Hollywood Flashback: In 1957, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy Bickered Over a Giant Computer

Desk Set Still ONE TIME USE - Everett - H 2016
Courtesy of Everett Collection

Desk Set Still ONE TIME USE - Everett - H 2016

The prescient 'Desk Set,' about a machine that takes over people's jobs, was the eighth film to pair the stars (who had a 26-year love affair off-screen) but not their best, as the leading man wrote in his diary: "Bad pic. K bad. Me bad."

Eleven years before Hal got cranky in 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hollywood was mining high-tech angst in 1957's Desk Set. The romantic comedy concerned itself with the giant EMERAC "electronic brain" causing fear and havoc after it's introduced into a TV network's research library.

This was the eighth film Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made together. (Hepburn would go public with their 26-year offscreen love affair three years after Tracy's wife died in 1983.) She played the librarian whose livelihood is threatened by EMERAC; he was the "efficiency expert" with the computer. "The movie was about a machine taking people's jobs," says A. Scott Berg, author of the Hepburn biography Kate Remembered, of the forward-thinking plot. "And there are some jobs that require the human touch."

Tracy and Hepburn were major stars, perhaps a bit long in tooth at 57 and 50, respectively, for rom-coms. But they had a solid box-office track record — enough so that Fox was willing to offer the pair 20 percent of any gross more than $4.75 million plus $250,000 ($2.1 million today) to Tracy and $150,000 ($1.3 million today) to Hepburn. (Unequal pay for actresses has deep roots.) "Tracy and Hepburn — and he always had top billing — had a good 10-year run starting in 1942, with Woman of the Year, that went until 1952, with Pat and Mike," says Berg. "They worked separately for five years, and then they did this. It's possibly the least important of their pairings, but it delivers some of the goods."

The Walter Lang-directed film originated as a Broadway hit that was adapted by Henry Ephron, who also produced, with wife Phoebe. (Their daughter Nora went on to glory by writing When Harry Met Sally and writing and directing Sleepless in Seattle.) THR was thrillefd with the end result, saying Desk Set has "romance and beauty and should be one of the year's top comedies." (THR was wrong: The film cost $1.8 million and grossed $1.7 million.) Tracy had a sense that something wasn't going right. On the 16th day of production, he wrote in his diary: "Lang is a nice man but childish director. Ephron — producer — dumb. Bad pic. K bad. Me bad."

This story first appeared in the July 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.