Sunday, June 15, 2008

Desk Set (1957), or, The Post In Which I Strain For A Pet Theory, Reject It, And Get Cranky

Is anyone else really bored here?

If one looks at the WGA list of the 101 Best Screenplays of All Time, one would find more than a few misfires (American Beauty!). Is this because screen writers aren't a very bright bunch? Possibly. But it may also have something to do with our criteria for what makes a script or a story good. I mention this in conjunction with my review of Desk Set now because the things that bothered me about Desk Set I've found common to a number of films on The List that also irk me.

I've been formulating an unscientific study (in my mind) in which I delineate the various irritants and trace them directly to a certain style and/or era and am thus able to create a sort of taxonomy of screen writing wrongness. I got as far as this:

1. the theatre
2. the 1950s

... before I realized I was talking out of my ass.

See, I had this theory that writing in the 1950s had evolved into an unfortunate art form characterized by stilted adaptations of stage plays -- and stagey acting -- overlong run times, bloated production, unnatural dialogue, and a loss of connection with the cinematic medium. Writing for the movies had become respectable and playwrights were imported with disastrous results? Was that it? But they'd been importing playwrights since the '30s, and novelists as well, often with successful results. That broad-strokes solution didn't work.

But since so many films I dislike were produced circa 1950, I thought there HAD TO BE something specific about the 1950s I could point to as a factor in creating these irksome filmed plays. Maybe it was the source material, the theatre itself, that was the problem.

So far I've found very few successful adaptations from theatre to screen, a problem that rests with the writing and the direction, in equal measures. Directors seem content to rest on the "sparkling" dialogue and writers seem content to shoehorn their theatrics into an entirely different medium. Again, these are over-generalizations, but by now I've begun realize I'm not going to make a thorough -- or even remotely fact-based -- study here. These are just a few observations of my own, backed up with a few isolated examples. I'd love to start a dialogue, though, and hear what others have to say on the subject.

Spencer Tracy will not change his expression ...

Back to Desk Set. I was so excited to watch this because I love Katharine Hepburn, usually. (Though I recently re-watched "The African Queen" and was like, how did I not notice before how damn boring this movie is?") And reference librarians are awesome. How could I go wrong? Well, for one thing, I don't think the Tracy/Hepburn combo really does it for me. I was bored by Adam's Rib, too. I just don't feel the chemistry between them, real life romance or no. And something about the laconic way Tracy played it in Desk Set just struck me as lazy. So there's that. And Katie wasn't given much to do either, other than throw away some one-liners and quote a few poems in her Shakespeare voice.

Joan Blondell will languish

After about forty minutes of talking heads I got that familiar feeling. "I bet this was a play, originally," I harumphed to myself. (This was during the rooftop scene.) Sure enough -- adapted from a play by William Marchant ... by the dreaded Ephrons (spawners of Nora). Well, no wonder, I thought. But possibly the worst offense director Walter Lang commits, other than FILMING A PLAY, is giving the brilliant Joan Blondell nothing -- NOTHING -- to work with. I've seen Joan Blondell with funny scripts and good direction, I've seen her paired with James Cagney. I KNOW WHAT SHE CAN DO. And you gave her nothing. Nothing. That I cannot forgive.
Hepburn explains the joke

As I let Desk Set drag towards its inevitable conclusion, I felt my animosity increase. The scene in Hepburn's apartment seems set up for comedy. Shoes in the oven. Men in bathrobes. Interruptions. The stage is set! Comedy MUST ensue! Something MUST happen! But, nope. Everything's fine. Men go home. Shoes come out of oven unscathed. Hepburn and Blondell have a good laugh. The scene is deflated, an anticlimax. And hey, isn't one of the first rules of comedy "There's nothing less funny than watching two characters laugh"? Or the fourth rule. Whatever.

There's one funny scene near the end of the film where the computer, and the electronics expert, start to freak out. I laughed, briefly. Then Hepburn and Tracy (surprise!) decide to get married and the damn dreary thing ends. And I get to thinking.

Like All About Eve (1950) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), Desk Set suffers from my pet afflictions. What other writers -- our friends at AFI and WGA -- have deemed sophistication, wit, dazzling glamour and performance, I take for long, talky, windy, stuffy productions. All About Eve: too much diva, too much drama, too much talking and for far too long. Sunset Boulevard: too much goddamn voice-over! Desk Set: talking heads, flat, phoned-in performances, dull romance, waste of Joan Blondell. African Queen (1951): two boring people on a stupid boat and Hepburn's worst thrall scenes ever (she tends to do this thing where she's really proud at first and then utterly tamed by love, a faintly sickening display).

These particular films just bore me, they lack a lightness, they rely too much on perfs that are supposed to be iconic but fail to thrill. And I know I've got no case for, say, all screenwriting in the 1950s being horrible, or all play adaptations being wretched (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf floored me, although I envied the theatre audience their intermission -- again, I have a problem with anything over 90 minutes, usually ... my own cross to bear). I'm not going to find a formula here. But I think I can say I've identified a tendency in certain films, a fault of the writing, that leads to diminished enjoyment. And that thing, my friends, seems to be dialogue, of a type anyway.

I'm probably just stuck in my whole Leo McCarey/Preston Sturges 1930s screwball thing. Or stuck in my love of the Hawks/Fuller one-two punch (fast, hard, mean, funny, usually over in 100 minutes or less). I just want movies to effervesce all the time, I suppose.

1 comment:

Levi Stahl said...

I think you've almost hit on it: watch enough Sturges or Lubitsch and all else seems pale.