Movie Mom Discussing Desk Set on Christmas Actually Podcast

Posted on June 13, 2021 at 12:23 pm

Copyright 20th Century Fox 1958

It was such fun to talk about why the Tracy-Hepburn classic “Desk Set” is a classic Christmas movie on the “Christmas Actually” podcast with Collin Souter and Kerry Finegan.

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Henryk Hoffmann on Hollywood Legends in Literature

Posted on July 12, 2016 at 3:49 pm

Henryk Hoffmann’s Four Hollywood Legends in World Literature: References to Bogart, Cooper, Gable and Tracy is an extraordinary resource, grounded in massive research and filled with insights about the way four iconic Hollywood figures have inspired and influenced an astonishing range of literary and creative works. In an interview, Hoffmann described the qualities that made Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, and Spencer Tracy uniquely influential, and the ways that their lives and their work were reflected in books by writers from Larry McMurtry to Elmore Leonard.

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 9.21.22 PM
Copyright BearManor Media 2016

What is it about these four men that makes them such timeless and iconic figures?

Each of them possessed a rare kind of charisma, each developed an unusually attractive and appealing persona and each appeared in an impressive number of outstanding, essential (for one reason or another) and unforgettable films. And, of course, we must not forget about the great acting talent with which each of the four men was—in a varying extent—endowed. If you feel that the same can be said about some actors of the younger generations, then I would have to refer to the sociological and cultural criteria that clearly define the times of Bogart, Cooper, Gable and Tracy as something absolutely unique in America and in the world, the times of magic nonexistent ever after.

What would you say are the distinctive qualities that make them so appealing to authors and the characters they create?

It is closely related to the previous question. Most of the authors that have (intentionally, I assume) mentioned one of the four names in their works of fiction are quite aware that a certain legendary or mythological qualities would be automatically entailed, understood or evoked by any reader even remotely familiar with the history of the American cinema. Why? Because the collective or individual image of those four movie stars, either as symbols of the great American hero or as foremost examples of the Golden Era of Hollywood, prevails in the mentality of the devoted moviegoers—certainly those contemporary with the actors, but also those representing younger generations, which is proven by the age of numerous authors quoted in my book.

What are the most frequent uses of references to these stars in literature? As metaphor or as historical/cultural context?

The references discussed in my book play a variety of roles in literature, including those that you mention in your question. It is almost impossible to recount all types, but I tried to categorize/classify them in the Epilogue, where I list thirty-one different uses along with my favorite examples of each. In terms of frequency or any other statistics, it would take a separate time-consuming study to find out which types are most common in literature and which are rather rare or accidental.

How do references to the performances differ from references to the actors themselves?

When an actor’s name is mentioned together with a title of one of his films, the reference usually pertains to a specific scene or the storyline of that movie. A rare (and nice) exception is the reference to Gary Cooper and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in Elliott Roosevelt’s Murder in the Red Room, where the purpose of the allusion is to emphasize the perfect match between the actor’s persona and the character he portrays. On the other hand, when an actor is mentioned without any movie title, then the purpose of such a reference is usually to capitalize upon his status or prestige as an actor or celebrity.

Do you think that today’s more intrusive, more omnipresent, and less managed presentations of actors’ personal lives in the media will prevent literary use of contemporary stars in the same way these four legends were used?

I would not like to sound prejudiced, but my research points out that references to younger generations of actors (including those with careers longer than Bogart’s or Cooper’s) are by far less numerous, with a pattern showing almost nonexistent interest in the actors of the very young generation, anyone born after 1960. I said “almost,” because I did find some references to Tom Cruise and the like, but they tend to be clearly less complimentary, less positive, sometimes even derogatory. I have my own theory about this phenomenon, but I do not think this is the place to reveal it.

Your work is remarkably comprehensive but there are no databases for these references. What kinds of resources did you use for your research?

Right! There is no database; I have been building it as a pioneer. It started a long time ago when I read books like From Here to Eternity, The Blackboard Jungle, The Catcher in the Rye, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and several others, where I noticed the first movie references in fiction and decided to record them for no particular reason. Sometime later I discovered Larry McMurtry with his numerous and rich allusions, but the writer who gave me the idea of turning the data into a book was Elmore Leonard. Since both McMurtry and Leonard, but also some other favorite writers of mine (such as John Updike, Robert B. Parker, Lawrence Sanders, Loren D. Estleman and Tim O’Brien), frequently allude to westerns, my first book on the subject (published by McFarland in 2012) was Western Movie References in American Literature. Upon completion of that book I already had a substantial data base for my next project on references (to the four legends, tentatively), but my subsequent research (based primarily on intuition) expanded it to unexpected proportions. Thus, I had no doubt who it should be focused on. I got in touch with two children of the famous actors and received blessing, guidance and support from Maria Cooper Janis and Stephen Humphrey Bogart.

