Desk Set

Talkie of the Week: Desk Set

USA 1957, 103 minutes, color, 20th Century Fox. Director: Walter Lang, Written by Phoebe and Henry Ephron, Based on the play by William Marchant. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Gig Young, Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, Sue Randall, Neva Patterson, Harry Ellerbe, Nicholas Joy, Diane Jergens, Merry Anders, Ida Moore and Rachel Stephens.

Plot summary: When the Federal Broadcasting Network hires Richard Sumner to install an “electronic brain”, the head of the reference library fears for the relevance of her department and her very own job.

Desk_Set_1957Review: There are different reasons to pick a movie. The plot may delight you, the director or cast. You may have read the book a film is based on or you simply stumble upon a film on TCM or in the film department of a store. In my case, two reasons apply. First of all, I love Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn as individual performers but as soon as they’re on screen together, my heart skips a beat. And then, so I gladly admit, I scan every store for classic film offers. The second my eyes fell on the sales sticker on Desk Set, a decision had been made to buy this film and enjoy it with a dear old friend. Now although said friend shares my enthusiasm for Miss Hepburn, she isn’t as enamored with Hollywood’s Golden Age as yours truly. So you can imagine her reaction when the film started to address computers and the pros and cons of upgrading the workplace a good 55 years ago. In her defense, she gave the movie a chance and ended up enjoying it despite her initial reservations. I was in love with it the moment I realized this was an adaptation of William Marchant’s play, written by Phoebe and Henry Ehpron who also penned one of my favorite comedies, The Jackpot (starring James Stewart and Barbara Hale). So yes, call me biased when I recommend this film to you but for anyone who’s fond of witty dialog, delicious acting and some depth in comedy, Desk Set is a true gem. To give away the storyline would be a crime, so I’ll refrain from saying more about the plot but this: not everything is what it seems, but you can always count on the Hepburn-Tracy chemistry now shrouded in legend. The film is available on DVD and as instant video. Here’s the trailer for you to judge for yourselves.

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Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Talkie of the Week: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

USA 1967, 108 minutes, color, Columbia Pictures. Director: Stanley Kramer, Written by William Rose. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, Katherine Hepburn, Katherine Houghton, Cecil Kellaway, Beah Richards, Roy E. Glenn, Isabel Sanford, Virginia Christine, Alexandra Hay, Barbara Randolph, D’Urville Martin, Tom Heaton, Grace Gaynor and Skip Martin.

Plot summary: When Joey returns from Hawai’i, she surprises her parents with a fiancé who tests their liberal convictions.

Guess Who's Coming to DinnerReview: When Joanna Drayton (Katherine Houghton) returns to San Francisco to see her parents, she also brings a big surprise: vacationing in Hawai’i, she has fallen in love with a young doctor, John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), whom she wants to marry within a few short months. As if her whirlwind romance wasn’t enough to take in for her liberal parents, a newspaper publisher (Spencer Tracy) and an art gallery owner (Katherine Hepburn), Joanna’s fiancé is colored. Confronted with the boundaries of their own values, Matt and Christina Dayton have trouble adapting to their daughter’s open mind and fear for her future in a biased society. When John’s parents join them all for dinner, equally struggling with the situation, the moment has come for all sides to remind themselves of what they really want for their loved ones.

Set and produced in 1967, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner addressed a difficult topic in riotous times, winning praise from critics and movie goers alike. Rewarded with two Academy Awards and eight additional nominations, the film ripped into the heart of public turmoil by aiming at liberal hypocrisy and black on black racism. Fiercely honest about the obstacles of Joanna’s and John’s young love, the film was blessed with a cast that turned an already excellent script into a memorable motion picture. Starring Spencer Tracy in his last film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner turned out be a tribute to a beloved actor who died a few short weeks after production was completed. Posthumously nominated for his strong performance, Tracy led a cast of stellar actors including his longtime partner Katherine Hepburn. Strong as always in her performances, Hepburn created a genuine chemistry with Tracy despite his grave illness but also left room for the ensemble cast to shine. Sidney Poitier, soft-spoken and impressive at the same time, built a believable sparkle with Katherine Houghton, Hepburn’s niece, who was the only one who didn’t get an opportunity to give her character real depth.

Although some people may look at the topic and deem it outdated, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a classic that still resonates. Available on DVD, the film is touching on more levels than the plot may suggest and thus has the potential to remain popular for generations. Poitier’s rage, expressed in an emtional speech addressed at his father, reflects the frustration of many adult children, as well as the ingratitude of youth. It also gives us a glimpse into that sense of entitlement born in the late 60s, a social phenomenon still seething in Western culture today.

Beyond Kit Carson

Remembering the Charm and Talents of Bill Williams

Born in Brooklyn, New York on May 21, 1915* as Hermann Wilhelm Katt, Bill Williams started his career in Vaudeville, touring the US and Europe as an adagio dancer until he joined the army in WWII. Following an honorable medical discharge, he returned to show business, starting out as an extra in Hollywood and playing small, uncredited parts before he finally landed a deal with RKO in the mid 1940s. As a contract player, he was slowly cast as a budding co-star, opposite popular colleagues such as Spencer Tracy in Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, Robert Young in Those Endearing Young Charms, Robert Mitchum in Till the End of Time and Susan Hayward in Deadline at Dawn while in private life he quietly divorced his first, long estranged wife. In 1946, two years after shooting West of the Pecos, a small Western featuring RKO starlet Barbara Hale whom he had previously been introduced to by acting coach Lillian Albertson, he got married to his former co-star gone studio sweetheart and saw a bright future laid out before him. Considered for a series of pictures following A Likely Story co-starring his young wife, Bill’s stream of luck ended with the sudden death of RKO president Charles Kroener and the structural changes that followed at the studio.

