Monday, June 03, 2013

Processing the Uptake

Modern computer technology is the poorer for its lack of walls of grey squares lighting up in meaningless patterns. We're all poorer for the lack of Katharine Hepburn whose performance in 1957's Desk Set makes this conceptually antiquated database seem like a real threat to her livelihood as a reference clerk for a large company. The movie also stars Spencer Tracy and like all the movies in which these two actors star, talented each on their own, their extraordinary chemistry is a great pleasure to watch. This screenplay supplies them with entertaining dialogue, too.

The movie opens with a special thanks to IBM and Hepburn's character mentioning off-hand viewing and admiring IBM's new electronic brain. But Tracy's character works for a different computer company. Perhaps IBM was concerned with the bad feelings it might generate if the jobs of Hepburn and the other appealing women working in the reference library were threatened by an IBM product.

The same year she appeared in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Joan Blondell appears in a supporting role as one of the clerks and it seems she had settled into supporting roles at this point. She had leading roles in the 1930s, around the same time Hepburn's career began, so I wonder if she felt some resentment that Hepburn was still able to get leads. Then again, it's obvious Hepburn is eighty times the actress Blondell ever was.

The movie's based on a play and feels stagebound. Aside from some moments in lobbies and foyers, the whole movie either takes place in the reference offices, the roof of the building, or in Hepburn's apartment.

This was a pretty delightfully misfit scene. When they're both caught in the rain a distance from Tracy's home, Hepburn invites him in and lends him a robe so he can get out of his wet clothes. They're about to eat dinner when Hepburn's boyfriend turns up unexpectedly. When Tracy asks if he ought to hide in the kitchen, Hepburn scoffs, "We're adults!" A million other movies from the time would have filled fifteen minutes with actors bumbling through doors, scrambling under beds, evading the detection of the jealous boyfriend.

The scene's resolution is nicely low key but of course Hepburn's boyfriend is jealous. And he ought to be. Tracy and Hepburn had already hit it off on the roof of the building when Hepburn perfectly created the charm of a sharp bookworm as Tracy quizzed her to test her cognitive abilities. But my favourite scene is just the two of them slightly drunk among the books at the office Christmas party.

Tracy tells her about his ex-girlfriend and how she always sent him letters about women's fashion. Hepburn's laughter before he says, "I don't look like a fellow who's interested in women's fashion, do I?" is so completely natural and when she says, "Not even in men's!" there's a real delight in both their eyes as they look at each other. He's so sweetly understated as she stands to go and he says, "I bet you write wonderful letters."

No comments:

Post a Comment