Desk Set (1957): Classic Movie Review

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USA 1957, 103 minutes, color, 20th Century Fox. Director: Walter Lang. Written by Phoebe and Henry Ephron. Based on the play by William Marchant. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Gig Young, Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, Sue Randall, Neva Patterson, Harry Ellerbe, Nicholas Joy, Diane Jergens, Merry Anders, Ida Moore and Rachel Stephens.

Plot summary: When the Federal Broadcasting Network hires Richard Sumner  (Tracy) to install an “electronic brain”, reference library head Bunny Watson (Hepburn) fears for the relevance of her department and her own job.

Review: There are different reasons to pick a movie. You may be delighted by the plot, the director or the cast. You may have read the book a film is based on, or you may simply stumble upon a film. In my case, two reasons apply. First, I love Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn as individual performers, but as soon as they’re on screen together, my heart skips a beat. And, I gladly admit, I scan every store for classic film offers. The second my eyes fell upon the sales sticker on Desk Set, a decision had been made to buy this film and enjoy it with a dear old friend. Now, although said friend shares my enthusiasm for Miss Hepburn, she isn’t as enamored with Hollywood’s Golden Age as yours truly. So you can imagine her reaction when the film started to address computers and the pros and cons of upgrading the workplace a good 55 years ago. In her defense, she gave the movie a chance and ended up enjoying it despite her initial reservations. I was in love with it the moment I realized this was an adaptation of William Marchant’s play, written by Phoebe and Henry Ehpron who also penned one of my favorite comedies, 1950′s The Jackpot (starring James Stewart and Barbara Hale). So yes, call me biased when I recommend this film to you but for anyone who’s fond of witty dialogue, delicious acting and some depth in comedy, Desk Set is a true gem. To give away the storyline would be a crime, so I’ll refrain from saying more about the plot than this: not everything is what it seems, but you can always count on the Hepburn-Tracy chemistry now shrouded in legend.

Melanie Simone is a writer with a degree in American Studies and English. On Talking Classics, she savors her love for vintage Hollywood.

  • Gord Jackson

    I would also add that Joan Blondell makes a major contribution to the fun that is this film.

  • Laura-Leigh

    Kate Hepburn & Spencer Tracy = screen perfection and yet I don’t know this flick. So going n my X-mas wish list. Thanks!

  • Leslie J

    I loved this movie … more so than Woman of the Year, or Pat & Mike starring the same duo! This is a wonderful film.

  • Bruce Reber

    My favorite “Desk Set” scene – when Bunny (Katharine Hepburn) thinks that Sumner (Spencer Tracy) is taking her to lunch at a fancy restaurant, and he takes her up on the roof for sandwiches and coffee. An efficiency expert’s indomitable mentality (keep things simple and inexpensive).

  • Tami Grover Hance

    I love this movie! The lunch and interview on the roof, the chemistry of Hepburn and Tracy, the bit about the “Mexican Avenue bus”, and “curfew shall not ring tonight”!

  • FalmouthBill

    This is my favorite Tracy/Hepburn film, and I always watch it with my Christmas movies. I saw it in the theatre when I was 15, and I think it, along with The Apartment, is one of the reasons I went into office work, I couldn’t wait for the parties to begin, and it was true, at least through the 60′s.

  • SLH

    Desk Set and Adam’s Rib are my 2 favorite Tracy and Hepburn movies. I love the scene when Sumner puts on the HOT shoes, along with so many other moments in this movie, just thinking about them can make you laugh.

  • Cara

    I love Desk Set, not only because of Kate and Spence’s chemistry and the snappy dialogue written by Phoebe and Henry Ephron, but because Desk Set places us in a particular time when computers were just moving into the marketplace, and people were frantic that these monoliths would replace them. The way that fear is handled, alone, makes it a must see film for 21st century audiences.