Desk Set, 1957

Do you think we’re being re-decorated?” – Ruthie (Sue Randall)

Does he look like an interior decorator to you?” – Sylvia (Dina Merrill)

No, he looks like one of those men that suddenly switched to vodka.” – Peg (Joan Blondell)

With all the things this movie has going for it, and there’s a lot, it’s this kind of banter that I get Desk Set out for to watch again year after year. I love to laugh out loud and this movie consistently provides that.

I’m aware that this isn’t one of the traditional Christmas movies, but I include it in my Christmas movie watching every year. Christmastime is not only the time this story takes place, but it’s also a character in that Christmas gifts and parties play a part in the story. That’s why I’ve chosen it as my entry into the Happy Holidays Blogathon hosted by the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society.

Starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn and directed by Walter Lang in 1957, Desk Set is set in a mid-century, New York City office during Christmas time. The threat of the introduction of computers into the lives of the the all-female staff of the reference department at the Federal Broadcasting Company provides the tension for the movie, while the actors deliver comedic lines that get us through it. The uncertainty is scary, the anxiety evident right away. You immediately root for these ladies, long before you even know what they’re fighting against.

Yep, it’s a romantic comedy.

Maybe it’s the smart, quick wit in the Phoebe and Henry Ephron script…


…or the fabulous mid-century styles and design…


…or maybe it’s Joan Blondell‘s sarcastic humor as Peg Costello (she’s sooo good)…

…or maybe it’s that oh-so-special Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn chemistry.

It’s a lot of things. Especially one of my favorite movies. It frustrates me when it’s supposed to, but makes me laugh and laugh again to alleviate the frustration. Then, Katharine Hepburn’s snort-laugh comes in and makes me laugh some more. As I write this today, I cherish those giggle-scenes more than ever…

Right away, first scene, I’m hooked. Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) grabs me from a real life crummy day and plops me down in the middle of his intriguing meandering through a gorgeous wood-tiled, mid-century big-city office. As he weaves his way mysteriously through the offices and hallways of the Federal Broadcasting Company my head fills up with the hows and whys of his strange behavior and just like that, I’ve forgotten the perfectly crummy day I was having – and Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn are front and center! Where they should be.

Bunny Watson (Hepburn) is a fountain of knowledge. Today, we’d call her Google. It’s her job to know a lot and she does it well. There doesn’t seem to be much she doesn’t know and she knows exactly where to find what she doesn’t. This “electric brain” of Sumner’s isn’t gonna be any kind of match to her, right?

Richard Sumner (Tracy) is a man obsessed with learning everything he can to ensure the success of his “electric brain” invention – to the point that he’s oblivious to everything else.

Even when he asks Bunny to lunch. Instead of taking her to a nice restaurant, he takes her to the the roof of the building for cold sandwiches. They have lunch on the roof of a skyscraper. In December. In New York City. The only thing on Sumner’s mind is getting more information to improve the performance of his “electric brain.” During the lunch, as Bunny shivers, Sumner smugly tries to stump her with trivia and math. I guess to prove that his “electronic brain” is a better choice than a human to handle the questions the ladies face in the research department. Nice try, Sumner, but Bunny doesn’t flinch. However, she is confused as to why he took her to the rooftop for lunch, especially on a freezing-cold day. Confusion and cold aside, confidence still oozes from Bunny. Without missing a beat, she answers every one of Sumner’s questions off the top of her head, in between shivers and bites of her sandwich. She easily answers every question and riddle he throws at her even though by this point it’s obvious she’s more worried about what this “electric brain” will mean for the job she loves. You can feel Sumner’s admiration growing for her with every question he asks. The chemistry between these two….well….It’s wonderful.

Bunny’s confidence lacks in just one place: her relationship with Mike Cutler (Gig Young), her boss and long-time boyfriend. After all the years they’ve dated (“six…no, seven!”), Bunny just can’t get him to commit, no matter how hard she tries. Yet she keeps trying. And hoping.

