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Desk Set is a comedy from 1957, starring legendary screen (and off-screen) couple, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.  Despite looking somewhat dated, it still has plenty of crisp humour, great acting by the major and minor characters, and a storyline that has relevance today.

Hepburn is Bunny(!) Watson, who runs the research department of a television company, aided by her friends and colleagues Peg (Joan Blondell, who gives an excellent performance), Sylvia (Dina Merrill) and Ruthie (Sue Randall).  Spencer Tracy is Richard Sumner, a computer expert called in to modernise the department.  Despite their professional conflicts – and Bunny’s relationship with smarmy Mike Cutler  (Gig Young) Bunny and Richard are drawn to each other.

I really liked this film – far more than I expected to, in fact.  There were lots of genuinely funny moments, but the theme of the film – people scared of losing their job to time and money saving technology – was ahead of its time.

Hepburn and Tracy have terrific chemistry together – no doubt probably because of their real life relationship – and both are at the top of their game here.  Desk Set is not one of the more popular comedies featuring these two fine actors, and is not as well known as say, Adam’s Rib, but it is definitely worth checking out.  There are some real zingy one-liners, and it’s also nice to see Katharine Hepburn – who can sometimes seem a little hard – play a more relaxed, fun-loving character.  Spencer Tracy meanwhile, shows all the talent that made him a respected and esteemed actor.

Highly recommended for anyone wanting a feel-good movie that provides plenty of laughs!

Year of release: 1957

Director: Walter Lang

Producer: Henry Ephron

Writers: William Marchant (play), Phoebe Ephron, Henry Ephron

Main cast: Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Gig Young, Joan Blondell, Sue Randall, Dina Merrill

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In 1914, Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn)  is an English missionary in Africa.  When the Germans come and attack and destroy the village where Rose lives, Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), a gin swilling owner of a decrepit steam boat offers to to let her sail with him to somewhere safe.  Charlie just wants to find somewhere where he can hide out and wait for the war to be over – but Rose decides that they should use the steamboat – The African Queen of the title – to launch an attack on a German ship.  Rose and Charlie are mismatched travellers – she is uptight and repressed, while he is a lazy alcoholic – but as they journey together, they both learn a bit about themselves and each other.

I can’t believe that I haven’t seen this film before now – it’s regarded as a real classic, and I can certainly see why.  I enjoyed every minute of it.  The storyline is dramatic and thrilling, as Charlie and Rosie navigate hostile waters, dangerous rapids, and enemy territory, but it’s also romantic (this is REAL movie romance – no sex or frenzied ripping off of each other’s clothes, but looks and gestures that are no nuanced and say so much), and surprisingly funny.  Many of the one liners made me laugh out loud.

Bogart and Hepburn are both exceptional in their roles.  Bogart makes the audience really care for a man who, on paper, should not be hero material (and maybe that’s part of the point).  Hepburn meanwhile, plays Rose with real class, and it’s interesting to see the character’s shift from unapproving repression to a woman who wants to be adventurous and embrace life.  By far this is the most sympathetic role I’ve ever seen Katharine Hepburn play – I often find her to be quite cold, but here she strikes exactly the right chord.

For the most part, the film consists of just these two fine actors, but the dialogue and interaction between them is such that you don’t feel any other characters are needed. This is Charlie and Rose’s story and a most enjoyable one it is too.

The ending is totally satisfying and ties up all the emotions and events in a perfect way. If you haven’t seen this lovely film yet, go and rent it right now – I’m sure you won’t regret it!

Year of release: 1951

Director: John Huston

Writers: C.S. Forrester (book), James Agee, John Huston, Peter Viertel, John Collier

Main cast: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn

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The Philadelphia Story is regarded as something of a classic, and certainly its main cast is made up of three big stars – Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart.  Grant plays C.K. Dexter Haven, the ex-husband of Tracy Lord Haven (Hepburn).  The couple married in haste and repented at leisure, mainly due to Haven’s drinking.  Two years after their break-up  Tracy is due to marry again, and Haven is determined to ruin the wedding.  James Stewart plays reporter Macauley ‘Mike’ Connor, a cynical journalist who really wants to write books.  Connor is sent to cover the wedding (which is all part of Haven’s plan to ruin it) and is as unhappy about it as Tracy herself, who is worried that the report will reveal that her father has run off with another woman.  To further complicate matter, Tracy finds herself attracted to both the reticent Mike, and the rakish C.K. Dexter!  High jinks ensue and all of the characters learn a little bit about themselves and each other along the way…

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy this film – in particular, Grant and Stewart are excellent (Stewart won an Oscar for this role, and I personally think it was deserved – his scenes are a delight, especially when Mike has had a few too many drinks!).  They are both very different actors, and both very charismatic in their own ways.  For me, Cary Grant is impossible to dislike in any role I’ve seen him in yet.

