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SPECIAL SCREENING

Hepburn and Tracy Find Romance at Work in 'Desk Set'

March 24, 1994|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes about film for The Times Orange County Edition.

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy had become so comfortable with each other by the time "Desk Set" came out in 1957 that sometimes it looks as if she could drape the older, bulkier and pleasantly rumpled Tracy over her shoulder like a familiar coat.

That's what happens when you put a pair of natural actors together, then factor in the easy friendship they had developed over the years. Hepburn and Tracy were something special, and there's never been much mystery surrounding the good vibrations the couple could generate.

Lovers off-screen, they were more than relaxed in each other's space, even in the artificial world of a sound set. What was so remarkable is how welcomed audiences felt watching them; movies turn us all into voyeurs, but you never felt invasive eyeing Tracy and Hepburn.

"Desk Set" (screening Friday afternoon as part of the Cypress Senior Citizen Center's ongoing free film series) isn't the first of their collaborations that comes to mind. It followed "Woman of the Year" (1942) and "Adam's Rib" (1949), after Hepburn and Tracy had already fixed their reputations. But it's still a witty, often diverting romantic comedy that further demonstrates how well the duo fit.

This time out, Tracy plays Richard Sumner, a computer expert brought in to streamline operations at the Federal Broadcasting Co. TV station. One of his targets is the research department, run by Hepburn's Barbara (Bunny) Watson.

They're both fastidious and smart in their own ways--he compulsively measures everything, crawling on all fours through Bunny's office. She's like a computer herself, remembering the most obscure details about the oddest things--but also funny. They're amused by life; it breaks through their self-contained brilliance all the time, making them laugh.

Bunny doesn't start out giggling over Richard, though. She knows he could mean trouble for her and her staff of wisecracking assistants (Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill and Sue Randall), but she's eventually attracted to him. Proving that three is company is Gig Young as smooth, likable Mike, the boyfriend who's been dating the marriage-minded Bunny for seven years.

This could have been a frail venture if not for Hepburn and Tracy, but director Walter Lang's silky touch and screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron's smart dialogue also raise it. Just one example: There's a hilarious scene on the rooftop where Richard gives Bunny what amounts to an IQ test, asking her the strangest questions, which she answers with all the charm of a lovable brainiac.

Richard's cherished computer is also a hoot, especially when we think of that tiny PC many of us have at home. This was the '50s, remember, a time when technology was boss and the computer was one of the beacon lights of a new age. But they were also huge contraptions, filling entire rooms.

Richards' "Emmarac" is billboard size, with all the flashing lights and funny electron-crackling sounds we've come to expect of early computers.

There's also an inside joke: Hollywood felt threatened by still-fledgling television in the '50s, and the imposing Emmarac is not-so-affectionately called "Emmy"--a straight jab at the industry's most coveted prize.

What: Walter Lang's "Desk Set."

When: Friday, March 25, at 12:45 p.m.

Where: The Cypress Senior Citizen Center, 9031 Grindlay St., Cypress.

Whereabouts: Take the San Gabriel River (605) Freeway to Lincoln Avenue and head east to Grindlay Street, then go right.

Wherewithal: Free.

Where to call: (714) 229-6776.

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