What movie role is referred to most often in literature?

Copyright Gazeta Wyborcza 1989
Copyright Alehistoria 1989

Two films, Gone with the Wind and Casablanca, have accumulated the biggest number of references (both mentioned in more than 100 works). However, the focus of those allusions is spread over a number of characters, scenes and themes. Consequently, it is Gary Cooper as Marshal Will Kane that gets most attention from writers, and it is the scene of Coop walking tall while looking for help in High Noon (referenced in eighty-one works) that is most frequently mentioned in books. By the way, that particular image was used on the side of the Gary Cooper postal stamp issued in 2009 in the “Legends of Hollywood” series, and, before that, in the Polish post-World War II first free-election poster designed by Tomasz Sarnecki in 1989. The cover of “Gazeta Wyborcza” (Poland’s foremost newspaper) of June 6, 2016, with Sarnecki’s poster announcing an extensive article on the 27th anniversary of the election, can be treated as one more vivid reminder of the incredible impact of one of the Four Hollywood Legends outside the movie world.

Do you have a favorite literary reference to one of these legends or performances?

Here I would like to refer again to my list of 31 items in the Epilogue. All those references are special to me. I have a hard time choosing one, but if I were to pick out three, I would say #13 (Distant Drums referenced in McMurtry’s All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers—most vivid), #15 (High Noon referenced in Martha Grimes’s The End of the Pier—most personal) and #31 (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner referenced in Herman Koch’s The Dinner—most complex and informative).

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Understanding Media and Pop Culture

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World

Posted on January 20, 2014 at 6:00 am

Lowest Recommended Age: All Ages
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic slapstick peril and violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 1963
Date Released to DVD: January 20, 2014 ASIN: B00GBT61YS

What could be better than a 2 1/2 hour movie with every comedian and comic actor in Hollywood in a madcap masterpiece about the race to a hidden fortune?  A new Blu-Ray edition with deleted scenes, commentary, and interviews!

Directed by a man not known for comedy, Stanley Kramer, this 1963 film begins with Jimmy Durante literally kicking the bucket after confessing to a group of random strangers on the highway that he has hidden $350,000 in stolen money at “the big W.” At first, the group tries to be cooperative and civilized, but that is quickly abandoned as they decide it will have to be winner take all. Each takes off to see if they can find the big W first, creating chaos in every relationship and by every possible mode of transportation along the way. It is wild, silly fun and highly recommended for the sheer pleasure of seeing a movie that includes top comedy performers from television, vaudeville, movies, and theater, with everyone from Mickey Rooney, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Phil Silvers, Edie Adams, Mickey Rooney, Jonathan Winters, to Ethel Merman are among those trying to get to the money before anyone else and Tracy and William Demerest are the cops who have been trying to find the stolen money for 15 years. Even Jerry Lewis and the Three Stooges show up in cameos.

The opening credits by credit-sequence master Saul Bass are featured in my book, 101 Must-See Movie Moments. It is a “visual overture,” in the words of producer Walter Parkes, an introduction to the movie’s tone and themes, an invitation into the world the movie will create.

“It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” presented Bass with quite a challenge: dozens of names.  The contracts of movie stars often spell out in great detail the size, placement, and order of their names in the credits.  The enormous cast of very successful performers could have led to an opening title sequence that looked like a page in the telephone book.  But Bass made it into an advantage, using each list of names to help convey something about the comedy that was coming.  It begins with a simple red frame, the score by Ernest Gold sounding like a slightly off circus.  A little animated man in black carries out an enormous globe, which topples him over.  Then a saw starts poking out of the globe and cuts out a square.  A hand reaches out holding a flag with the name of the movie’s biggest star, Spencer Tracy.  A hand comes down to nail the globe shut again and the fight is on.   The globe is opened like a tuna can and more names tumble out, “in alphabetical order,” but they start scrambling over each other to be on top of the list.  The globe bounces like a ball, cracks open like an egg, and gets ridden like a unicycle.  We get information but more important we get a sense of the mad mad world that we are about to enter.