However, I find it harder to warm to Katharine Hepburn – no doubt she was  a celebrated and talented actress, and she was great as the feisty and unforgiving Tracy Lord – for me, the humour and enjoyment in this film was all down to the two leading men.

The storyline turns along nicely, and there are a few genuinely very funny moments, but overall I couldn’t help feeling that it was not quite as good as I had hoped (especially considering it’s reputation as a movie).  However, I do believe that it could well be the kind of film which gets better with each viewing, and I certainly liked it enough to watch it again in the future at some point.  It also makes some interesting points about the nature of celebrity (Mike is reluctant to cover a society wedding for the magazine he works for, and Tracy is reluctant to have her wedding in a magazine.  Both find the idea somewhat vulgar and tacky, and it was clearly not a common thing in those days.  Nowadays of course, trashy magazines are sold on the back of such stories!

As for what happens at the end – I’m giving nothing away.  It was not the ending I expected, but on balance it was probably the ending I would have wanted, and the film certainly finished on a high note.

EDIT: (7.2.13.) Well, I did watch the film again, and I did indeed enjoy it a lot more on second viewing. My favourite scene remains the one where drunken Mike visits C.K. – classic comedy! I also could appreciate Hepburn’s role a lot more second time around.

Year of release: 1940

Director: George Cukor

Writers: Philip Barry (play), Donald Ogden Stewart, Waldo Salt

Main cast: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey

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Click here for my review of the 1956 musical adaptation High Society.

Click here for my review of the 2012/2013 stage production of High Society.

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Cary Grant plays Johnny Case, a happy go lucky man who has fallen in love with Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), the daughter of a millionaire.  Johnny, who has been working since the age of 10, manages to pull off a deal at work which means that after he is married he can follow his dream of taking an extended holiday, in order to find out what he really wants to do with his career, and how he fits into an ever-changing world.  His plan is met with dismay by Julia and her father, who had assumed that Johnny would go to work for their family business, where he can earn lots of money.  However, Julia’s sister Linda (Katharine Hepburn) thinks Johnny’s plan is wonderful – and it starts to seem as though Johnny has more in common with his fiancee’s sister than he does with Julia herself…

When I started watching this film, I was expecting something of a screwball comedy (such as Bringing Up Baby, anotehr Grant/Hepburn film).  This film is actually not that type of comedy; in fact I would hesitate to call it a comedy at all.  It seemed to be more of a light hearted drama, but is certainly not without comedic moments.  Grant is as likeable as ever, although here he is neither the befuddled but loveable eccentric that he played in films such as Monkey Business, nor the sauve debonair charmer of North by Northwest or An Affair To Remember.  Johnny Case is more down to earth character, possibly easier to identify with.  His acting is great, and he even gets the chance to demonstrate his acrobatic abilities.

Katharine Hepburn is also terrific as the wise-cracking Linda, the self titled ‘black sheep of the family’ (although she does seem to have a close relationship with her brother and sister), who finds herself attracted to her sister’s fiance.  She and Grant play well off each other.  However, I must make special mention of Lew Ayres, who plays Julia and Linda’s brother, Ned.  Ned has turned to alcohol to numb his disappointment at giving up on his dream to become a composer, in order to work for his father’s business.  Like Linda, he supports Johnny’s dream of an extended holiday -and is able to see that if Johnny doesn’t pursue this venture, he will probably end up like Ned himself; in the end, Ned was the most memorable character in the film (for me at least).

Excellent support is given by Edward Everrett Horton and Jean Dixon as Johnny’s friends Nick and Susan Potter – every scene they were in was funny and hugely enjoyable.

All in all then, a more subtle comedy, but an enjoyable one with some excellent actors.  Fans of Hepburn, and especially of Grant, should check this one out.

Year of release: 1938

Director: George Cukor

Writers: Philip Barry (play), Donald Ogden Stewart, Sidney Buchman

Main cast: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Doris Nolan, Lew Ayres

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