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Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn teamed for their eighth film and first film in color, Desk Set, in 1957.
1. Kate got the ball rolling.
Spencer Tracy’s health was declining, and while he was content to take it easy, Katherine Hepburn knew that the best medicine was to keep busy. When she lamented that a Spence-Kat film hadn’t come along since 1952’s Pat and Mike, 20th Century Fox took notice and purchased the rights to The Desk Set for $250 thousand dollars. When talk of adapting the Broadway play had been reported, Shirley Booth was expected to reprise her role as “Bunny.” However, with the reuniting of Tracy and Hepburn, this changed. His Other Woman was a working title – referring to Spencer Tracy’s “love” for the computer which causes a headache for the librarians. According to director Walter Lang, Spencer “felt he was too old for the part” but everyone wanted him, so he agreed to it.
2. The script changed for the leads.
William Marchant was originally going to adapt his play for the screen, but the responsibility ultimately went to Phoebe and Henry Ephron (parents of Nora Ephron known for When Harry Met Sally… and You’ve Got Mail). The Ephrons had previously written There's No Business Like Show Business and Carousel, among other films. In adapting Desk Set, the pair built up Spencer Tracy’s part (at Kate's request) and changed the ending so that their two romantic leads would find a happy ending together. In the play, Bunny accepts her boss’ proposal.
3. Kate’s character was inspired by a real person.
While it’s now a thing of the past, movie studios at one time all had research departments. Agnes E. Law was known for helping create the library at CBS, and she served as the basis for “Bunny,” played by Hepburn. According to Dorothy S. Boyle, who worked with Law, the research department was a tight-knit group who often lunched together and were honored to be the subject of the play on which the film was based.
4. Tragedy hit on the set.
Kate and Spence were close friends with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Spence was actually the one who gave Bogart the nickname "Bogie." While filming began on Desk Set, Bogie’s health was taking a turn for the worse, having been diagnosed with cancer. The pair visited their friends and tried to bring comfort. Humphrey died on January 14, 1957. Bacall remembered, “I originally wanted [Spencer] to deliver the eulogy. He called me up immediately and said, ‘I’d never get through it.’” Production paused so Spencer and Hepburn could attend the funeral.
5. IBM got a thank you.
“We gratefully acknowledge the cooperation and assistance of the International Business Machines Corporation,” states a credit in Desk Set. The film’s EMERAC computer was actually based on two existing computers – ENIAC and UNIVAC – and anticipated that computers would indeed replace some office jobs. As Hepburn says in the film after seeing a fictional demonstration of a computer at IBM, “Frightening. It gave me the feeling that maybe – just maybe – people are a bit outmoded.” Special effects artist Ray Kellogg built the computer prop for the movie, using approximately 9 thousand light bulbs and ten miles of wiring. The prop would be re-used for What a Way to Go!, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and The Fly.