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Desk Set

28 Aug

Desk Set – directed by Walter Lang. Romantic Comedy. The research department of a broadcasting company feels threatened by the introduction of a computer and its inventor. 103 minutes. Color 1957.

★★★★★

Katharine Hepburn was not a great actress, but she was such a great high-comedy actress you might think she was. She is usually better in the first half of a film than in the last, and she is usually better with Spencer Tracy in comedy than in drama. They made nine films together, and if you omit the dramas you will find the cream on the top to be whipped. So, see Woman Of The Year, Adam’s Rib, Pat and Mike, and Desk Set. Hepburn is 50 when she does this, so there are no close-ups, and there do not have to be. Her fearless full-body physical confidence in movement has tremendous carrying power, and few actors could handle props with her ease and dispatch. Chewing on a paper cup while asking a leading question, watch her. Watch her open that financial report and start to work; you absolutely believe she understands its contents and knows what to look for. Hepburn was an actress who chose only noble roles, roles which called upon her strengths: fairness, poise, and willingness to level with you. With Tracy, her certainty in all matters is balanced out at the end to make a compatibility. This is not true with Cary Grant; with Grant you are left with the dizzy challenge of their incompatibility. In some things Hepburn is no good. In love she plays the giddy schoolgirl or the lorn one, which is undignified and false (in real life, Hepburn was never alone and not interested in romance). In serious scenes she tends to emotionalize and tear-up, which is cheap and easy. But catch her in the free-wheeling exposition of the opening scenes of a comedy, and there is no one better in the world for beguiling you – with her accuracy of attack, democracy of eye, physical fluidity, and absolute generosity before the camera. We love Hepburn for her spirit, yes, and for her nobleness, for that is what she intended to leave us as a vision, and it’s not a bad one. Her wonderful smile and vulnerability to what is happening in a given scene make us take her at her word. She wanted to be fascinating, and she did it by being fascinating to herself – by enjoying herself in a part, by surprising herself in a part. Desk Set was done on Broadway with Shirley Booth, and the Mexington Avenue scene was the most delicious comedy scene I have ever seen on the stage. The two women find it irresistibly funny and cannot stop laughing and the audience cannot stop laughing with them. Hepburn does not play it this way and is not quite convincing as inebriated. Instead, she snorts and throws her head back; Hepburn was not a laugher; she was a smiler. Never mind: Desk Set is particularly fortunate for her because you see her in her preferred milieu which is among women, so her ease of command and kind smartness and high morale are never shown better. And her early scenes with Tracy are light comedy at its best, particularly the tip-top trio scene with Gig Young as the smarmy exec BF on his way up. Three masters. Watch how Hepburn eats a sandwich and freezes from the winter cold on a roof patio while answering hard questions from Tracy. She’s brilliant at it and she keeps the character modest. Perfectly cast as a know-it-all, as she was in Woman Of The Year, we love her for it. The camera is on her and she rejoices you with her mastery before it. What is special in the spirit in each human individual? With her peculiar vocal timbre, particular pronunciation, automatic-rifle attack, slim, athletic figure, unusual and beautiful mouth and always engaged eyes she is a reminder of what the unique spirit in each of us actually looks like in free play. Being like no one else, she is emblem of all. Yes, she is not a great actress, but she is a Great Actress.

 

 
 
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