August 31, 2021
Desk Set (1957)
Grade: 53/100

Director: Walter Lang
Stars: Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Joan Blondell

What it's about. A romantic comedy based on the Broadway play by William Marchant. A tall office tower in Manhattan is devoted to a television network similar to CBS and NBC. One suite in the tower is the Research Department, staffed by bright bulbs Katharine Hepburn, Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, and Sue Randall with Hepburn in charge.

Spencer Tracy shows up as an efficiency expert, hired by company president Nicholas Joy to determine the feasibility of installing IBM mainframes throughout the building. Hepburn and company are fearful that Tracy plots to replace them with computers.

Nonetheless, Hepburn and Tracy gradually change from polite adversaries to convivial work buddies, as the old Hepburn-Tracy chemistry kicks in. After all, this was their eighth film pairing. Although the two never married, they had already been living together for many years, though the general public was unaware of this during Tracy's lifetime.

In Desk Set, Hepburn's boyfriend is gregarious network executive Gig Young. Hepburn hopes that Young will propose. By the time he does, Tracy is also viable marriage material. Anyone who has seen a movie before knows that Young is on his way out and Tracy is on his way in, long before Hepburn shows Young the door.

The screenwriters are Phoebe and Henry Ephron, the parents of better-known screenwriter Nora Ephron.

How others will see it. Desk Set was regarded as enjoyable fluff upon release. It was not nominated for any awards. It was apparently not a box office smash, given that Hepburn and Tracy would not appear again onscreen together for another ten years, when Guess Who's Coming to Dinner became Tracy's final film as well as the greatest critical and commercial success of any of their nine mutual films.

Boomers will recognize Sue Randall, due to her recurring role as the hottie brunette teacher in the 1960s sitcom "Leave It to Beaver." Classic movie lovers will instead favor Joan Blondell, a reliable supporting actress in uncountable Hollywood films and television shows.

They will even forgive her when she recites wrong statistics about Ty Cobb's baseball career.

Perhaps because it was filmed in technicolor, Desk Set is today among the more popular Hepburn-Tracy movies. At, it has a respectable 8K user votes. The user rating is only 6.9 out of 10 among men under age 45, and only 6.9 among non-American viewers, but women over 45 grade it more highly at 7.8.

The user reviews of course generally favor both Hepburn and Tracy, whose ability to memorize pages of dialogue is most impressive to the veteran film critic. Many reviews note that office gossip and politics are eternal: while fashion and technology evolve over time, workers still want to keep their jobs at a minimum, and advance their careers if at all possible.

How I felt about it. As someone who spent much of his freshman year in college writing programs on punch cards, I know it is not possible to encode the entire text of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" on a dozen punch cards. We wonder why anyone would bother to keep track of the number of letters in the words used in ongoing conversation, or how Hepburn would be able to keep track of the number of passengers and crew on a subway train at various stops without at least having the word problem in text before them. And what does the word problem prove? Does Hepburn have to be a genius to remain employed?

Hepburn and her three associates are too easily reassured by Tracy that their jobs are safe. After all, he's not responsible for hire and fire. He's essentially a mainframe salesman.

But it is a joy to see Hepburn and Tracy at work. They are so confident in their abilities, and so comfortable in their mutual company, that the film seems less like a movie and more like a dinner party with the supporting cast as their guests.