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.

 

The Last Hurrah, 1958 – Based on The Book By Edwin O’Connor

 

“Politics is not the most diplomatic thing to discuss.” – Frank Skeffington

I first noticed The Last Hurrah on iMDb when I was looking for Frank McHugh movies I hadn’t seen yet. (Oh how I love Frank) This was one of them. At the time, this movie was tagged as a comedy on iMDb, (with Frank McHugh starring as Fetus Garvey) so I jumped in with both feet. I mean, Spencer Tracy AND my buddy Frank? Of course I’m in! It didn’t take long to realize that this is not a funny movie. It’s a dark, old-fashioned, political drama. Politics was the last thing I was in the mood for, but I gave it a shot anyway…

…I know now that I needed this time with Spencer Tracy. He made the movie for me.

The Last Hurrah was directed by John Ford for Columbia pictures in 1958…

Frank Nugent wrote the screenplay that was based on the book written by Edwin O’Connor in 1955. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and spent 20 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list in 1956. I hate to say it, but I liked it better than the movie. In the book we were allowed to get to know the characters better and the story dug deeper and was more detailed.

The plot of both the book and movie follows Mayor Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy), a devoted, life-long politician as he embarks on what he thinks will be his final campaign to be re-elected mayor (of a city that’s never named). He knows he’s “on his way out” and calls this campaign his Last Hurrah. Frank Skeffington is down-to-earth and genuinely (we think) cares about the individuals in his city. Oh, it’s obvious he’s corrupt around the edges…he is a politician, after all. And he clearly knows his way around a campaign like this one. He’s shrewd but likeable, political but reliable. In the book, Skeffington was the former governor of the state they’re in (it’s never named in either), but there’s no mention of him ever being governor in the movie. There are those that claim the city never named in the movie is based on Boston and that Frank Skeffington is a loose caricature of Boston’s Mayor James Curley.

Frank’s son, Frank Skeffington, Jr. (Arthur Walsh) is, shall we say, worthless. He’s a playboy that could care less about politics, let alone his father’s campaign. Instead, Frank, Sr., bonds with his nephew, Adam Caufield (Jeffrey Hunter) which adds a level of ‘interesting’ for me. Adam writes about sports for the local newspaper. It’s Adam’s publisher, Amos Force (John Carradine), that asks him to cover Skeffington’s Last Hurrah. The story brings uncle and nephew together at a good time in both of their lives. The thing is, Force hates Skeffington. As history would have it, Frank Skeffington’s immigrant mother was fired for stealing left-over food when she was a maid in the home of Amos Force’s father. Oh boy. The tension! (And not all that believable) Force believes Frank, Sr. is the worthless one and he backs his unimpressive rival, Kevin McCluskey (Charles Fitzsimmons). Annnnd this causes more tension between Force and his writer, Adam.

Director John Ford was a Westerns guy, as we all know, and I kind of felt like maybe he didn’t care a lot about the subject of this one? Something wasn’t clicking here for me. Spencer Tracy grabbed me and kept me with the story, but I found myself wishing the director would have made more of an attempt to explain some things. (no spoilers). It was a watchable, even enjoyable, movie most of the time, but it wasn’t as good as it could have been. Even though it’s chock-full of Ford’s usual troupe like – Donald Crisp, Wallace FordJames Gleason, Ricardo Cortez, Basil Rathbone, Pat O’Brien AND FRANK MCHUGH! They just weren’t around…..enough.

As Frank Skeffington maneuvers his way through opposing view points we get a glimpse into the story of one city’s mid-century American political climate. It’s not pretty, and it sure isn’t funny. Spencer Tracy made it a decent movie for me. Without him, he, not so much.

Sources:

A Tribute to Jeffrey Hunter
Wikipedia – New York Times Fiction Best Sellers, 1956