Netflix Gold: Desk Set, 1957


Normally, when I write about a find on Netflix, it is something obscure, like a small BBC production, or someone’s art film. Today, I’ve got something really great to rave about, and it kind of crosses the line into my Matinee Monday posts. Usually, Netflix, when they are able to get good movies (yeah, yeah, that is optimistic, I know), they aren’t “classics”. For example, I’m an MGM musical fan, and you can count the number of really great musicals on Netflix on the fingers of one hand.

And then there are the greats of classical Hollywood, the shows and actors I am writing about. You won’t find The Marx Brothers, Abbot and Costello, Hepburn and Tracy on Netflix. They are just that good and that “high and holy” that Hollywood won’t give the show rights to these great actors. Until now.

Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were two of Hollywood’s true royalty, and their films, even today are like gold. And so you can imagine the great joy I felt when I discovered that the rights to the eighth of the Hepburn/Tracy films (there were nine, altogether), Desk Set, had recently been acquired and the film was available for watching on Netflix. Hepburn and Tracy in a romantic comedy? As The Scarecrow said, “Oh, Joy, Rapture!”

Made in 1957, the story centers around the reference department of a broadcast network (with Hepburn as head librarian) that is about to be upgraded with an “electronic brain”. (Remember, this was in the days of tape storage and punch card input). Tracy is the “methods engineer” who is bringing in the ‘brain’ and it is perceived that this machine will replace the four women who staff the reference department.

When Desk Set first came out, it wasn’t received all that well, but of late, critics judge it much higher, saying that the script is extremely witty and clever. I agree. Here is a section of the film that contains a wonderful ad lib by Spencer Tracy that got included in the final print. Around three minutes into this clip, Tracy walks off camera for a couple of seconds, talking about kids with lollipops (you’ll have to watch the film to understand why). Then he reappears with his hat pulled down over his ears, talking gibberish. When he did that, Hepburn and Joan Blondell collapse in a fit of genuine laughter, and end of scene. What thrilled my oldest was discovering that the snort in Hepburn’s laughter was genuine. There’ just something charming about knowing that Katherine Hepburn snorted when she laughed.

Anyway, the scene:

(btw, in researching for this post, I see that someone has cut Desk Set up into 9-10 minute segments and loaded the whole film onto YouTube. If you don’t have a Netfilx account, you can watch it on YouTube, until someone discovers it and takes it down.)


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