After serving as good-will ambassador from Hollywood to the public in 1946 and 47 for several months, keeping his popularity afloat by touring he country, he was struck down by an old injury that would further interrupt his career while Mrs. Williams was expecting their first child. With A Likely Story under his belt, however, the press didn’t lose interest in him and focused on the private life of the growing Williams family instead, presenting them as happy, lovely and homey. After bowing out of The Window, his second would-be collaboration with wife Barbara, Bill regained his health and starred with her in The Clay Pigeon. Shortly thereafter, the couple faced a new challenge in their conjoined careers when Howard Hughes entered the scene to change the course of RKO by letting all the contract players go. While his wife managed to land a career-breaking part in Jolson Sings Again and a follow-up contract with Columbia Pictures, Bill Williams continued working as a freelance actor, starring in a number of small Westerns and memorable films like The Stratton Story until he got his big break on television in 1951. Landing the title role in The Adventures of Kit Carson, Bill breathed life into a character who soon turned into a kids’ favorite and guaranteed him long hours on set. Successful for four consecutive seasons, the show turned Bill into a household name and Western hero, a good fortune he tried to continue with Date with the Angels in 1957. Starring opposite TV darling Betty White, Bill was seen as a newlywed husband who showed splendid comedic timing. Although promising, entertaining and less strenuous to work on than his predecessor series, the show did not last longer than a season. Instead, his wife Barbara Hale started an unexpectedly long career on television when she agreed to star as Della Street on Perry Mason, a show that would last from 1957 to 66. After years of putting her family first, it was Bill now who spent more time at home with the three children. He did not return to the small screen until 1960 when he starred in Assignment: Underwater, an underwater adventure show modeled after Sea Hunt, a surprise hit Bill Williams himself had turned down in 1958. Following the show’s cancellation, Bill returned to being a working actor and guest starred on a variety of popular programs including his wife’s great success and her co-star Raymond Burr’s follow-up smash Ironside until he retired from acting for good in 1981.

Although originally a city boy with a defining Brooklyn accent, Bill was frequently cast as a handsomely talented cowboy throughout his career. With his boyish grin, tender eyes and natural athleticism, he was the perfect ‘good guy’ when he was young and a credible character actor when he got older. Always deeply committed to his craft, he worked hard at doing most of his own stunts, oozed honesty and earthy charm. Not unlike his darling wife, Bill Williams is now often remembered for his one career-defining role as Kit Carson, but it would be a pity to forget all the other characters he breathed life into, including the many different men he played opposite Mrs. Williams – from their first feature West of the Pecos in 1945 to their last in 1976, Disney’s Flight of the Grey Wolf.

Twenty years ago, on September 21, Bill Williams died in Burbank, California at the age of 77. He left his wife of 46 years, two grown daughters and his son, William Katt, a working actor who continued the tradition of keeping the business in the family by repeatedly working with his mother, Barbara Hale, on the same projects. By his fans, he is still remembered with great fondness, especially by those who grew up loving Westerns.

* Author’s note: Apparently, there’s some confusion about Bill Williams’ date of birth. (Thanks for the mention, Gina!) Wikipedia now lists May 15th as his birthday while imdb still mentions May 21st. As soon as I get confirmation on the validity of one of these dates, you’ll be the first ones to know.

Adam’s Rib

Talkie of the Week: Adam’s Rib

USA 1949, 101 minutes, black & white, MGM. Director: George Cukor, Written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell, Davis Wayne, Jean Hagen, Hope Emerson, Eve March, Clarence Kolb, Emerson Treacy, Polly Moran, Will Wright, Elizabeth Flournoy

Plot summary: Adam and Amanda are happily married until a case divides the two lawyers in court when he has to prosecute his wife’s female client.

Review: As one of the most successful romantic comedies, Adam’s Rib is a classic gem for its topic of equality between man and women, and for its splendid cast led by Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn. Famous for their on screen chemistry and witty acting, the two stars brought a sparkle of energy to an already hilarious script. Written especially for the two actors as their sixth silver screen collaboration, the film was loosely based on the real life story of William and Dorothy Whitney and presented Judy Holliday in her first big part. Praised for the quality of their script, screenwriters Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin got nominated for an Academy Award and was added to the National Film Registry in 1992.

As one of those classics that never gets old, Adam’s Rib is a film I simply cannot get enough of. I may be biased towards two of my favorite Hollywood veterans, but Spencer Tracy’s and Katherine Hepburn’s performances are a pure joy to watch. With their endless banter and their natural quality, they added life to a film that was already blessed with a talented director and an excellent score. The case they quarreled about as Amanda and Adam Bonner is a real hoot, especially due to the eventful courtroom scenes. In addition to that, Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell and Jean Hagen did a wonderful job supporting the main stars, never outshining them but strong enough to leave a mark.

Available on DVD today, Adam’s Rib is the perfect treat for an evening at home with friends. It will entertain you and maybe stir a discussion about a topic that never really seems to get old. More than sixty years later, the sense of humor and style may be different, but that’s exactly what makes this film pure gold.

Adam’s Rib original trailer