The problem with most Christmas movies is, well, Christmas. It’s just so front-and-center. So transformative. Life is stressful and wretched — misers grasp and banks threaten to foreclose and widowers are lonely and orphans weep — and then Christmas comes along and fixes everything. The miracle of this, the wonder of that.
I confess to having a weakness for this stuff (“Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” is a particular favorite), but I also find that a little of it goes a long way. Which is why, every year around now, I watch the 1957 film “Desk Set.” It isn’t a Christmas movie, just a movie that happens to take place between November and January. There’s an offhand mention of Christmas shopping, a mistletoe-decked drunken office Christmas party, and that’s it. In the next scene the wreaths and tinsel are gone, and life has moved on.
Written by Henry and Phoebe Ephron and directed by Walter Lang, “Desk Set” starred Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. It’s a movie with none of the antic rapid-fire shenanigans of the more famous Hepburn-Tracy comedies: “Woman of the Year,” “Pat and Mike,” “Adam’s Rib.” Maybe that’s why I prefer it. “Desk Set” is quieter, more knowing, more relaxed; the sparks don’t fly as much as glow. But what a glow.
“Caroline was a model,” Spencer Tracy’s character says, reminiscing about an old girlfriend. “Five-feet-10 in her stockinged feet.”
Katharine Hepburn nods understandingly. “You had occasion to . . . measure her.”
“Among other things,” he says.
They are sitting on the floor, flirting, drinking champagne out of paper cups, hiding out between the bookshelves at the office Christmas party. Both of them are casual, almost laughing, almost improvising, almost throwing the lines away. They are both grownups. More than grownups: They are middle-aged. They’ve been around the block, these two actors, and they are playing characters who’ve been around the block.
In another scene, they sit by the fireplace in her apartment eating a spur-of-the-moment supper after getting soaked in the rain. They haven’t fallen in love yet, but you can tell they’re headed that way; the banter is friendly and silly and easy. Their clothes are drying in the bathroom; she’s loaned him a robe she’s bought to give to another man for Christmas. Her boss — who is also her decorative but callow longtime lover — shows up and misinterprets the situation. It’s wonderful to watch as Spencer Tracy attempts to smooth things over, realizes suddenly that this is the guy the robe is intended for, and jumps up with his hands on his hips, grinning, pivoting, modeling the bathrobe. “Like it?”
The movie isn’t just offhand about Christmas; it’s offhand about sex and romance. You get to a certain age and everyone is going to have a past. Things are messy: So what else is new? The only thing to do is laugh.
Although “Desk Set” wasn’t trying to offer up social commentary, the movie is sharp and observant enough to let us see some uncomfortable truths under the comedy. Hepburn’s character is smarter than most of the men at the TV network where she works, yet she’s stuck in her job as head of the research library. Meanwhile, her twit of a boyfriend gets her to ghostwrite his financial reports, and winds up as head of West Coast operations.
But while some aspects of the movie seem dated, others don’t, notably anxiety about the impact of technology. Spencer Tracy’s character is a methods engineer, hired to computerize Hepburn’s department, and she and the “girls” who work for her spend most of the movie worrying that they’ll lose their jobs. “Frightening,” Hepburn says, after seeing a demonstration of what the new computer (which looks something like an ocean liner) can do. “Gave me the feeling that people were a little bit outmoded.”
In the end, people and computers live happily ever after: “They can’t build a machine to do our job. There are too many cross-references.” But it’s like watching someone in an Old Testament epic say to Noah, “What are you so worried about — a little drizzle never hurt anyone.” We know what the characters in “Desk Set” don’t: that Google is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.