News Column

Tracy and Hepburn Once Made a Romantic Computer Comedy

August 19, 2013

Even before the late Steve Jobs, who is the subject of the poorly received bio-pic "Jobs," became an oracle of the personal computer revolution some 30 years ago, computers and their like were a mainstay in film and television.

Though most of these early movies were sci-fi thrillers such as 1956's "Forbidden Planet" and Stanley Kubrick's 1968 masterpiece "2001: A Space Odyssey," which introduced the silky-voiced, villainous computer Hal, artificial intelligence was also central to the 1957 Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn romantic comedy "Desk Set."

Part of the fun of watching "Desk Set" today is seeing what passed as a sophisticated computer 56 years ago. The movie's EMARAC-Electromagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator-is a massive elephantine structure that features bright blinking lights, two reel-to-reel tape contraptions and assorted beeps and bops sounds.

In fact, the sound effects used for the EMARAC were recycled in several films, including 1966's "Fantastic Voyage."

"Desk Set" was based on William Marchant's 1955-56 Broadway comedy hit starring Shirley Booth. Directed by Walter Lang and penned by Phoebe and Henry Ephron, the parents of Nora and Delia Ephron, "Desk Set" was the first film starring Tracy and Hepburn in five years and their first film in color. And it was tailored made for the real-life couple's on-screen chemistry. As with their other comedies such as 1942's "Woman of the Year" and 1949's "Adam's Rib," the movie is filled with sparkling battle of the sexes dialogue.

Hepburn plays Bunny Watson, the no-nonsense, brilliant head researcher at the library of the "Federal Broadcasting Network." She and her staff -- Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill and Sue Randall -- are called upon to research and find answers to every topic imaginable. Though she's very much in control on the job, Bunny's love life is lacking. She's been dating the same network executive (Gig Young) for seven years with not even an engagement ring in sight. Needless to say, he has commitment issues.

And then Bunny's life changes when engineer Richard Sumner (Tracy) arrives at the library one day with measuring tape on hand and tons of questions for Bunny. Though he's been told to keep secret his real reason for visiting the library, Bunny and her crew quickly realize he is there to computerize the office with his "electronic brain."

But as in the case of any Tracy-Hepburn comedy, Sumner more than meets his match in Bunny and quickly learns that unlike the EMARAC, she is infallible.

Reviews of the film were mixed, though critics enjoyed seeing Tracy and Hepburn on the screen again. The New York Times' Bosley Crowther wrote of the team: "They can tote phone books on their heads or balance feathers on their chins and be amusing. Mr. Tracy is masculine and stubborn, Miss Hepburn is feminine and glib. Now, the next time they bring up automation, they'll have to pick on someone less formidable than Kate."

Sadly, Tracy and Hepburn didn't make another film together until 1967's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." It was Tracy's swan song. He died, at age 67, shortly after the film's completion.

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