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Desk Set (1957)

by on 2011/12/22

“You don’t care whether you impress people or not, do you?”

* * *

Having recently spent some time in Manhattan, in New York City, I believe this movie made much more sense than it might otherwise have done. Suddenly, viscerally, I understood the rush, the crowds, public drunkenness, the terrifying public transit, and the value of an apartment off Lexington.

Not far from said apartment, near Rockefeller Center, the heroine of Desk Set oversees the reference department of the NBC . . . er, FBC, that is. Bunny Watson, played by Katharine Hepburn (African Queen) is an oddly intense lazybones. Endowed with a mind like a steel trap, she does her job nearly effortlessly, yet is unfulfilled personally.

And then she meets Richard Sumner, played by Hepburn’s real-life paramour, Spencer Tracy (Bad Day at Black Rock). A methods engineer — read “efficiency expert” — he is perpetually befuddled, forgetful and rarely on schedule, however his secrecy suggests a troubling purpose. Will his support of an EMERAC computer make Bunny and her girls obsolete?

Tis the season to be wary, it would seem.

Heck, I was wary myself. Long, drawn-out, attention-testing takes of drunkards shooting the breeze . . . what was so effective in The Thin Man doesn’t fare as well in this effort. Possessed of a clumsy small-talk vibe, wit and brevity is all but absent. Instead, everything is overwrought, overlong, and padded past its due.

Apparently to inject energy, an unfunny humour is flogged throughout. Over-bright, chipper personalities struck me as profoundly off-putting, insincere and relentless. The faux cheer tired me out at every turn, as if I was being excluded from an unending private joke. I wrote at one point in my notes, “it’s like a musical without song or dance” . . . and then shortly thereafter, Hepburn belied me with a cringe-inducing version of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”.

Even more uncomfortably, without already knowing about her and Tracy, I’d have never suspected they were friends, let alone in love. They showed little in the way of chemistry . . . no sparks, no progression, no unity. Separately, each was obtuse and inaccessible. Rather than birds of a feather, they came across as too alike, repressive poles, and oddly incompatible. A vaguely bemused air of mutual tolerance was the closest they came to communion.

In fact, Bunny enjoyed a better rapport with her female employees, hugging them, patting them on the bottom, and proposing they move in to “keep cats”.

Of greater interest to me was the immersion in a retro environment: vintage cityscapes, offices, a library, and — best of all — a massive room-filling computer. Sets, clothing, props, and other trappings helped me ride out the story in comfort. These qualities benefited in no little part from the surprisingly lush filmmaking. For its time, the use of stereo and colour CinemaScope must have been ambitious for a slight romantic comedy.

And it is indeed slight. Grating in parts, though bland overall, with irrational leaps near the end, its high production values are squandered on the unrealized potential of a Yuletide technology tale. Desk Set is worth seeing for the Fifties aficionado, but not if your time is at a premium, especially over the holidays.

* * *

Rated G

103 minutes

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