Desk Set (1957)
Their real life love translated brilliantly to the screen in crackling films like Woman of the Year (1942), Adam’s Rib (1949), and Pat and Mike (1952). Desk Set was their eighth film together, and their penultimate pairing before Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967).
Although it was their eighth film, this was the first non-MGM movie for the pair (Desk Set is a 20th Century Fox production), their first in color, and in widescreen CinemaScope.
Desk Set was based on the play “The Desk Set” written by William Marchant. After the play opened on Broadway in 1955, screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron, who also penned Daddy Long Legs, adapted it for the screen.
Fun fact: There is no love story in the play between the Hepburn and Tracy characters, but obviously that wouldn’t do for the movie! The Ephrons added the romance to take advantage of the famous Hepburn-Tracy chemistry.
By the time they made this movie, Hepburn and Tracy had been secretly together for about fifteen years, ever since making Woman of the Year (1942). It was a secret because Tracy was married, though he and his wife Louise hadn’t lived together since the 1930s. Although it was kept quiet from the public, Tracy and Hepburn’s twenty-six year relationship was an open secret in Hollywood. They lived together for the last several years of Tracy’s life until he died in 1967, but Hepburn didn’t speak openly about the relationship until after Louise passed away. Hepburn didn’t even attend Tracy’s funeral out of respect for his family.
To the film! We open on a 30 Rock-esque shot of Rockefeller Center before cutting inside to the “Federal Broadcasting Company,” a stand-in for NBC.
A man named Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) announces himself to a secretary before heading to the Reference Department. The secretary promptly calls her friend in said Department to warn her of Mr. Sumner’s imminent arrival. We see the phone call in one of those fabulous split screens so popular in the late 1950s and ’60s.
That’s Joan Blondell on the right, whom you may recognize from one of her many 1930s films like Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) or The Public Enemy (1931). She made almost fifty movies in that decade, which was the high point of her popularity, but she worked steadily until her death in the 1970s.
Blondell plays a researcher named Peg who is one of three information gurus in the Reference Department. They answer questions from the rest of the company, with queries ranging from the names of Santa’s reindeer to astrological signs to a player’s batting average.
Fun fact: the Hollywood studios had similar research departments that fielded all sorts of questions. For example, MGM’s enormous Research Department was housed in four buildings on its backlot. The department was stuffed with 20,000 books and 250,000 clippings all neatly cross-referenced on 80,000 index cards, and it could answer 500 questions a day at its peak. The researchers helped guide writers, producers, and the Art, Costume, and Prop Departments, though if you’ve ever seen an old movie, you’ll know that impeccable accuracy and verisimilitude weren’t the top priority.
It’s safe to assume that 20th Century Fox’s Research branch was probably involved in some aspect of Desk Set–forming a delightfully tidy circle. I can just see a Fox researcher looking up the answer to a question that Blondell would later “discover” in the movie!
Sylvia (Dina Merrill) on the left, Peg, in the middle, and Ruthie (Sue Randall), on the right, are research whizzes with encyclopedic brains and the skills to find what they haven’t yet discovered. Nothing stumps these ladies for long.
Richard wanders into the Department and takes a seat without much introduction. Then he starts measuring the place, much to the women’s confused consternation. “Perhaps we’re getting re-decorated,” suggests optimistic Ruthie.
Actually, Richard is an engineer, and an expert in “electronic brains” (computers.) He’s been hired to install machines in the Reference Department and Payroll, but nobody knows that except the higher-ups. We’ll learn later that the FBC is going through a merger and doesn’t want news of its updated systems going public. You can watch the opening scenes here.
Fun fact: Dina Merrill (the blonde in the rust colored sweater set) is not just another actress; she has a storied pedigree and quite a bit of money. Her mother was Post Cereals heiress Marjorie Post, and her father was big-time Wall Street guy Edward Hutton. This was Merrill’s first film, but she would go on to make 21 more movies and appear on TV through the 2000s. Besides acting, Merrill has also been an active philanthropist and businesswoman.
Another fun fact: Spencer Tracy was so taken with her in this film that he campaigned to act with her again in Ten North Frederick (1958). When Merrill didn’t get the part, Tracy dropped out of the project in protest.
Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn) rushes into the office and is quickly pulled aside by Peg, Sylvia, and Ruthie. Bunny is the head of the Reference Department, and her subordinates’ research skills and recall pale in comparison to her prodigious talents.
Richard asks to speak with Bunny, so they chat in her office. He doesn’t divulge his actual purpose, but says that he’d just like to hang around and see how the department functions…
He asks if he can take Bunny to lunch, and she accepts.
