Monday, July 15, 2013

Katharine Hepburn In Costume For “Desk Set”

Katharine Hepburn in costume for “Desk Set”.

I believe the costume modeled by Hepburn in the photograph is that worn by the actress in her entrance scene a few minutes into the film.

In that scene, Bunny Watson (Hepburn), director of research for a national television network, has arrived at her office midway through the morning, having attended an early-morning demonstration elsewhere of a new IBM mainframe computer.

Watson’s employees, guided by Watson’s assistant, Miss Costello (Joan Blondell), grab Watson, yank off her coat, and tell her she must pretend she has been in the office all morning. This stratagem is necessary, they believe, because the mysterious Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) has been nosing around the office all morning—and, they believe, Sumner is an outside efficiency expert contracted by management to downsize the research department.

Such proceedings propel into action one of the finest comedies ever made—and surely one of the subtlest. “Desk Set” has the lightness and texture and perfection of angel food cake at its highest realization.

One may make an argument that “Desk Set”, never intended to be anything more than a commercial project, is in fact high art—and this is so despite the fact that the film’s director, Walter Lang, was a Hollywood back-lot hack with three decades of B-Movie experience (and worse) behind him.

What elevates “Desk Set” are the sophistication of the film’s design, the sophistication of the performances (even the smallest roles are expertly cast and superbly underplayed), and the sophistication of the screenplay.

“Desk Set” has one of the greatest screenplays ever written. Writers Henry and Phoebe Ephron took an existing stage play, kept the basic plot, but otherwise rewrote everything, including every single line of dialogue. Theirs may be the most polished, gleaming script ever written for the screen.

On its initial release in 1957, “Desk Set” attracted small audiences, perhaps because the film was viewed by the public as just another Hepburn/Tracy movie, a species of which the public had grown tired. (After “Desk Set”, there was to be only one more Hepburn/Tracy film—and only after a wait of ten years, in a project financed independently, without major studio backing.)

While “Desk Set” did not capture the public’s attention in 1957, the film did capture the attention of the Writers Guild. Hollywood writers know good work when they see it, and they gave the Ephron screenplay every possible writing award under the influence and control of the Writers Guild—and they aggressively lobbied for the Ephrons to be awarded all prizes beyond the control of the Writers Guild. Such efforts worked: the Ephrons picked up an Academy Award as well as every conceivable critics prize for their “Desk Set” screenplay.

“Desk Set” is very much a minimalist film. The color design, albeit brilliant, is muted, even spartan. The camerawork is similarly minimalist. The editing is so unobtrusive that one fails to notice it. The only music is title music, played during the opening and closing credits.

And yet everything about the film is gloriously professional, polished to the highest sheen.

The film is also stylish to an astonishing degree. An uncanny blend of artifice and naturalism, “Desk Set” is one of the few films of the 1950s that may be regarded as genuinely chic.

Because of its bold minimalism, its effortless professionalism and its high style, “Desk Set” has always reminded me of late Mondrian.

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