Monday, May 01, 2017

Hepburn and Tracy Doing What They Did Best

If you ask anyone who is familiar with the movies of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy to name his/her favorite Hepburn–Tracy movie, my guess is that most people wouldn't name "Desk Set," the movie that premiered on this day in 1957.

But I would.

The fact that it is a romantic comedy has nothing to do with it — I have nothing either for or against romantic comedies. As I have said many times, I like a well–written story. It can be a drama, a comedy, a romance, a thriller, whatever. Explosions and car chases don't impress me. Good writing impresses me.

And "Desk Set" is loaded with good writing. The dialogue between Hepburn and Tracy sizzles.

My favorite scene, the one I always have to watch unless I stumble onto a TV showing of this movie and it's past this part, is when Tracy (an efficiency expert) gave Hepburn (an office manager) a personality test while they were having lunch (sandwiches and coffee) on the roof of their building — in November.

Tracy asked Hepburn what observations she had, if any, about this sentence: "Able was I ere I saw Elba."

"I doubt that Napoleon ever said anything like that," she replied.

Tracy pressed her. Anything else? No, she couldn't think of anything "unless you mean that it is spelled the same backwards and forwards."

A closeup of Tracy's face indicated that was precisely what he had meant. It's a palindrome.

"I know another one," Hepburn said. "'Madam, I'm Adam.'"

"I doubt that he ever said that," Tracy replied.

You know, moviegoers knew what they were getting when they went to a Hepburn–Tracy movie. This was their seventh movie, nearly twice as many as Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made together — and everyone pretty much knew what to expect when Bogie and Bacall were teamed up in a movie.

It was a combination that worked, no matter what the subject.

And the subject in this movie happened to be computerization, which was still in its primitive stages in 1957 although it was almost prescient in its identification of the issues that would be prominent when computerization really took hold. For example, Tracy at one point told Hepburn what management has been telling employees for decades — that computers will make their work easier and they will be freed to pursue the kinds of projects for which they presently had no time.

And the subject of the computer eliminating jobs entirely was a prominent topic as well. It is no secret, 60 years later, that automation has eliminated many jobs. Computers have not made some lives better.

A lot has changed, though, which is part of the fun of watching this movie. This was made at a time when the popular image of a computer was some huge, complex machinery that filled an entire room and required multiple advanced degrees to operate.

The computer generation will no doubt find that very funny, but "Desk Set" is a glimpse — albeit a humorous one — at a world that no longer exists.

After all, the computer on which you are reading this — no matter how big or small — is more powerful than the computers that were used to send men to the moon nearly 50 years ago. And "Desk Set" predated Apollo 11 historic journey by more than a decade.

Because of all the changes since the movie was made, it is best to treat it as what it was originally intended to be — a vehicle for Hepburn and Tracy to make their big–screen magic. When the movie began, Hepburn's character was involved with Gig Young, but as the story evolved so did her feelings for Tracy — and, for that matter, his for her. The knowledge that they would end up together was probably the worst–kept secret in the whole movie.

But it still has some worthwhile points to make about office politics, points that are every bit as relevant today as they were in 1957.

I think it could be remade in 2017, updated with only a few tweaks here and there. Of course, the computer angle would have to be different, considering the hugely influential role the computer plays in 2017 compared to 1957. Who would you cast in Hepburn and Tracy's roles?