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Desk Set: Fox Studio Classics

They met in 1941. She was a lanky, sharp-tongued East Coast type, born to wealth and privilege. He was a barrel-chested, working class Irishman with a penchant for heavy drinking and deep depression. As the oft-told story goes, they first met on the MGM lot — either in the commissary or outside the Thalberg building, depending on who's telling the story. Katherine Hepburn took a look at Spencer Tracy, her new leading man, and commented on his short stature, wondering if perhaps she was too tall for him. Tracy reportedly growled back, "Don't worry — I'll cut you down to size," kicking off a legendary pairing, both on-screen and off, that would last until Tracy's death in 1967. Their real-life love affair has been chronicled as a world-class romance of epic proportions and, alternately, an abusive battle between two bigger-than-life personalities, fueled by Tracy's alcoholism and Hepburn's aggressive ego. Most likely it was an explosive combination of both, with their mutual devotion holding them together for over two decades. On screen, their chemistry was pure magic through a total of nine films, starting with 1942's Woman of the Year and ending with Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, completed just weeks before Tracy's death. The duo's penultimate film, Desk Set (1957), offers some of their very best work together — sparkling dialogue, a clever story, and a pair of veteran actors who play off each other with almost supernatural ease. As head researcher for the Federal Broadcasting Company television network, Bunny Watson (Hepburn) operates her department like a well-oiled machine. Fielding phone calls on everything from the names of the Seven Dwarves to questions about whether the king of the Watusis drives a car (answer — yes, he received one as a gift from the producers of King Solomon's Mines), Bunny and her staff — played by Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, and Neva Patterson — know their research library inside and out. Enter "efficiency expert" Richard Sumner (Tracy), assigned to install a room-sized computer called E.M.I.R.A.C., but warned by the head of the network that he's not supposed to tell the workers exactly what he's doing there. Although she has misgivings about Sumner, Bunny finds herself attracted to him despite her long-standing relationship with caddish FBC exec Mike Cutler (Gig Young), who's yet to pop the question. As it becomes apparent what Sumner's doing in their midst, the employees become concerned that they may lose their jobs — but the clueless Sumner just plows forward, unaware of their dismay as he woos Bunny in his own distracted, off-hand manner.

*          *          *

Based on the play by William Marchant, Phoebe and Henry Ephron's screenplay for Desk Set is one of the very first to address the new corporate America of the late '50s — computers were on the horizon, efficiency and profits were deemed more important that people, and workers were concerned about the future of their jobs. Desk Set's end-of-film message — computers are here to help us, not replace us! — was a classic happy ending, but the story itself played on a growing fear that rapid advances in technology would soon make the human worker obsolete. To the modern computer user, the Cinerama-wide E.M.I.R.A.C. is about as realistic as Forbidden Planet's Robby the Robot, all whirring tape drives and tooting whistles and flashing lights, with a big red lever to pull in case anything goes wrong. But it brilliantly embodies the cartoonish idea of the "Electronic Brain" that so worried office workers in the late '50s, a device that ostensibly would do the thinking of ten men and cost less to operate. Hepburn's Bunny is an old-school brain — her scene with Tracy as he asks her a number of I.Q.-type questions and reels at her intricate logic patterns is hilarious — with a wild, out-of-control philodendron wending it's way around her office and a mind faster than any machine. That Sumner, the efficiency expert, would be attracted to her is only natural — she's the physical embodiment of the computer he obsesses over. What Bunny sees in Sumner, however, is less clear, with the film relying heavily on our knowledge of the real-life Tracy-Hepburn romance to fill in the gaps. But no matter — Desk Set is a jaunty, spirited romantic comedy with a pair of mature leads (Tracy was 57, Hepburn 50) who light up the screen with their mutual attraction. It's an underrated entry in the pair's filmography. Fox's Desk Set DVD release — part of their "Studio Classics" imprint — offers a new anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) — besides being the first time that most viewers will have ever seen this CinemaScope classic in its correct ratio, its also a spectacular transfer from a source-print that's exceptionally bright with optimum color saturation and deep, rich blacks. The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (offered in mono or stereo) is clear — the original mono track translates to stereo nicely. Extras include an odd, disjointed commentary by Dina Merrill and John Lee (the packaging says that it's Merrill and Neva Patterson, but it's not) in which Merrill offers lightweight, anecdotal remembrances, filled in by a deep-voiced Lee reciting diligently researched, non-scene specific info about the film and the actors. Also on board are a Movietone newsreel about fashions inspired by the film, the theatrical trailer, a stills gallery, and trailers for other Fox classics. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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