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Monday, October 20, 2014

Twentieth Tries a Tracy/Hepburn

Will Computers Replace Cast in 1957's Desk Set?

Bright and generally pleasing Tracy/Hepburn, more so in Blu-Ray lately released via Region Two. Spence thought himself too old by this time to do rom-com, indeed wouldn't have opposite anyone other than KH, but skills are undiminished and they are a usual great together. Tracy's weight was an always-issue; he's heavy here and it translates amusingly to gusto he brings to several eating segments. I've always thought meal scenes reveal much of actor technique. Do they really eat food during emote or just fake it like punches pulled? In this case, Tracy attacks sandwiches, fried chicken, and especially a "Floating Island" desert like a man starved. Would be worth knowing how many takes these scenes required. Hepburn has intriguing ways with roast beef and bread, pulling bites apart before putting same in her mouth. Both stars use handling of food to express attitude and emerging (comic) conflict. I can imagine rehearsals focused much on perishable content out of brown bags. Has any actor written on how to consume properly for stage/screen?

20th Fox lost money on Desk Set (a large $1.3 million), which had to hurt Tracy/Hepburn viability together or singly, though by '57, it was realized that much of loss could be made up with eventual TV sales (Desk Set missed out on network play, heading straight to syndication in 6/63). Arresting vibes go on between Hepburn and female co-workers, KH touchy-feely with Sue Randall especially, even patting her rear at one point. You begin to wonder who Tracy's romantic rival is actually going to be. It's a subtext that juices Desk Set beyond conventions otherwise observed. Joan Blondell is happily along to demonstrate perhaps better aptitude for a co-lead with Tracy, had she been given the chance. Dark costuming was issued to Tracy and Blondell --- as conceal for pounds both had gained?  Cinemascope had its own pitiless way of adding width not just to screens, but players as well. Desk was set in New York, though you'd barely know it, location being scotched in order to trim costs. What we see of Gotham was, in fact, lifted from How To Marry A Millionaire.


Blogger Dave K said...

Office Christmas parties in 1950's -60's movies!!! Man, were we born too late or what?

12:22 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

A recent Spencer Tracy bio, as I recall, stated that all but one of the Tracy/Hepburn movies lost money. They were popular in the big cities, but washed out everywhere else. The problem was, according to polls taken at the time apparently, men didn't like Hepburn and women didn't trust her. Doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room.

Just as most people, I'd wager, don't know any Lauren Bacall movie that didn't star Bogart, I'm sure most couldn't name one non-Tracy Hepburn movie, outside of "Philadelphia Story" and "On Golden Pond." They're actresses everybody "loves" but nobody watches.

I await angry comments.

3:42 PM  
Blogger iarla said...

Hepburn and Bacall are both terribly overrated. I'm not sure, though, about your information regarding the average box office take of the Tracy/Hepburns. They weren't blockbusters, for sure, and , without him, she wasn't worth a fiddle.

8:20 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson has some interesting thoughts on star personas:

Just want to say I liked both actresses a great deal. The worst you can say is that they were stuck with personas -- Hepburn's home-made, Bacall's fabricated -- that fit into a limited range of parts, like John Wayne.

Barbara Stanwyck, by way of contrast, could not only play good girls and bad girls; she could working class or Park Avenue and audiences would accept it. Talent was certainly a huge factor, but talent didn't keep Zazu Pitts from being confined to comedy. And Lewis Stone could never shake the moral rectitude of Judge Hardy, while Cagney's distinctive persona easily bounced between dramas, comedies, two-fisted potboilers and musicals.

It's not just a matter of the public decided who the stars are. They also decide how they want their stars served.

5:06 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon points up "Desk Set" as an ideal Christmas viewing:

I happen to LOVE "Desk Set", and I watch it faithfully every Christmas season along with other 'surprise' Christmas movies, where the holiday is paramount in the story, but the films themselves are not often acknowledged as generic "Christmas films", and beyond "It's a Wonderful Life", I really don't have to go on and on. Warners has "Christmas in Connecticut" coming out soon in HD, and that is a must-have, also; I watch the previous DVD version of that every Christmas, too. Hey, what's more fun than flopping on the family couch, hopefully with a son (check) or daughter (check-check!) old enough to share their own enthusiasm for these marvelous, durably-made old films, when the little twinkly lights have been set out by the missus, and there's always something great to eat in the kitchen (gingerbread or anything with cinnamon in it), and you're basking in all the charms of Christmas that even a pagan like me can enjoy? I am sentimentally crazy about Christmas, but also due to the wonderful gestures in the direction of the holiday that have piled up over the years from so many different sources. Now, thanks to the warm embrace the public (of the WORLD) has given traditional cinema and even earlier television, we've seen Blu-ray releases of MOST of the great Christmas season movies, including the oblique ones like "Desk Set", and on-the-nosers like "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" or "A Charlie Brown Christmas", or Cinema Center's wonderful, somewhat initially under appreciated "Scrooge", which is my personal favorite adaptation of Dickens' masterpiece. Now that I'm working on a Fox film AT Fox Studios (which is incidentally what the sign says, now, over the main gate on Pico Blvd., though the old "20th Century-Fox Film Corporation" sign still remains over the cast-concrete main building on the main road into the studio, now out-glitzed by ENORMOUS new corporate structures directly across that same road which house the people who give you Fox News, Fox Sports, Fox Network, etc. I still think the 'new' Fox is doing a pretty damn good job preserving and disseminating a lot of the great old 20th Century-Fox film library, though all of us have our pets among the orphans which have as yet not been given the nod for full restoration, alas (and some may never, of course.) Now I'm working at Fox, for another two weeks, I have plenty of provocation to think about their great heritage of movies, including "Desk Set" (not to mention the delightful hoopla of CinemaScope, which naturally colors in one of the aspects of "Desk Set", just as the wonderful people behind-the-scenes on the picture do, including Henry and Phoebe Ephron, parents of the late, beloved Nora Ephron, as well as all the camera people, art direction people, music people, etc, etc.)

3:01 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Craig Reardon:

When you are able to work on any of the major Hollywood movie lots still standing, you have...even today...just enough of the original buildings and layout remaining to evoke the glory days of each of these places, though a lot's changed about the lots, to varying degree depending upon which one you're looking at. I'd say Paramount's changed the most, off the top of my head...but then I think of Universal, and that's changed immensely, and keeps on changing--right up to and including the outrage to traditional movie lovers of their recent decision to plow down Stage 28, the venerable 'Phantom Stage'. Ouch. I sometimes thing, however, that we're all lucky that each and every movie lot hasn't gone under the wrecking ball, as they're each to a great extent sitting on land more valuable to somebody than the businesses that still manage to stand there in some semblance of their original function/appearance. Me, I wish each and every one of them would be designated a National Historic Place, permanently banning the further desecration and 'improvements' new regimes inflict like a death of a thousand cuts. There's a LOT of stuff at Universal that was still there when I worked there as an excited lad of 24, in 1977---that's gone, gone, gone now. Most recent of course is the Phantom Stage. I wonder, "What's next?"

3:02 PM  

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