Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Cinema Style File--Holidays with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in 1957's DESK SET

Though it was given a less than festive-sounding name, Walter Lang's Desk Set is one of my favorite holiday films.  It takes place in December 1957 at the fictional Federal Broadcasting Company (FBC), surely only a slight cover for the real National Broadcasting Company (NBC).  Based in the network's New York skyscraper, Desk Set is a lovely fantasy of that midcentury office life where men still dominated the workforce but women were finally bursting into careers of their own.  Feminist icon Katharine Hepburn plays Bunny Watson, the head of FBC's Research Department whose brain blows away all of the men around her.  Spencer Tracy's method engineer Richard Sumner calls her mind and its memory "the major leagues"...after all, she practically rivals the computer his company has created to take on much of her work.  But her mind seems to be either unappreciated or a bit too challenging for most.  For instance, though her beau and boss Mike Cutler (Gig Young) has taken advantage of her at work, he has danced around the advancement of their personal relationship for seven looooooong years.  Let's just say that he ends up recognizing the great mistake too late.

This stylish film is a reminder that the late 1950s were a time when everyone...simply everyone...dressed for work.  It was especially true of the holiday office parties, where women arrived in their best silk shantung cocktail dresses to the delight of the male-dominated legal department. Who hasn't wished that their office could be so stylish?  Of course here we have Oscar winner Charles LeMaire dressing the Desk Set, known for his wardrobe direction in several Marilyn Monroe pictures such as How to Marry a Millionaire and Niagara.  Bunny's Reference Department is cast with Joan Blondell (the bold Peg), Dina Merrill (Grace Kelly-esque as the prim Sylvia), and Sue Randall (the naive Ruthie), and you'll see how appropriate both the colors and cuts of LeMaire's costumes are to the characters.  Ruthie's, for example, tend to have more interesting splashes of color--she even calls and orders a dress with the color "puce"--which indicates her relative youth within the group.  These women are such good friends and a talented team that I always find myself wishing to be one of them.

And as always, this movie gives us an opportunity to watch Hepburn and Tracy verbally's what everyone loves about their nine movies together.  It's clear how much the two actors appreciate and admire one another.  There are certain moments that I truly treasure in Desk Set--when he tries to trip up her mental acuity (and fails), when he laughs at her champagne-induced giddiness, and when he finally makes a romantic move on her up in the book stacks at the holiday party.  Their chemistry is so strong that Spencer's delivery of "I bet you write wonderful letters" warms me to the core.  Though they obviously shared a nontraditional relationship offscreen, I love that they recognized something so special in one another and found a way to make the most of their 25+ years.

Katharine and Spencer were arguably the greatest actors of all time, but it's wonderful to see them so delightful in Desk Set having a little holiday fun.  So pop some champagne of your own and join the party...hopefully wearing an outfit inspired by the incredible clothes from the movie.  Merry Christmas!

Working at the Federal Broadcasting Company,
which can be seen as a television network like NBC

The ladies of the Research Department meet the strange Richard Sumner during his first mysterious visit--
(from l-r below) Ruthie (Sue Randall), Peg (Joan Blondell), and Sylvia (Dina Merrill)

Bunny arrives late after a demonstration of IBM's "electronic brain" only to see Sumner in her office

A business lunch on the freezing rooftop patio proves to Sumner
that Bunny is as special as a "rare tropical fish"

Tension brews in the office when Sumner keeps requesting the girls' personnel files from HR...
notice that the ladies are all in shades of gray at this time in character-appropriate styles

Bunny finds out at the last minute that Mike is canceling their weekend plans
to spend time in Miami with the boss after her (uncredited) report helps his career

Bunny and Sumner leave the office together...with Smithers, the building's biggest gossip

Bunny invites him into her warm and dry apartment for dinner

They change into robes...his has to be someone's gift with the monogram of "M.C." Hmmm...

Fried chicken by the fire until a guest arrives in time for coffee...someone with the initials M.C.
Mike Cutler.

Despite a jealous row over the innocent situation--and looking great in her lemon silk pajamas-- 
Bunny still can't help but wonder where she stands

Look at how festive both the office and the girls look--
Dina, for one, is wearing a grape silk shantung fit and flare cocktail work!

