Combustible Celluloid
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With: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Gig Young, Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, Sue Randall, Neva Patterson, Harry Ellerbe, Nicholas Joy, Diane Jergens, Merry Anders, Ida Moore, Rachel Stephens
Written by: Phoebe Ephron, Henry Ephron, based on a play by William Marchant
Directed by: Walter Lang
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 103
Date: 05/01/1957

Desk Set (1957)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Lambs to the Blotter

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I know Katharine Hepburn is considered the movies' greatest actress, but let's face it, in Walter Lang's Desk Set she isn't even trying.

Early in the 1930s, Hepburn won an Oscar but soon became cursed with a string of flops that earned her the label "box-office poison." It so happens that these films, Sylvia Scarlet, Stage Door, Bringing Up Baby and Holiday among them, featured her at her feistiest, most independent best. Apparently people were not interested in feisty, independent women, and so Hepburn had to tone her image down in The Philadelphia Story. Her subsequent films with Spencer Tracy offered her such an easy chemistry that she barely had to work at all.

Desk Set comes late in the Tracy/Hepburn cycle. Maybe there's a hint of zest in their first film together, Woman of the Year (1942), but Desk Set is a big, shiny, doohickey coasting on the warm offerings of earlier triumphs.

Hepburn plays Bunny Watson, the head of the research department at a TV news station. Tracy is Richard Sumner, an engineer whose job is to figure out how to fit a computer into her office space -- only he's not allowed to tell her what he's up to. If he did, we wouldn't have a movie.

Richard is a frumpy bachelor who can barely dress himself, and Bunny dresses herself too well, pinned up in high-necked dresses with no sex appeal. When these two fall in love, the movie takes it for granted that we'll notice.

Yet Desk Set is still worth seeing, thanks to a crisp, warm script by Henry and Phoebe Ephron (parents of Nora) and the Cinemascope design. Lang wasn't much of a director -- he never moves the camera or guides the film beyond a stage play -- but he takes great joy in filling the enormous frame with all kinds of colors and shapes and doodads. Bunny even has an overgrown plant that stretches horizontally along the wall of her office; it's dazzling.

And despite the fact that we know they could do better, Tracy and Hepburn are effortless and their performances go down easy.

Fox's DVD comes with a Movietone News reel, a commentary track by actors Dina Merrill and Neva Patterson, a still gallery, a trailer for this and four other Fox Studio Classics, and optional language tracks and subtitles.

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