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The research librarians at the Manhattan television corporation, the Federal Broadcasting Network, are convinced that they are about to be replaced by an "electronic brain" named EMERAC in the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn comedy Desk Set (1957).
Head researcher Bunny Watson (Hepburn) presides over an office of accomplished research whizzes including Peg Costello (Joan Blondell) and young experts-in-training Sylvia Blair (Dina Merrill) and Ruthie Saylor (Sue Randall). Soon the research office is set atwitter by the mysterious arrival of efficiency expert Richard Sumner (Tracy). He becomes a daily presence in the office observing the research department's ways and finding out how best to incorporate his computer invention, which he lovingly refers to as "Emmy," into the office. But Richard may have found a worthy rival for even his beloved super brain in the brilliant Bunny, who has an encyclopedic recall of every fact under the sun. Though their relationship shows signs of a romantic attraction, Bunny continues to date her handsome but non-committal boss Mike Cutler (Gig Young) who has been seeing Bunny for seven years but can't bring himself to propose.
That already tenuous relationship is threatened in one of the film's most memorably screwball scenes when Mike shows up unannounced at Bunny's apartment on the same night that Richard has wrapped himself in an incriminating robe and slippers while seeking shelter from a rainstorm. But the threat posed by Richard may be secondary to that posed by the room-sized, temperamental EMERAC, as pink slips begin to arrive in the research department.
The International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) was thanked in the credits for Desk Set for their assistance on the film, though the actual EMERAC machine, as portrayed in the film, seemed more like a science fiction concept than a realistic computer, capable of feats no 21st century machine could duplicate.
The EMERAC computer was in fact modeled on two real computers, the first general purpose computer ENIAC, developed at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946 and the UNIVAC, released in 1951. Though computers were relatively unknown to movie audiences and did not have the dominance they have today, by the time Desk Set was made, computers were, indeed, beginning to replace whole offices of workers.
William Marchant's play was loosely based on an actual CBS research librarian, Agnes E. Law, though the film's establishing shots of Rockefeller Center suggest that the company in Desk Set was meant to evoke NBC. The Katharine Hepburn role was played onstage by Shirley Booth. In Marchant's play there was no romance between efficiency expert Richard Sumner and Bunny, but screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron added a romantic story line in order to capitalize on the famous on-screen chemistry between Tracy and Hepburn.
Desk Set was the eighth screen pairing of Hepburn and Tracy, after a lull of five years since Pat and Mike (1952). But Desk Set was a first for Hepburn and Tracy in many regards: the first film the pair made together outside MGM, their first color movie and their first CinemaScope production. They would make only one more film together, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967).
Though the film took full-advantage of the magnificent romantic repartee between Tracy and Hepburn, critics were less than kind when appraising the film as a whole. John McCarten of The New Yorker wrote "both Mr. Tracy and Miss Hepburn give their formidable all to Desk Set, and occasionally they make the thing seem reasonably acceptable, but the material is too shoddy even for them, and in the long pull the movie is a bore."
Almost every reviewer at the time attributed what moderate fun the film did provide to the memorable performances by not only Tracy and Hepburn but a strong supporting staff, including Gig Young who accepted a secondary role in the film for the chance to work with Tracy and Hepburn. Young had recently married future "Bewitched" star Elizabeth Montgomery despite father Robert Montgomery's strong dislike for his son-in-law who he saw as too old and professionally unaccomplished for his daughter.
The socialite-heiress Dina Merrill made her film debut in Desk Set and found a champion for her work in Tracy. Months after Desk Set had wrapped, Tracy petitioned to have Merrill play a role in a film of John O'Hara's book, Ten North Frederick (1958) in which he was also appearing. Tracy was so adamant that Merrill appear in the picture that when she was turned down for the role, Tracy left the production as well, with Gary Cooper replacing Tracy.
"They were so generous and so nice and kind," Merrill remembered of Tracy and Hepburn, especially when compared to some of her other famous co-workers. When Merrill auditioned for a part in Sayonara (1957) Marlon Brando told the director Joshua Logan that he didn't want Merrill to appear in the film, calling her "too tall and...too damn bossy."
Director: Walter Lang
Producer: Henry Ephron
Screenplay: Phoebe Ephron and Henry Ephron from the play The Desk Set by William Marchant Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Production Design: Lyle R. Wheeler and Maurice Ransford
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Richard Sumner), Katharine Hepburn (Bunny Watson), Gig Young (Mike Cutler), Joan Blondell (Peg Costello), Dina Merrill (Sylvia Blair), Sue Randall (Ruthie Saylor), Neva Patterson (Miss Warringer), Harry Ellerbe (Smithers).
C-104m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Felicia Feaster