Bunny, wearing a gorgeous red coat and matching gloves,
bustles into the office bringing many things of good cheer

I suspect that's genuine pleasure in Spencer's face watching Kate play drunk

Silver silk shantung shirtdress with belt and delicate pearls and a watch as accessories
as she and Mike share a holiday toast

The office party gets livelier with the arrival of the legal department
and Sumner takes the opportunity to let Bunny know he's been thinking about her

Bad timing as the severe and appropriately-named Miss Warriner (Neva Patterson) comes on Christmas
and scares the girls once again that they may lose their jobs to Sumner's computer

Once EMERAC is installed in the office, it brings even more tension...
but I just love how polished all the girls look

Misunderstanding finally gets cleared when 
another computer wrongly fires everyone in the building

Bunny also begins to understand that Sumner loves her...
and Mike understands he missed his chance and leaves roses for the victor


Melissa Clark said...

I'm so glad you covered this movie, Kimberly! It's one of my favorites at Christmas or anytime. Tracy and Hepburn have the most amazing onscreen rapport. Their moment in the stacks during the Christmas party is truly romantic and warms my heart, too. It's clear from the beginning that Bunny and Sumner belong together. He's so awed by her brilliant mind, that's the best part! It's a delightful relationship to watch unfolding. Absolutely love it.

Of course I'm also crazy about the look of the movie. Dina Merrill's character is wonderfully elegant in a cool, patrician way. Her twinsets, pearls and perfectly set Betty Draper hairdo are lovely. I love cute Sue Randall, too. I'm sure you know this, but she played Miss Landers, one of Beaver's teachers on "Leave it to Beaver." (One day we will have to compare notes on vintage TV fashion inspirations, since we have so much in common! June Cleaver's perfect housewife style was a huge early influence on me. My #1 TV inspiration, however, is Laura Petrie. I just know you've got to love her too, right? ;))

Isn't Joan Blondell's character a hoot? She's hilarious and such a good friend to Bunny. She doesn't bother to hide that she thinks Gig Young isn't remotely good enough for her.

My "Desk Set" DVD has been on the coffee table for a while now, in a stack of other holiday movies to watch soon, but after your post it's going to the top of the pile. :)


Kimberly Truhler said...

Of COURSE you like this movie, too, Melissa! Not surprised to hear it was waiting for you to view for the holidays. :) I agree with you that it's actually a great movie ANYtime, not just for the holidays. How can I not love a movie where the man is so in love with the woman because of her mind? He was simply awestruck by her on the roof during the lunch.

I'm a huge fan of Dina Merrill's, too, and think she probably looks the most beautiful here in DESK SET. She is perfectly dressed and coiffed...I love the shade of her blonde here and how it's set. Her costumes are my favorite of all the girls in the movie. Just so elegant...for work!

Yes, television is an area I'll eventually delve more into. I've already done one small post on my biggest TV inspiration--Samantha from BEWITCHED. Tell me that her wardrobe doesn't look like my closet now! lol I might lean a little more glam, but she never met a sheath dress she didn't like and I'm exactly the same way. :) I'll have to get a DVD of the show, though, to do more with it...the available images online were not the best. And yes, Mary Tyler Moore in general...I'll have to get in a zone where I'm watching all her TV shows once again.

Joan Blondell is always awesome. Now there's a girl who can take care of herself in any situation. I LOVE the friendship between Joan and Kate in DESK SET...everyone should have as loyal and honest a friend as Bunny had in Peg.

Happy holidays, Melissa!

Marline said...

Dear Kimberly and Melissa and all other "Desk Setters"--I just wrote this up, too, as one of my all-time fave Festive Fashion's number 2 (a close second after White Christmas). Hepburn's divine day-dresses, the colors of Dina M. (and I agree, she's never looked lovelier) and the youthful Sue Randall...everyone in this movie, including the warm, wonderful Joan B. looks incredible. I know the costuming credit is given to someone else, but I read in a book about Valentina that she was the real designer for Kate's clothes, so I wonder what's what there! Oh, the drama! I especially love that Kate's coat is reversible...pine green on one side and Christmas red on the other! And those silk jammies!! Egad! I'm not lying when I say that I plan my winter wardrobe color combinations off this movie...sigh. It's a lulu!

Melissa Clark said...

I can definitely see a lot of Samantha Stephens in your style, Kimberly! "Bewitched" is such a fun show. The first few seasons of "I Dream of Jeannie" are very GlamAmor style as well, especially season 2. I actually did screencaps of season 2 of "Jeannie" just recently, so enamored am I of her clothes. Here's a link. All those fabulous colors! The sleeveless purple dress with the stand away collar, accented with a cute pear brooch, is my favorite.