Costume appreciation break. Bunny wears several sophisticated, sharply tailored costumes in this film that are eminently appropriate for her job. They all have high collars and cinched waists, but I think I like this tweed jacket and crisp white blouse outfit the most. Charles LeMaire (Daddy Long Legs) designed the costumes for this film.
Her velveteen jacket is luxuriously toasty, too. Hepburn was about fifty years old when she made this movie, and she’s as beautiful, and even more elegant, as ever.
After making the lunch date with Bunny, Richard goes to chat with the big boss in his amazing midcentury office. It’s Mad Men but real. The pair have a dull conversation about keeping Richard’s electronic brain mission a secret, but it’s an amazing set.
Meanwhile, Bunny shows Peg the new frock she just purchased. She’s hoping that her boyfriend of seven years (yup, seven!) will invite her to an upcoming dance, so she bought the dress just in case.
Peg is less enthused. She’s tired of the boyfriend jerking Bunny around and never actually proposing. She tells Bunny that she is much too “available” and needs to take a stand unless she wants to wait around forever.
Then the bad boyfriend arrives. Mike Cutler (Gig Young from Old Acquaintance), also works at the Federal Broadcasting Company. Bunny not so subtly greets him clutching her green frock. Seven years, Bunny. Seven years.
Mike does indeed ask her to the dance, and to go away with him for the whole weekend. Perhaps he’ll finally propose? He also asks her to look over his budget proposal before he turns it into his boss…Bunny is indispensable, but not in the way she would like.
Then it’s time for lunch with Richard. Bunny hopes he’ll take her somewhere fancy on the company’s dime, but instead he leads her to the frigid rooftop with a bag of sandwiches. As they wait for the elevator, Richard asks Bunny to tell him about herself. She has a great answer:
Once they arrive on the roof, Richard begins a brusque examination of Miss Watson. He asks her a series of brain teasers and memory puzzles, and she amazes him with her quick, completely correct answers.
Bunny is remarkably composed as Richard fires his questions at her. She actually seems to be enjoying herself as she shivers on the roof clutching a roast beef sandwich. She definitely enjoys shocking him with her amazing memory and encyclopedic brain. Fun fact: playwright William Marchant based the Bunny Watson character on CBS research librarian Agnes E. Law.
After acing all of Richard’s tests, Bunny turns the tables by reciting his own educational and professional history. She did some research before lunch! So now she knows that he’s an expert in the new electronic brains, and that the machine named EMERAC, the “Electromagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator,” nicknamed “Emmy,” is his personal project. Hmm…
Richard spends the next few weeks nosing around the Reference Department. The ladies tolerate him even as they use the “secretary network” to try and figure out his purpose. They’re not dummies; they are afraid that the company has hired him to install EMERAC in the Department and eliminate the human workers.
Fun fact: EMERAC was based on two real computers: ENIAC, developed in 1946, and UNIVAC, which came on the market in 1951. Computers were still quite new in 1957, but they were beginning to be utilized commercially. Their installation in offices usually resulted in layoffs, so the plot of this movie would not have been that farfetched for 1957 audiences. In fact, 20th Century Fox apparently went to IBM for guidance when making Desk Set, and the studio included an acknowledgment at the beginning of the picture:
It’s a few weeks later, and Mike arrives in Bunny’s office. She thinks he’s coming to pick her up for their weekend trip. Her bags are packed and waiting. But he’s actually come to cancel. His boss is sending him on an important business trip, instead. He’s very cavalier about the whole thing.
Bunny is crushed. But she looks great in this striped affair:
To make things worse, it’s pouring rain outside. Bunny and Richard leave the office at the same time and get caught in the downpour. She invites him to her apartment to dry off. As they often do in these films, they decide to remove their wet clothes and sit around in robes. (Does that ever happen in real life?)
Fortunately, Bunny does her Christmas shopping early, and she just so happened to buy Mike a bathrobe. She unwraps it and lets Richard borrow it for the evening.
They have a marvelous dinner of fried chicken, and get along beautifully. (Of course they do, it’s Hepburn and Tracy!) In fact, Bunny seems much more relaxed with Richard than she is with Mike. It’s another sign, as though we needed it, that Mike isn’t right for Bunny, but that Richard might be perfect.
Apartment appreciation break: How cute is Bunny’s cozy apartment? It’s eclectic and well-loved, just as we’d expect from Miss Watson. I especially love seeing kitchens and those hulking appliances in old films.
Anyway, just as Richard goes to fetch the floating island from the icebox, Mike bursts into the apartment. He is completely bewildered by Richard’s presence. Mike insults Bunny with his shock at finding another man in her apartment–he just assumed she’d be pining for him, alone! Then Richard tries to explain but that makes Bunny, mad, too. Mike doesn’t deserve an explanation if he is going to be so terrible about everything.
