Based on the stage play by William Marchant, Desk Set was the eighth film pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. While the material is on the lighter side, it’s nonetheless a witty ride, acted expertly by its stars, and directed well by the reliable Walter Lang (There’s No Business Like Show Business, The King and I).
Bunny Watson (Hepburn) works for the Federal Broadcasting Company’s research department, along with her colleagues and friends, Peg (Joan Blondell), Sylvia (Dina Merrill) and Ruthie (Sue Randall). Richard Sumner (Tracy), efficiency expert and inventor of a computer called EMERAC is brought in to the research department to set up his invention. Almost sixty years after its release, Desk Set is amusing when you consider that a group of researchers are concerned about losing their jobs to computers (referred to as electronic brains in the film).
Computers in the workplace aside, Desk Set is a predictable yet fun romance. While I’ve never felt that the Tracy/Hepburn pairing generated much sexual chemistry, but their comfort around each other comes through in their wickedly sharp banter. Without it, Desk Set would be little more than a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. Watching Hepburn and Tracy though, is something special.
While worrying about her job, Bunny is also concerned about her long running relationship with Mike Cutler (Gig Young) a fellow company employee, climbing the corporate ladder, and apparently spending time with her when convenient. With Sumner continually hanging around the office, Bunny finds herself warming to the slightly odd stranger, leading to some unexpected complications.
So, Desk Set might be best described as a clever romantic comedy. The clever part is the fear that computers were going to replace people. After all, this was 1957, so the average person wasn’t familiar with computers, let alone knowing whether they could indeed take over jobs. In the end, the lesson is that computers are only as good as the people who operate them. While the story concerning the introduction of EMERAC is smartly written by Phoebe and Henry Ephron, Desk Set is very much a routine romance. Initially with the unreliable Mike, Bunny’s head is eventually turned by Richard, but it’s obvious that’s going to happen from the moment he walks in her office.
Tracy and Hepburn work so well together that the talented supporting cast dwarfs in comparison. Gig Young’s Mike Cutler is underused, given a few memorable lines, but mostly used in quick snippets to emphasize what a cad he is. Joan Blondell does make the most of her role, firing off some memorable one-liners and leaving the scene. It’s Tracy and Hepburn’s easy banter that carries Desk Set and makes it worth seeing.
Presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, 20th Century Fox has provided a sharp and clear picture. While there aren’t many close-ups to really evaluate facial features, the weaves in Katharine Hepburn’s outfits are evident throughout. The colors are strong, showing off accurate skin tones. Black levels aren’t as deep as they could be, but it’s a minimal issue. The transfer is free of any artifacts.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 sound mix accurately replicates the mono sound experience of the era. Age related crackles and hisses aren’t an issue. Dialogue is clear throughout, never drowned out by Cyril Mockridge’s cheerful background score. A bit of ADR is noticeable here and there.
English SDH, and Spanish subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Commentary by Dina Merrill and John Lee: It sounds like Lee and Merrill were recorded separately, but they’ve been edited together pretty well. Though there are quite a few pauses, Merrill is a joy to listen to as she discusses her career, and Lee provides analysis of the film.
- Fox Movietone News: Designers Inspired for New Creations by Film Desk Set (SD, :59) is a brief puff piece about the film’s costumes.
- Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2:19)