In the funny scene in Bunny’s apartment where she’s having dinner with Sumner while they’re both in bathrobes, (they get stuck in the rain and go into her apartment to dry off), Mike barges in. He’s far from happy at what he sees. Sumner laughs at Mike and Bunny as they argue, and we finally we see a little bit of that professional Bunny confidence bubble up with Mike. It’s about time.

At this point, Desk Set is a full blown love triangle with the added suspense of the invasion of the “electric brain.”

I am crazy about the Bunny Watson Hepburn has created in Desk Set. She’s inspiring, has a great job, funny, oh-so-smart and struggles with insecurities despite it all. This is a woman I want to drink that champagne with at the Christmas party. Actually, I wanna drink champagne with all these women. This movie feels good to spend time with no matter how many times I’ve seen it.

 

Standing There Is A Man With Movie Star Eyes

“Standing there is a man with movie star eyes,” is a line from the song Dreamtime from the album Three Hearts In the Happy Ending Machine (1986) by Daryl Hall. I’ve been happy to have it parked in my head for months. As far as I’m concerned, it can stay there forever because it’s a catchy, up-tempo song and that lyric constantly reminds me of these guys:

William Powell
Tony Curtis
Gary Cooper
Frank Sinatra
George Raft
Paul Newman
Tyrone Power
Cary Grant
James Stewart

These are photographs I’ve saved over the years and have no idea where I got them. I wish I had that information now. If you know more about any of them, please let me know!

I have some stunning eyes from our favorite classic actresses too.  (I’m looking your way Bette). I’ll round those up too one of these days…

Who has your favorite movie star eyes?

Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew – Book Review

Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew
by John Oller
Limelight Editions
August 1, 2004, 358 pages

Amazon

I first read this book back when it was released and have recently read it again for the third time, because I love Jean Arthur. More The Merrier (1943), The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) and Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936) have always been some of my favorite classic movies. You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939)  and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939) are favorites too. Jean would star in 89 movies  and several theater productions during her career.

Oh, how she loved to act.

“when I’m in front of the camera, I lose my identity, my timidity,” Jean Arthur

Jean Arthur was born Gladys Georgianna Greene on October 17, 1900 in Plattsburgh, New York. She would be the youngest child in a family that already had three boys. The family was Lutheran, of Norwegian and English descent and of modest means. Before Gladys was born, the family had settled and resettled across the country and back again, chasing jobs for Hubert Greene (her father). Gladys was born October 17, 1900. She didn’t have much education until high school, but dropped out of that too so she could help the family financially. It was while she was working as a model in New York that the Fox studio “discovered” her in a commercial. In 1923 Gladys officially changed her name to Jean Arthur, based on the name of her hero, the French Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) and King Arthur and began a decades-long acting career. Jean Arthur made her first film with Fox in a 1923 silent film called Cameo Kirby, directed by John Ford.

There would be 88 more movies plus theater productions to come.

“I guess I became an actress because I didn’t want to be myself,” Jean Arthur.

In 1928 Jean filed her first “sound” movie, Warming Up.  It was billed as Paramount’s first sound (not talkie) film. By all critical accounts, it wasn’t good, but Jean Arthur stood out and was given a three-year-contract at $150 per week.  During the same year, she made her first “talkie,” The Canary Murder Case, with William Powell. In 1929, she did The Green Murder Case, again with William Powell. In 1930, a David Selznick movie, Street of Chance, also with William Powell. People were taking notice.

This book includes a lot of information about Arthur’s genealogy, family as well as her acting history. She was married just twice, once for only a day and had no children. There are interesting stories here from the many movies and theater productions. But it’s the background of her life that intrigues me and is so well-researched here. Her childhood plays a big part in the behavior that so many called “difficult.” Oller takes great care and patience in describing it. It really hit home for me. I didn’t know anything about Jean’s life before I read this book, but it has provided layers of sympathy and empathy for her that weren’t there before I did.  As one that was also raised a Lutheran, and of Norwegian and English descent, I could relate to a lot of the stories about family turmoil here. In a strange way, it did me good to see this might be a pattern among us Protestants? Maybe not, but it sure made me feel less alone.

