Desk Set (1957)

Filmed in truly glorious Technicolor, this is probably the lightest of the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn movies I’ve seen so far. ( I only have a couple of the ones they made together still to go.) This time there’s no real sense of conflict – although obviously the romantic comedy plot brings up its share of misunderstandings but more of friendship and shared humour, and sheer enjoyment of each other’s little eccentricities.

The film is directed by Walter Lang, with a script by Henry and Phoebe Ephron, based on a play by William Marchant.As so often with movies based on stage plays, the dialogue is beautifully crisp, but this one doesn’t feel too slow and stagey.

The plot seems extremely forward-looking for 1957, with Hepburn playing the woman in charge of a broadcasting station’s reference library, who fears she will be put out of work by a computer , invented by absent-minded boffin Tracy. Fifty years on, computers have, sadly, indeed put paid to such departments in some newspaper offices – I don’t know about broadcasters, but suspect it may be the same story there too. Anyway, the computer in this movie, EMERAC, nicknamed Emmie, is a magnificent sight, huge and taking up a whole room, with lights flashing and a selection of loud noises. My teenage son was most impressed to see it, and pointed out that it would have had a lot less power than a modern calculator!
An information overload

An information overload

I enjoyed the scenes in the library over the Christmas period, where Hepburn is constantly answering the phone and saying: “Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen.” Back in the 1980s, there used to be a list of Santa’s reindeer up on the wall in the reference library at a newspaper where I worked, because this exact query came so regularly over the festive season.

In those days, and still more so in the 1950s, it seemed unlikely that a computer would ever be able to answer any random question you put to it. Now, of course, with the arrival of the internet, computers can do just that, and the science fiction has become reality.

Tracy is endearing as scatter-brained scientist Richard – wearing one blue sock and one brown one, and constantly looking as if he isn’t quite sure where he’s just been or where he should be going next. “I had a tape measure a minute ago – you didn’t see where I put it, did you?”

Hepburn provides the perfect contrast as  quick-talking Bunny, with a memory at least equal to that of his computer.She might check her engagement diary for show, but you know she has it all by heart, and probably next year’s engagements too. I especially enjoyed the scene where Hepburn and Tracy eat a picnic in the cold while he fires questions from a prepared list.

Among the supporting cast, it’s fun to see Joan Blondell in good form as one of Hepburn’s colleagues, while Gig Young is suitably infuriating as Hepburn’s on-off lover Mike, an unthinking male chauvinist who has taken her for granted for years until some competition turns up.

I enjoyed the gentle, understated feeling to the whole movie – and, especially, the scenes where everyone is running around after Emmie the computer !

Blonde Crazy (1931)

“The age of chivalry is past – this, honey, is the age of chiselry!”
That’s the line everyone quotes from Blonde Crazy, James Cagney and Joan Blondell’s madcap early comedy-drama about a bellhop and a hotel maid who become partners in crime. But, after watching the film for the second time,  it’s just struck me that, in the end, the movie goes against this claim by Cagney’s loveable rogue character, Bert.
Spoilers behind cut

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The Crowd Roars (1932)

I was very keen to see this  pre-code movie, after reading glowing accounts of it in a couple of books, but it proved difficult to track down. However in the end I was able to get hold of a recording from TV – I do hope that this and the other early Cagneys will eventually be released on official DVDs, in fully-restored prints, but am very glad to have this copy in the meantime.

I found it a powerful film, with wonderful acting from Cagney and Ann Dvorak in particular, and am puzzled as to why it isn’t better-known – especially as a top director like Howard Hawks was at the helm. You’d think there would be a demand for it just because of the racing footage, let alone the acting.  As with the other reviews on this blog so far, I originally posted this on livejournal, but have reworked it a bit. I also now (December 2008) have a better copy and have noticed a couple of errors in what I’ve written, so am adjusting accordingly.

Spoilers behind the cut, plus more pictures

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Sinners’ Holiday (1930)

The movie which made James Cagney’s name was The Public Enemy, where he played snarling gangster Tom Powers. Yet his first screen role was in this little-known film, where his character is anything but a tough guy.
James Cagney and Joan Blondell

James Cagney and Joan Blondell

The movie is a melodrama set in a fairground at (or near) Coney Island, during the era of prohibition, where the indomitable widow Ma Delano (Lucille LaVerne) runs her family’s penny arcade. She is helped by older son Joe and daughter Jennie, and hindered by weak younger son Harry (Cagney), who is unemployed and drifts into running booze. The film has that gritty early Warner Brothers feel to it and packs an awful lot of dialogue and action into a running time of less than an hour.
I was impressed by how strong Cagney’s screen presence is even in this early film. He is third-billed, below Grant Withers and Evalyn Knapp, but dominates every time he is on screen – rivalled only by a fiercely protective LaVerne as the first of his screen mothers.
One possible sign of his inexperience on camera is that Cagney’s voice isn’t quite as expressive here as it later became. It’s very high-pitched and so breathlessly fast, even for him, that I found one or two lines impossible to make out, though that could have been partly due to the quality of the recording from TV I was watching. (If only Warner Brothers would release more of these old movies!) However, the tremulous voice goes well with the weakness of the character, so it could have been deliberate.

(The part of this review behind the cut includes spoilers)

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