At least Bunny looks lovely in her high-necked robe and cheerful lemon pajamas:
After the fight, Mike and Bunny sort of make up, but it’s not a very convincing embrace, is it? Bunny has had about enough of waiting for Mr. Cutler.
The wide CinemaScope is ridiculous in scenes like this. It works beautifully for scenic vistas and enormous sets like the Reference Department, but Bunny’s adorable apartment is swamped by the width. But it was all the rage in the 1950s, so even “small stories” like this one were filmed in the format. For more on CinemaScope, check out this great website.
Mike leaves, and Peg arrives. She and Bunny laugh at Richard’s rain-soaked and misshapen clothes as he leaves. So, to recap, Mike makes Bunny angry, but Richard makes her laugh. It’s a no-brainer.
Fun fact: this moment with the goofy clothes was apparently improvised by Tracy. Blondell and Hepburn’s laughter is real.
Sidenote: this film still has some of the markers of a stage play, especially in the settings. We’re only outside for a moment, besides the rooftop scene, and otherwise it’s the Reference Department, Bunny’s apartment, and a few other closely situated settings, like the hall outside Bunny’s office. You can definitely imagine it on the stage.
Cut to the Federal Broadcasting Company just before Christmas. The tree is up on the Plaza, monstrous candy canes have taken over the city, and parties are roaring inside.
The Reference Department has a bad feeling that thanks to EMERAC, this is the last Christmas party they’ll ever have. So they go all out.
Richard is there, too. There’s a ridiculously cute moment when Bunny greets Richard while holding an empty champagne bottle upside down–an adorable way of telling him that the alcohol is flowing and she’s feeling fine! Look at those smiles!
Everything is loose and delightful. Bunny and Peg have a marvelous, champagne-bubble time, and Richard enjoys watching them. He’s definitely got a thing for Bunny.
You can watch the end of the dinner scene into the Christmas party here.
Costume appreciation break. How great is Bunny’s reversible red and green coat? She wore it green side out earlier in the film, but it’s crimson for Christmas!
And her shimmering dress is spot on: luxurious, playful, and utterly elegant.
Bunny and the reference ladies give Richard a scarf in his college colors for Christmas, which delights the solid engineer. Maybe Bunny has a thing for him, too…
Mike arrives, and it seems that he and Bunny have completely made up. They exchange gifts: she gives him bongo drums instead of the infamous robe. But he can’t stay for the party, so somehow the bongo drums end up in Richard’s lap. Hmm…
Bunny serenades him with “Night and Day” while she dances in his scarf. Tipsy Bunny is a lot of fun! She and Richard somehow end up on the second floor of the Reference Department pretending they’re on the deck of a departing ocean liner. Mike had better get back to the party.
Bunny and Richard retreat into the stacks and things get serious. Conversationally, I mean.
She asks if he’s ever been married, and he says no, but tells her about the time he came closest. He was going steady with a model when he went off to WWII, and they might have gotten married. But the letters she wrote him during the War were vapid and fashion-centric, and he realized that she wasn’t the one.
When Bunny stands up to leave, Richard grabs her hand and says:
And our hearts melt. It’s my favorite line.
Then Mike returns with great news.
It’s a brilliant scene that starts out happy and excited, and slowly becomes resentful and angry. Bunny suddenly isn’t so crazy about Mike, and she doesn’t want to leave her job or New York. Mike gets mad at her reaction. He thought she wanted to marry him!
The proposal morphs into a break-up, and it’s all played against the backdrop of Richard beating on the bongo drums…which definitely doesn’t improve Mike’s mood.
But things are looking up for Bunny as soon as Mike storms out. After all, she’s suddenly realized how wonderful Richard is, and it seems that her Department is going to remain intact despite the rumors. There’s been no official word regarding EMERAC or layoffs, so she’s hopeful, especially since Richard seems to wholeheartedly endorse her Department.
Richard and the ladies are on their way out of the office to get a drink when an efficient young lady strides into the Department and spills the beans. It’s Miss Warringer (Neva Patterson) from Richard’s company, and she’s here to start the installation of EMERAC.
Richard tries to explain, but the ladies don’t want to hear it. They feel lied to, and their worst fears about their jobs are coming true. It seems that EMERAC will indeed replace them.
Just then, someone calls asking for the full text of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Bunny takes the call, and recites the poem from memory as her eyes fill with tears. It’s amazingly poignant as only Katharine Hepburn could do.
Cut to a few weeks later. EMERAC and Miss Warringer are up and running. The Reference ladies have spent the last few weeks compiling data onto punch cards to be fed into the electronic brain. You can watch Emmy in action here. The sound effects, all chirping and bubbling, are amazing!