When I read Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew, so many things fell into place for me. The more I read, the more my neck hurt from shaking my head “yes.” I believe that the insecurity and nervous anxiousness borne of her childhood caused the behavior that brought so many of the “she’s difficult” comments over the years.  Yes, she had outbursts and seemingly unexplained tantrums and disappearances, but anxiety attacks, insecurity and a massive inferiority complex can do this to a person! Jean was afraid. She was lonely. She wanted to be accepted and loved. Period. Thanks to the way she was brought up she was always afraid that by just being herself that that could not happen.

I truly believe after reading this, the inferiority complex and crippling insecurity that caused this “difficult” behavior came from always seeing the world differently than everyone else. I admire her strength for pushing through it anyway, honoring herself and becoming successful despite it all. That’s inspiring. Her determination in fighting it brought her success in one of the ways she could escape it all, acting. Jean also immersed herself in intellectual inspiration. She loved nature and animals. There’s more than one story in the book about her finding peace in these things. She took comfort in her garden and any animal she crossed paths with.

Even on the movie sets she believed:

“animals are the world’s most trustworthy inhabitants. There’s no chips on their shoulders, they’re never mad at you and they never misunderstand you.”—-Jean Arthur.

Amen.

The book is filled with quotes that give the reader real insight to how Jean thought and how she lived.  Again, inspiring.

In 1936, with several movies under her belt, Frank Capra hired her for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.  It was the beginning of international stardom. Capra would hire her again for You Can’t Take it With You” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. 

“Never have I seen a performer plagued with such a chronic case of state jitters,” Capra wrote in his autobiography. “She was my favorite actress,” he admitted.

Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm was published in 1941 and became important to Arthur. The book won international acclaim and seemed to hit a chord with Jean, who was a noted non-conformist.

“Compulsive conforming,” Fromm wrote,” is when the individual ceases to be himself; he adopts entirely the kind of personality offered to him by cultural patter….and becomes exactly as all others are and as they expect him to be. That person gives up his individual self and becomes an automation, identical with millions of other automatons around him, he need not feel alone and anxious anymore. But the price he pays is high; it is the loss of his self.”

It’s easy to see how Fromm’s deductions validated the way Jean was leading her life. She ended up studying with him and being the subject of his analysis which she later described as:

“the finest experience I ever had–the most constructive, in fact the only thing that makes sense…The greatest thing he did for me was teach me to laugh at myself,” Jean Arthur.

She was fighting her way through the insecurity and inferiority complex, she was finding ways to cope. Fromm’s writings could not completely help her explain what was wrong with her though. That came from Karen Horney, a colleague of Fromm’s.

“Horney’s essential theses was that all neuroses derive from the ‘basic anxiety’ of childhood, and the child’s attempts to cope with conflicting feelings of helplessness, fear and hostility generated out of uncaring or inadequate parenting. As a means of resolving these conflicts the child adopts various character strategies, or ‘neurotic trends.’ She described these as falling into one of three principal categoies: moving ‘towards,’ ‘against,’ or ‘away from’ people.”

Arthur fit into the third category – she moved away from people.

“Detached individuals avoid conformity for fear of becoming submerged in the amorphous mass of human beings. They crave privacy and prefer the pursuit of impersonal endeavors in the sphere of books, animals, art or nature….If the detached person is thrown into close contact with other, ‘he may readily go to pieces or to use the popular term, have a nervous breakdown.’ ” read Horney’s thesis.

Seems to me we’ve come across the reason for that “behavior” she’s known for.

