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Desk Set (March 21, 2013)

Five years after Pat and Mike, which was the third and last of their films directed by George Cukor, Hepburn and Tracy reunited for Desk Set. Most of their earlier films were for MGM, but neither star was contractually obligated to that studio anymore. This one was made at 20th Century-Fox. The screenplay was by Phoebe and Henry Ephron, adapted from a Broadway play by William Marchant that opened in 1955 and that originally starred Shirley Booth. This picture was directed by Walter Lang, who had directed films since the mid-1920s. Here at the library we’ve shown his Love Before Breakfast, a 1936 Carole Lombard film. His 1940s movies included two Clifton Webb vehicles, Sitting Pretty and Cheaper by the Dozen, and in the 1950s he made the musicals There’s No Business Like Show Business and The King and I. The cinematography was by Leon Shamroy, who photographed most of 20th Century-Fox’s 1950s widescreen productions, in such formats as CinemaScope and Todd-AO. Shamroy had a long string of Oscar nominations for his cinematography in those years, though his work here was not nominated. Desk Set, which was made in CinemaScope, was produced from January to March 1957 and was released the following May. It made $1.7 million on an investment of $1.8 million.

Since it is central to the story it seems odd that the word “computer” is never spoken in the film. The term had been used in its current sense since at least 1946, when the New York Times reported the existence of ENIAC. ENIAC (the acronym stood for Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) was the first electronic general-purpose computer. It was invented by John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania and was designed to calculate artillery firing tables for the United States Army's Ballistic Research Laboratory. After 1948 it was capable of being reprogrammed to solve a full range of computing problems. The earlier version required rewiring to allow reprogramming. ENIAC used vacuum tubes, not transistors, because they were not developed until the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Desk Set is one of the few movies I can think of that has a librarian as a central character. Among the others are Lombard’s 1932 No Man of Her Own, and the 1962 film of The Music Man. Many people would say it isn’t the most memorable of the Hepburn-Tracy pairings. By the time we’re done with this series we will have seen them all. Without a doubt there are movies that aren’t as good as this one. It has a bright and funny script that the stars use to their advantage and the picture can be pleasant. The supporting performances, by Gig Young and Joan Blondell, among others, are entertaining. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times of May 16, 1957 wrote “Best of all, there are Miss Hepburn and Mr. Tracy. They can tote phone books on their heads or balance feathers on their chins and be amusing—which is about the size of what they do here. Under Walter Lang's relaxed direction, they lope through this trifling charade like a couple of old-timers who enjoy reminiscing with simple routines. Mr. Tracy is masculine and stubborn, Miss Hepburn is feminine and glib. The play is inconsequential. The sets and color are good.” I hope you enjoy watching Desk Set with me tonight.