**½/**** Image A- Sound B- Extras C+
starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Gig Young, Joan Blondell
screenplay by Phoebe and Henry Ephron, based on the play by William Marchant
directed by Walter Lang
by Bill Chambers One of the more effectively simple credits sequences opens Desk Set, with a telegraph situated on a Mondrian-inspired backdrop spitting out the names of cast and crew. This, it turns out, is the movie reduced to symbols. Modernities clash as Spencer Tracy's ironically oafish efficiency expert is deposited in the environment of Katharine Hepburn, who thinks and dresses geometrically but brings a splash of colour to the room. They're hip and as hip as each other, even if she's a Luddite and he pimps a supercomputer for IBM, because career comes first for both. Counterbalancing a general mistrust of the electronics revolution (and the typical politically-incorrect trappings of Fifties cinema), the movie embraces a progressive quality in its power-couple leads, who still seem remarkably contemporary because neither assumed aggressively gender-specific roles--they always played equals of different temperaments.
Probably the most notable film scripted by Phoebe and Henry Ephron, Desk Set illuminates the DNA of daughter Nora's screenplays. You have an aloof man, Sumner (Tracy), and a well-read spinster with a babyish name, Bunny (Hepburn), gently butting heads in the journalism-friendly setting of the FBC Network's research department. The two engage in endless compatibility tests disguised as brainteasers, and some air finally escapes from their mutually-suppressed attraction at a Christmas party, where Sumner heartbreakingly ventures to Bunny, "I'll bet you write wonderful letters." But where Nora often expedites the central flirtation in her films, the elder Ephrons use our sophisticated viewing habits to their unique advantage in Desk Set, choosing not to classify Sumner and Bunny by their feelings for one another. It's amazing how much we've regressed as a moviegoing culture--you'd never find a backer for a romcom with this little relationship anxiety now. Not to say that Desk Set isn't cinematically archaic: Director Walter Lang buys into the CinemaScope propaganda that widescreen master shots do the work of multiple cameras and editors; his camera is so rigid that even when he does cut to a close-up, he's just zoomed in from his fixed position on the floor. Posterity's gain--Lang's visual austerity is perfect for conveying the absurd magnitude of primitive data banks such as Sumner's EMMARAC (or "Emmy" (the screen's first anthropomorphized computer?))--is Desk Set's loss, as the film seems like it's concealing lost coverage.
Presented anamorphically at 2.35:1, Desk Set isn't in as wide an aspect ratio as those CinemaScope productions previously issued on DVD under the Fox Classics banner. This may cause some controversy, as the LaserDisc contained a 2.50:1 transfer, but the frame never feels clipped or cramped and compositions don't appear compromised. Purists will either be aggravated or assuaged by the clarity of the image and cleanliness of the source print; grain is the tamest it's ever been, while the various shades of green have a lot of snap. Both the Dolby Digital monaural and stereo remixes are unnoteworthy compared to the video. Extras include a serviceable feature-length commentary with actress Dina Merrill ("Sylvia Blair") moderated by someone named John Lee (filling in for absent-but-advertised participant Neva Patterson), the former trailing off on eccentric and egotistical tangents, the latter airing a list of grievances about the hazards of CinemaScope in place of criticizing the film or Lang directly. For what it's worth, Ms. Merrill's chronology is off: Desk Set preceded "Leave It to Beaver" for co-star Sue Randall. A gallery of b&w stills, trailers for Desk Set, All About Eve, An Affair to Remember, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and The Seven Year Itch, and a 1-minute Movietone newsreel wherein Vyvyan Donner "describes" a runway exhibit of Charles Le Maire's costumes round out the disc. Originally published: April 16, 2004.