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Category:    Home > Reviews > Comedy > Post-Modern > Desk Set

Desk Set


Picture: B-     Sound: B-     Extras: C+     Film: B



Director Walter Lanz was at his peak when he helmed Desk Set, being one of 20th Century-Fox’s best journeyman directors of the moment, thanks especially to his handling of anything CinemaScope.  After the triumph of the Yul Brynner/Deborah Kerr The King & I the year before, here was a comedy that can be seen as more transitional than you would think.


It pits computer man Richard Summer (Spencer Tracy) and network head Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn) trying to do business, but finding themselves at odds with each other.  Pressured dialogue that you would find in screwball comedies under such circumstances is replaced by the more paced exchanges of polite and business society.  At least at first.  In this world, man and machine are more in harmony as either people are getting more used to them (especially television, a centerpoint of the film that is ignored as the studios were battling the medium at the time) as a generation of teletypes and typewriters and telephones had past since pre-WWII films brought them on in the early sound era of filmmaking, or that people have unknowingly agreed to their misery.  The latter extends to the misery people tolerate from each other to conform and fit societal norms.


The other technology it hints at is color film, stereophonic sound and CinemaScope, so the entire idea of the misé-en-scene is what CinemaScope often implied down to its successful campaigns, being surrounded by a world of the future.  Desk Set is the most explicit the format would ever come to admitting this truth.  It also happens to be a very good film, with its tight 103-minutes-long running time and its own subtle ways of mocking said technology.  It would be fair to say that this had some kind of influence on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, IBM helped on both films, but the effect here is much more humorous when it comes to machine malfunctions), but referencing Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936 and his last silent film) is also very fair when thinking about this film’s lineage.


In speaking of that CinemaScope technology, the 2.35 X 1 image is anamorphically enhanced, despite not being identified as such on the back of the DVD box.  This looks pretty color correct for a Deluxe processed film and Leon Shamroy, A.S.C., delivers some of the bets work of his cinematographer career.  The Dolby Digital is offered in English & Spanish 2.0 Mono, but the 2.0 Stereo is particularly strong as it is likely carrying all the sounds that 4-channels of stereo originally did.  Why no 4.0 is odd, but maybe they could not find those elements, lost them, or just decided to recycle audio elements (form the 12” LaserDisc’s PCM Stereo perhaps?) that were handy.  Cyril J. Mockridge delivers an effective score.  Extras include a fine commentary by cast members Dina Merrill and (uncredited on the back of the box) and film scholar John Lee (Neva Patterson did not participate, despite what the box says).  Stills, the theatrical trailer, four other Fox trailers, and a newsreel comprise the rest of the interesting “value added” materials.


The Phoebe and Henry Ephron screenplay is very smart and holds up remarkably well after nearly a half-century, based on the William Marchant play.  When does right, it is amazing how well some plays translated into CinemaScope films.  But the natural way in which the frame is filled out is ahead of its time.  The cast that also includes Gig Young, Joan Blondell and Sue Randall is another plus.  But this is funny, smart filmmaking and that is the top reason to see Desk Set, which is at least a minor classic.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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