The mood is grim. Today is payday, and they’re fairly certain that pink slips will accompany their checks.
And they’re right. Damn computer.
Richard arrives with some FBC executives to demonstrate EMERAC’s utility. It’s basically an enormous wikipedia, which was glorious science fiction in 1957. Bunny asks the machine a question that took the ladies about three weeks to answer. It involves the annual damage to American forests done by the spruce bud worm. Emmy spits out the answer in a few seconds. Oh, dear.
But it ain’t over yet. (Do notice the bright green lining on Bunny’s black dress!) You can watch the scene here.
The phones keep ringing with odd questions, but now it’s up to Miss Warringer. And she’s having a tough time. When someone calls asking if the King of the Watusis drives an automobile, the Reference ladies watch Miss Warringer struggle to even take down the question. They know the answer, and they know where to find it, but they don’t work there anymore, do they?
So they play spectator as Miss Warringer returns to Emmy and types in the question. EMERAC spits out an answer, but it’s not the right one. Instead, it’s a review of King Solomon’s Mines (1950), the movie in which the King of the Watusis appeared. Bunny sends Peg off to retrieve the correct answer from the stacks.
The phone rings again with questions about the island of Corfu. Richard tells Miss Warringer to ask EMERAC. But she misspells it “curfew,” and the electronic brain obligingly begins printing the long, long poem “Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight” by Rose Hartwick Thorpe. Bunny quietly sends Sylvia off for the correct information, and then annoys Miss Warringer and Richard by reciting the poem in dramatic fashion as Emmy starts to malfunction.
Bunny cannot hide her glee when EMERAC and then Miss Warringer have total meltdowns. Meanwhile, Peg cheerfully answers the automobile query, and Sylvia supplies the statistics on Corfu. It seems that EMERAC is no match for the Reference ladies.
When the smoke has cleared, Richard is confused about why the women are so hostile to the Emmy. He is shocked to learn that they have been fired, and immediately calls the boss upstairs. It seems that EMERAC in Payroll included pink slips in every single paycheck. Even the president of the company was “fired.” It’s not a good day for the electronic brains.
Richard explains that he never intended for EMERAC to replace Bunny and her team; the goal was for EMERAC to take the easy questions so that the humans would be freed up to tackle the tricky queries. EMERAC is there to help, not to replace. I’m not sure why this arrangement was never articulated, but Bunny and the gang are relieved to learn that they’re keeping their jobs.
Then Mike arrives. He wants Bunny back. But Richard interrupts their conversation and steals Bunny away on an important “business matter.”
He has two questions for EMERAC, and he needs Bunny’s assistance. The first is: “Should Bunny Watson marry Mike Cutler?” EMERAC says “no.” The second question? “Should Bunny Watson marry Richard Sumner?” Guess what EMERAC thinks? Remember that Richard designed it!
But Bunny refuses to marry Richard on the grounds that Emmy is his real love. To test him, she flicks the switch that causes the electronic brain to go haywire. Richard ignores it and leans in for a kiss, but at the last moment he plucks a hairpin out of Bunny’s chignon and fixes Emmy. But Bunny relents. She knows she can beat the machine every time.
You can watch the final scene here. It’s a very dated film, but quite enjoyable to watch in our computer-obsessed age. It’s also a bit unusual in that none of the women get married and then leave the office. What’s even more unusual is that none of the women articulate a strong desire to get married and quit their jobs. I know that Richard and Bunny are going to get married, but I imagine that they will both keep their jobs for a long time. Usually in old movies it is assumed that the woman will quit her job once she is married, but this film lacks that trajectory. In fact, very few of Katharine Hepburn’s films follow that conventional path.
Desk Set received mixed reviews, though most critics lauded the Hepburn-Tracy dynamic, as usual. The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther thought that the film lacked tension, mostly because no machine could ever really threaten Katharine Hepburn! He wrote, “The thought of having Katharine Hepburn as an intellectual competitor is one that should throw fear and trepidation into the coils of any mechanical brain. Miss Hepburn is obviously a woman who is superior to a thinking machine. And that is the one reason “Desk Set,” which came to the Roxy last night, is out of dramatic kilter, so far as its basic conflict is concerned.”
Crowther went on to declare that the film was just okay, but the stars made it worth it: “Best of all, there are Miss Hepburn and Mr. Tracy. They can tote phone books on their heads or balance feathers on their chins and be amusing—which is about the size of what they do here. Under Walter Lang’s relaxed direction, they lope through this trifling charade like a couple of old-timers who enjoy reminiscing with simple routines.”
I must agree, and, like Crowther, I don’t really mind. I could watch Hepburn and Tracy toting phone books on their heads and be utterly entranced.