This new edition includes some treasures among the extras, including deleted scenes, plus:

  • New audio commentary featuring It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World aficionados Mark Evanier, Michael Schlesinger, and Paul Scrabo
  • New documentary on the film’s visual and sound effects, featuring interviews with visual-effects specialist Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt
  • Excerpt from a 1974 talk show hosted by director Stanley Kramer and featuring Mad World actors Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, and Jonathan Winters
  • Press interview from 1963 featuring Kramer and cast members
  • Excerpts about the influence of the film from the 2000 AFI program 100 Years . . . 100 Laughs
  • Two-part 1963 episode of the TV program Telescope that follows the film’s press junket and premiere
  • The Last 70mm Film Festival, a 2012 program featuring Mad World cast and crew, hosted by actor Billy Crystal
  • Selection of humorist and voice-over artist Stan Freberg’s original TV and radio ads for the film, with a new introduction by Freberg
  • Trailers and radio spots

Parents should know that this movie includes extended cartoon-like comic peril and violence and some silly and greedy bad behavior.

Family discussion:  How did the money affect different characters differently?  Did you sympathize with anyone?  What would you do with $350,000?

If you like this, try: more work by these actors and an uneven but enjoyable update, “Rat Race”


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Classic Comedy DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week For the Whole Family

Tracy and Hepburn: The Definitive Collection

Posted on April 3, 2011 at 6:20 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some social drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Mild
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movies
Date Released to Theaters: 1940's
Date Released to DVD: April 12, 2011 ASIN: B004K4FUT8

Now this is a pure movie magic. There has never been an on- and off-screen romance like the nine-movie pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. When writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz introduced them, Hepburn, who was wearing special heels that added several inches to her slender frame, said, “I’m afraid I’m too tall for you, Mr. Tracy.” Mankiewicz said, “Don’t worry, he’ll soon cut you down to size.” And thus began a movie legend.  She was never as natural and playful on screen with anyone else.  And his love for her just shone from him, always.

Their first movie together was “Woman of the Year.” They work for the same newspaper. He’s a sportswriter and she’s an expert in international affairs who writes an influential political column. They meet when he she says something dismissive about sports on the radio and he writes a column telling her off. He’s called into the publisher’s office and as he walks in, the first thing he sees is her lovely leg as she leans over to adjust her stocking. He offers to take her to a baseball game and she goes, in a preposterous outfit, and completely charms everyone there. I’m not wild about the movie’s last half hour, but it is one of the great pleasures of movie history to watch these brilliant performers fall in love. Their best movie is probably “Adam’s Rib,” the story of married lawyers on opposite sides in a murder case. And their most heart-felt performances are probably in their last film, completed just before Tracy’s death, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” The speech Tracy makes about his love for his wife is clearly straight from his heart. Their weakest film is the all-but-forgotten “Sea of Grass,” understandably omitted from this new collection, which also leaves out “Keeper of the Flame,” a flawed but intriguing film about a reporter who visits the widow of a respected statesman to write about her late husband that raises some powerful issues about how and when certain information should be made public.

I am delighted that seven of their films are now available in the splendid Tracy & Hepburn: the Definitive Collection.  It includes their best-loved and best-remembered films and some that may be new to fans.  “State of the Union” is their only Frank Capra film, a surprisingly timely (if talky) story about an industrialist turned Presidential candidate and his estranged wife.  Real-life actor-turned Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan borrowed one of his best lines on the campaign trail from this film.  I especially love “Pat and Mike,” the story of a sheltered athlete (you can see Hepburn, a superb athlete herself, playing golf and tennis) who meets a street-smart promoter (look for a young Charles Bronson in a small role) and “Desk Set” (she runs the information resources division of a broadcast network and he comes in to install the first computer — it’s about the size of a dozen refrigerators).  And I am very fond of “Without Love,” set in my home town of Washington DC during the World War II housing shortage.  He’s a scientist and she is a young widow.  They impulsively decide to get married “without love” so that they can work together and you can guess the rest.  Lucille Ball in her pre-Lucy days appears as Hepburn’s sophisticated friend who has a way with a wisecrack.

I have one copy of this treasure to give to a lucky reader.  Send me an email at with “Tracy-Hepburn” in the subject line and tell me which is your favorite of their films and why.  Don’t forget to include your address.  A week from today I will pick one entry at random.  Good luck!

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