Desk Set is funny. Hallelujah! After variously despising other Hepburn – Tracy comedies (i.e. Woman of the Year and Adam’s Rib) I’d left this one sitting unwatched for quite a while. So where does Desk Set succeed where the others failed?
Perfect characters aren’t funny. Okay, they can be, but imperfections and quirks go a long way to reassure us that they’re not taking themselves too seriously. Katharine Hepburn’s characters in both Woman of the Year and Adam’s Rib were these impossibly important (and self-important) women who’d resolve important peace negotiations before breakfast, deliver a speech on some “progressive” social issue at lunch and host a soirée with international diplomats for dinner where she’d have simultaneous conversations in twenty-five languages. These characters are so up their own arses that no amount of Tracy fumbling about while Hepburn beats him down is going to be funny. That wouldn’t be funny anyway.
In Desk Set Hepburn is, again, more than capable. She’s also unusually smart… but there’s a fallible human being in there as well. Not that Desk Set is in any way complex because it isn’t – it’s an amusing and worthwhile light comedy – the perfect thing to watch of a lazy, wet Sunday afternoon. Tracy isn’t too different from his usual self. I’ve decided that he wasn’t a great actor but he’s always likeable. He even won me over in Captains Courageous as a Portuguese fisherman with an incredibly dodgy accent who speaks like he’s more than mildly retarded. In that film perhaps a lot of the credit goes to the incredible performance of the young boy (Freddie Bartholomew). Being likeable was a major part of Tracy’s repertoire.
So what’s it all about? Tracy is a consultant tasked with installing a new computer in the reference department of a TV broadcaster. Hepburn and her staff are that reference department and they don’t like the idea of making way for big iron. That’s it other than it doesn’t take itself seriously and is a lot of fun.