I also screencapped pretty much all of Laura Petrie's outfits from "The Dick Van Dyke Show" a few years ago, since I was frustrated at not being able to find pictures of my style inspiration online. Those are here. Talk about an undertaking! It was worth it to me, though -- I refer back to them a lot for vintage style inspiration.

By the way, feel free to use any of those in future posts, if you're so inclined. It would be nice if they served a purpose other than my own silliness, after all. ;-)

Happy Holidays to you, too!


Kimberly Truhler said...

Thanks Kay! Yes, I would have to bump WHITE CHRISTMAS up the list since it's so holiday specific. I really can watch DESK SET anytime, though I do like to keep it toward the end of the year since it's clearly meant to be cold in the movie. :) I've included brief moments from WHITE CHRISTMAS on GlamAmor, but will likely do a much more extensive post on it for next year. It's an incredible wardrobe!

As for the costume design politics on DESK SET, it very well may be that Valentina designed one or more of Kate's dresses. It's not unprecedented, as you know--Givenchy doing Audrey Hepburn's gowns in the midst of Edith Head costume supervision is possibly the most famous example of this. Even so, you can be sure that designs still had to go through Charles LeMaire (for suggested changes and approval) to make sure they were at least harmonious with his other designs in each of the scenes. Fascinating and thanks for sharing something else to consider!

Kimberly Truhler said...

Oh YES, Melissa! Those are definitely right up my style alley. Both Jeannie and Laurie are very GlamAmor. ;) lol I love love love great. There are SO MANY images, I can't even imagine how long that took you to put those albums together. I will definitely have to contemplate some future articles on those ladies along with more on Samantha. I'll be sure to reach out before I do. Thank you so much for sharing!

Marline said...

Loved re-reading this, Kimberly! I'm in the final days of costuming a theater version of DESK SET right now, and the audience just LOVES seeing these charming office ensembles in real life, believe me! More than one audience member (usually women) has approached me after the show and said wistfully: Why can't women dress like this anymore? Well, the answer is obviously that they can, with a few updates. I did individual posts on each character, outlining how these AMAZING clothes can be brought into the present day and I maintain that many of the outfits are timeless, with a bit of judicious hemming! Thanks for reposting's such a great film and soooo Christmasy! Here's a link to my archived post, if any readers want to see updated versions of LaMaire's gorgeous work wardrobes. Enjoy! Love and Merry Christmas! Kay

Phyl D said...

Ah, the real Mad Men era before it became a hit series on AMC. I love how you pointed out the subtle brilliance of the costuming as it so distinctly pertains to each female character...a great example for future costume designers. (Also, I love Kay's comment about planning her winter wardrobe color combos on this film!)

Fave scene: the hilarious banter between Tracy and Hepburn in the chilly rooftop scene - does it get any better? And the oh-so-typical office politics, a mix of high ambition, gossip and constant fear of losing one's job. Sigh, some things never really change.

Was Neva Patterson's character (in this film and in "An Affair to Remember") the inspiration for Bebe Neuwirth's "Lillith" on Frasier?

I secretly covet Hepburn's cozy NYC apartment and would be quite happy to spend every Christmas season there making and eating fried chicken and floating islands....

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thanks Phyll! I totally agree with you. I love the scene where the Great Kate shows her smarts on the rooftop. It's so great, too, that it makes Spencer's character immediately respect her and begin to fall in love with her--all from her brain! And I, too, love love love her cozy NYC apartment. It's such a great moment in the film among many great moments. I really look forward to watching this movie every holiday season (and sometimes outside it, too ;) ).

Not sure about whether Neva's character(s) acted as inspiration for Lilith on FRASIER, but I'd say it's a darn good guess!

Sandi Magle said...

Wonderful post. "Desk Set" was always one of my favorite movies. Side note...the silky shantung was so gorgeous and prevalent in fashion in the 50's. It spotted horribly, and was basically ruined if even water was dripped on it. My mom had a silver/gray dress, a celery green, and a red in that fabric. I remember her taking in a huge chunk of fabric in on a skirt to hide a large spot from a wayward appetizer rolling down that the cleaners could not get out. Fascinating post post, and Kate was always amazing in everything she did.

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