While Arthur loved comedies and was well-known for “screwball” comedies like The Talk of the Town” she had a longing to be taken more seriously with dramatic roles. Eventually, she admitted that comedy is what she knew and did the best. I agree. Over the years there would be stage roles like her coveted Peter Pan and Joan of Arc roles, that would fill in the spots between movies and her fights with directors and studio heads. There were teaching positions and mentorships. There was even a short-lived TV show, thanks to inspiration from Lucille Ball, called The Jean Arthur Show in 1966She retired from all performing in 1973.

Despite it all, blockbusters were her specialty. She was an A-list actress that had found international acclaim. Though she suffered a great deal from anxiety and insecurity, Arthur turned to her books, nature and animals for solace. She was interested in the connection between mind and body and read a great deal about it an other intellectual subjects that kept her mind working on a level that gave her peace.

Author John Oller spends a great deal of this book describing all the ways Ms. Arthur’s timidity wreaked havoc on various movie and theater productions. I’ve seen many comments about her behavior over the years, but I’ve never seen such great care taken in trying to explain it. To get to know and understand the real Jean Arthur you have to, and Oller introduces us to her. None of her acting roles revealed any of these truths. After reading this book, I feel like I can know at least a little piece of the real Jean Arthur and that’s inspiring.

Jean Arthur died on June 19, 1991 at her home in Carmel, California.

 

Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic – Book Review

Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic
Published by Skira Rizzoli (2012)
Multiple essays by multiple authors from the world of fashion
176 pages

I get it now and it all makes sense! It’s official, I love Katharine Hepburn. That was my first thought when I read this eight years ago when it first came out. Reading it again recently, I’ve had the exact same feelings of admiration and inspiration I did then. This one’s worth reading more than once.

I have always enjoyed Katharine Hepburn’s movie performances, but there was always something different about her, from any other actress, that I didn’t quite feel comfortable with. I couldn’t put my finger on it, I could never really decide if I liked it or not..until I read this book. Now, I love that difference.

Rebel Chic by Jean Druesedow (with several other contributors) is a slim book from 2012 that’s available in our libraries, used bookstores and also from third party sellers on Amazon. I think it’s worth finding. While Rebel Chic is purely about Katharine Hepburn’s “style” – a fashion term in this case, it reveals so much more about her. Her independence, confidence and the individualism that is a result of both of them are truly an inspiration. She was not the kind of woman that let anyone’s opinion shape her style decision. Or any other decision.

Hepburn had an authentic style that was very much her own. She didn’t care what everyone else was doing or whether or not they approved of her OR her style. Her trademark trousers and “preppy” look were way out of the norm for actresses, and all women, back in the early days of her career. Hepburn wore them anyway. She’s probably one of the reasons why I can sit here today in jeans as I write this, instead of a corset and long, heavy dress. The simplicity of her unique style for the time had a marked individualism about it that revealed her personality -the real Kate – the woman who thrived on independence, comfort, hard work, and hard play. Through this book, I realized more and more the big part Kate played in making certain styles okay for women that came after her.

Overall, this is a style book and the photographs illustrating it are great, but, with every turn of the page, every photograph, I can clearly see the fierce individualism in Kate that I had a hard time identifying before I read this book. It’s inspiring. Boy oh boy, is SHE inspiring. Katharine Hepburn was definitely before her time when it comes to style and Rebel Chic highlights all of the reasons why. It also lets us in on the personality that made it all happen. It’s a wonderful book worth reading…and reading again.

Hopscotch – Based on the Book By Brian Garfield

Hopscotch, 1980, Directed by Ronald Neame, Produced by Edie & Ely Landau Inc.

TCM | Amazon

The screenplay for Hopscotch was written by Brian Garfield, who wrote the book the movie is based on.

Amazon

“Hopscotch never pretended to be anything but a light-hearted comedy,” Ronald Neame, Director. “It’s a comedy-thriller.”

“We wanted to show that you could tell a suspense story like this where no one gets killed,” Brian Garfield, writer.

They did. And it’s wonderful.

