Katie and Spence brought forth nine movies – starting their first pairing with the gentle sex-comedy, Woman of the Year (1942 – Oscar-winning screenplay by Michael Kanin and Ring Lardner, Jr.); Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952) – both films written by Garson Kanin and wife Ruth Gordon); Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967) which was Spence’s last film appearance and Oscar-winning story/screenplay by William Rose; besides Desk Set, their eighth teaming and first film together in colour.
In Desk Set, Spence as efficiency expert Richard creates a sympathetic, complex character in spite of the initial suspicion of the reference department girls.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin-born Spencer Bonaventure Tracy had initially believed he might become a plastic surgeon. But following military service, he had taken up acting on stage. According to a magazine article attributed to MGM stock player Selena Royle, it was Selena who recommended Spence for a leading stage role when she was a star of a stock company in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Once when her company was to open, the show’s producer was distressed over the sudden departure of the leading actor. A replacement could not be arranged immediately from New York. At that time, a boy had walked in asking for a job. He had no experience but wanted to be an actor. Just as the boy started to walk away, Selena had suggested that he be allowed to read for the role. That boy, Spencer Tracy, was then accepted for the role which marked his entry into the profession. Shortly afterwards, Selena’s faith and helping wand worked again for Spence when she, on hearing that her friend George M. Cohan was preparing to produce a play called Yellow, obtained a copy of the play and rehearsed Spence secretly in the lead role. In the audition she managed to arrange for him, they knew he had a natural talent for acting. The final win-out for Spence was the lead role in Yellow – an ample qualification to graduate out of stock and to a grade-A Broadway play. Furthermore, it led him to the lead role in The Last Mile.
It was Spence’s performance in John Wexley’s successful powerful prison drama The Last Mile (initial title: All The World Wondered) which opened on Broadway in February 1930 that caught the attention of veteran director John Ford. He advised Fox Film Corporation to hire Spence who earlier had un-credited appearances in two short films of Warner Bros.
Coming over to Hollywood for a one-picture contract, he shared début feature-film roles with Humphrey Bogart in John Ford’s Up the River (1930). Then again, when Nunnally Johnson suggested casting him in the role of notorious gunman Jesse James’ brother Frank in Jesse James (1939), an unconvinced Darryl Zanuck had said “Tracy will never make a star. ….Just lacks the juice for a star.”
On the other hand, a book quotes director Stanley Kramer’s observation “….(Tracy) remains to me probably the world’s greatest moving picture actor. No one was more talented – it was the chemistry of his roles that made him so good.” That appeared more truthful since Spence’s talent was honoured with Oscars for Best Actor for two consecutive years for the role of Portuguese fisherman Manuel Fidello in director Victor Fleming’s Captains Courageous (1937) adapted from the 1897 novel of Bombay-born Rudyard Kipling; and for director Norman Taurog’s Boys Town (1938), a semi-biographical movie based on the charitable activities of Father Edward J. Flanagan. It was couple of years later during the formative days for the production of director George Stevens’ Woman of the Year when Spence and Katie met for the first time and became romantically involved.
The capable supporting cast of Desk Set includes: Ida Moore as the tiny old “trademark” woman who gets one cracking with her silent walk in appearances. Harry Ellerbe (office grapevine lawyer Mr. Smithers), Nicholas Joy (Mr. Azae), Diane Jergens (Alice), Merry Anders (Cathy), Rachel Stephens (Receptionist), Sammy Ogg (Kenny), and others…
The crew: Leon Shamroy (Cinematography), Robert Simpson (Film Editing), Cyril J. Mockridge (Music), Lyle R. Wheeler/Maurice Ransford (Art Direction), Hal Herman (Asst. Director), Charles LeMaire (Executive Wardrobe Designer), Ben Nye (Makeup), Helen Turpin (Hair styles). The credits also acknowledge the cooperation and assistance of the International Business Machines Corporation.
Broadway designer and three-time Academy Award for Best Costume Design winner Charles LeMaire’s outfits in this movie are versatility personified, the kind of tailored sophistication for the modern girl who wants to look chic on the job, for daytime dates, luncheons, and for dinner. Master costumer LeMaire who would leave his job at Fox in 1959 for freelancing had a track record of dressing just about every major movie star – among others Jean Peters, Gene Tierney, Susan Hayward, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter, Sophia Loren, Jennifer Jones, Marilyn Monroe,…,.
Following the world premiere engagement of Desk Set at the Roxy, New York attended by a goodly number of celebs, LeMaire’s original fashions conforming to the cinematic environment in the movie arose wide spread interest, especially among those working women who couldn’t resist new fashions or to look tailored and neat. As a toast to them, he had appearances at Bon Marché, and Strawbridge & Clothier store for style-shows to show off his outfits in Desk Set.
An amusing comedy that generates steady excitement to all types of audiences, Desk Set is rich in delights for all those who love office ambiance. Until next time/Jo
- DVD/Blu-ray of most of the movies mentioned in this article is available with leading dealers.
- For promotional purpose, DVD sleeves/posters are shown here. Source: Wikipedia, amazon.com, imdb and from my private collection.
- This illustrated article is an affectionate nosegay to the movie reviewed above. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.
(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)