Desk Set

Desk Set. 20th Century Fox 1957.
Desk Set. 20th Century Fox 1957.

Before watching the Movie:

I can’t recall if this is something I saw come up specifically referenced by somebody as a story about a woman tasked with automating her research department and it turns out even just alone she’s better than the computer, or if this is unrelated and just came up in my algorithmic recommendations.

All I know for sure is that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn apparently do a lot of verbal sparring, and I’m a big fan of verbal sparring, especially by legends. I guess I haven’t seen all that much of Spencer Tracy. It may just be Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and nothing else. But I know he’s highly regarded and that William Shatner in particular looked up to him.

It says this is a romantic comedy, and I’m wondering if the center couple is both Tracy and Hepburn. They seem mismatched in age.

After watching the movie:

Ms. “Bunny” Watson manages the reference department for the Federal Broadcasting Network, a small group of women with excellent research skills and better memories. They’re the internet for FBN’s writers. However, FBN has contracted with Richard Sumner to build them two EMERAC computers to take on a share of the workload in the reference and payroll departments. Payroll is easy, but for Reference, Sumner has to extensively study what the reference girls do and devise how to program a computer for the job. Of course, once they find out who Sumner is, nobody in Reference wants anything to do with him. But they’re stuck with him, and as they’re forced together, Ms. Watson’s analytical and memory skills continue to impress Mr. Sumner, and she finds someone of value inside the man poised to ruin her staff’s careers, perhaps somebody who’ll do what her casual boyfriend of seven years won’t.

I was mistaken in my assumption of how old Hepburn would be in this story. She plays as just as middle-aged as Tracy. In fact, her boyfriend Mike seems like he may be too young for her, a young executive on the rise when she’s flirting with spinsterhood. I’m quite impressed that a story made in 1957 would portray a middle-aged romance, though I find the forces of attraction between them a little weak. They flirt a lot, but I can’t actually come up with anything between them that would lead to much other than friendship. Still, they have plenty more chemistry than she does with Mike, who has to cancel on pretty much everything on her because his career is more important to him than her or her career. That’s another thing. There’s a moment where she turns Mike down because her career and her girls are more important to her than his terms. How was this made in the late 50s?

This movie is in Cinemascope, because all movies of the time that could afford to be were. I don’t often notice, but while overall I don’t think this kind of story has a particular use for such a wide picture, here and there I noticed shots where it was clearly made with the wide frame in mind, and sometimes it even creates something of particular visual interest. The wide shots also tend to include the entire set, or a portion of it significant enough to complement the fact that this was adapted from a play. Most wide shots don’t do much with the whole frame, but just including a large swath of the set is a subtle throwback to watching it on the stage.

The title sequence features an IBM typewriter-style workstation, so I was concerned at first that this was going to be a feature-length commercial for IBM, but I didn’t notice any presence of the company afterward. My guess is that they mainly consulted on the technical side, because there is a quite extensive familiarity with the computers of the time.

For a movie with so much room for the little character moments, it’s odd that I don’t really see the case made for the central couple. It’s very strongly written, but loosely plotted. Fun, ahead of its time, but not quite what I hoped it would be.

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