Roger Ebert once called Hopscotch, starring Walter Matthau as Miles Kendig and Glenda Jackson as Isobel von Schmidt,  “pleasant.” I call it a pure delight. Laughter and suspense are hand-in-hand throughout the movie, and they carry the plot along with them perfectly. I saw this movie for the first time recently, and have since watched it several times because it is such a pleasure. I’m writing this in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and I can’t tell you how much I just love being lost inside the Hopscotch world right now. This escape factor is a good illustration of why movies like these are so important to me.

Ned Beatty plays Kendig’s nemesis, G.P. Myerson. He’s the new head man at the CIA department Kendig works in and is an arrogant, nincompoop bureaucrat. Beatty is great in making us despise him right from the start. The tension begins with Myerson being upset with Kendig. Seems Kendig had a chance to “dismantle” the Russian network in Germany (and make Myerson look good because of it) but didn’t. Kendig didn’t arrest the top Russian spy Myerson wanted him too because he thought it was a better idea to keep a relationship with him so they could better keep an eye on what he was up to. Myerson uses the incident as a reason to take the aging Kendig out of the field….and out of his way. He sends him to a desk job and Kendig is devastated. After thinking about it for what seemed like a second, and a suggestion from that same Russian friend/counterpart, Kendig decides to write his memoirs instead of take that desk job.

He immediately flies to Austria to meet with Isobel, a former love, to ask for her help. Kendig meeting Isobel at a restaurant, and the detailed conversation they have about wine, reveals the plot, and chemistry between the two that makes the movie doubly satisfying. You can’t help but root for them from the very beginning.  Isobel was not a character in the book and was created just for the movie. Thanks to her,  he’s able to implement his plan to perfection. It’s a little more complicated than that in the book when he tries to do it without her.

It took some convincing, Isobel wasn’t supportive at first, but Myles pouted until she gave in (who wouldn’t?) and got him a typewriter.

With Mozart records playing in the background, Kendig began to write about his detailed CIA missions. He sent the CIA, and other spy agencies in the world, one chapter at a time as he completed them. It drove Myerson crazy. Kendig realized, as he wrote, that he’d never go back. This realization amped up his game. He led them on a chase across the U.S. and Europe, always one step ahead of them and everything they assumed he’d do.

“Writing this makes me realize I’ll never go back.” Watch this portrait of Myerson through the scenes in the house. It goes from this smile to frowns as Kendig makes things worse for him.

At that first meeting in Myerson’s office, Kendig overheard him talking to his wife about their vacant house in Savannah, Georgia. Of course that house became an entry on Kendig’s agenda of mayhem! He rented it, used it as a place to write a couple more chapters…..and to provoke Myerson, who had to call in in the FBI for help. That had to hurt. And then it got worse for Myerson. Together, the FBI and CIA gassed and shot up the house, destroying it, while assuming Kendig was inside. They proved they were out to kill him. He wasn’t wasn’t inside. Another clever ploy.

Kendig keeps writing and sending out chapters one by one while hopping back and forth over two continents. Meanwhile, the CIA becomes more and more desperate to stop him.

“What are you trying to prove?” – CIA Agent Cutter (Sam Waterston)

“I’m just trying to have some fun,” Kendig.

Boy is it fun to watch him accomplish this. Every single thing that happens is specifically planned for a result that takes them to the next thing that makes the CIA look foolish. Everything is carefully laid out to create the most mayhem. He is successful on all accounts. It’s suspenseful, yes, but it’s hilarious too…..and extremely satisfying to watch.

Brian Garfield also wrote Death Wish in 1972. It was turned into a movie starring Charles Bronson in 1974 with Wendell Mayes writing the screenplay. In an interview for Hopscotch, Garfield implied he hadn’t been too happy with “other books that had gone to movies” so he took a bigger role in this one. It worked. He helped give us a terrific movie.  “The motivation for the main character is that he wants to have fun instead of a desk job,” he said. “This movie was a delight all the way around.”

I agree.

P.S. The Criterion Collection DVD is terrific and includes interviews with Ronald Deame, Brian Garfield and Walter Matthau.