Walter Lang’s Desk Set (1957) was destined to be a film of distinction for several reasons, not the least of which was the talent and popularity of its two stars. Alone, each is often mentioned as the greatest actor to have ever appeared on the silver screen. Together they made a screen team like no other. By the time they appeared together in Desk Set, the eighth of their nine films together, their eighth and last comedy together and their first film in Technicolor – they were unbeatable. I refer, of course, to legends Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
Lang’s Desk Set was adapted from William Marchant’s stage play, “The Desk Set,” which opened on Broadway in October 1955 and ran for 296 performances. Marchant’s play was loosely based on the research librarian who built the CBS network’s research library, Agnes E. Law. Law’s team would research the facts that were used to back the broadcasts of the CBS news organization.
In the film, Kate Hepburn plays Bunny Watson, the manager of the research department of a large media company. Bunny’s staff consists of three women: Peg Costello (played by the ever entertaining Joan Blondell), Silvia Blair (played by Dina Merrill) and Ruthie Saylor (played by Sue Randall). The women’s work consists of finding facts for the other departments within the company and under Bunny’s tutelage the research department is a well-oiled machine. But, one day the harmony is threatened by the arrival of Richard Sumner (Tracy) a consultant/efficiency expert who plans to introduce a computer to do the research.
From the moment Richard Sumner saunters into the research office to get a sense of the daily happenings, Bunny and her staff fear for their jobs, convinced that the mega-computer Sumner hails will replace them.
But replacing the staff is not what Sumner intends, he simply wants to make the company more efficient, which entails getting information from the staff, mostly from Bunny Watson, the (literal) brains of the operation. As part of his research, Sumner dedicates time to test Bunny’s cognitive abilities, specifically her logic and memory – or what a computer would not be able to do as I could surmise – and she impresses, answering every single of his questions correctly during the working lunch he plans on the roof of the corporate building. This is a particularly charming scene, by the way, wherein Miss Hepburn has ample opportunity to flex her communicative muscles and the first scene in which we get to witness the full-blown effects of the legendary Tracy/Hepburn chemistry in this movie.
As time passes suspicions in the research library grow as pertain to Richard Sumner’s presence. He becomes one of the staff, hanging on to every word spoken by the staff. In the meantime we are also made privy to the characters’ private lives. For instance, we know that Peg is on the market for a husband and that Bunny has been in a seven-year relationship with Mike Cutler (Gig Young), one of the administrators who later becomes the VP of West Coast Operations. Bunny has spent the seven years at Mike’s beck and call, making herself available for a date or to accompany him to a dance or work function as his schedule allows. In the words of Peg, she’s his rag (or something similar).
As time elapses into the Christmas celebrations at the company, the ladies in research have grown fond of Richard Sumner, although the distrust of his intentions remain.
Sumner’s strongest connection is with Bunny, with whom he’s spent quite a bit of time by this point. And during the annual Christmas party the two connect on a personal level the depths of which Bunny has never had with Mike.
With that in mind, I imagine, Bunny is not too thrilled when Mike announces he’s been promoted and is ready to marry her next Tuesday, planning their life together on the West Coast before even consulting with her. They have it out, which results in an end to their relationship. Mike blames Bunny for being interested in Sumner, which she rebuffs and Bunny is sick to death of being at his beck and call.
Then the moment arrives when EMERAC – the computer – arrives. The research department is redesigned to allow room for the massive wonder machine. And the staff is forced to face what they perceive as reality…
…when they all receive pink slips on the first payday following EMERAC’S arrival thanks to an error made by the payroll version of the same computer.
When Richard Sumner arrives to see how EMERAC and the woman who cares for her are doing, he finds the research department in complete chaos. The phones are ringing off the hook and the woman who feeds the information into the computer doesn’t understand the questions being asked and cannot – therefore – input the proper information in order to get the correct responses. Meanwhile, thinking they’ve been fired, Bunny, Peg and the others stand by watching the fiasco.
Exasperated, Sumner asks Bunny and the ladies to help, but they refuse. Why should they if they’ve been fired. “Fired?” asks Sumner, “That’s not possible.” It turns out that there’s a panned merger, which will result in new hires. While this is going on, EMERAC is spitting out cards and having a tantrum, emphasizing she cannot handle the research department as smoothly or efficiently as her human counterparts. Or, at the very least, without human assistance.
In the end, the research department personnel is safely employed as all find out that the pink slips were the result of a computer error. And Bunny and Sumner embrace and kiss in front of the mother of motherboards. Humans and computers happy to coexist moving forward, if it comes to that.
Desk Set is a highly regarded film today, but original reviews from 1957 were mixed and I must confess I am partially mixed on the movie myself. While I enjoy the film immensely, I’ve had the misfortune (in this regard) of watching all of the films Tracy and Hepburn have starred in together and – for me – Desk Set doesn’t quite measure up to several of their earlier efforts. In fact this movie feels more dated than several of the films the pair made the previous decade, particularly Adam’s Rib (1949) and Woman of the Year (1942). But, that’s a comparison made by the extraordinary standards set by these two amazingly talented people. There is a lot to like about Desk Set…
For instance, the cast of supporting players is great with extra kudos going to Joan Blondell and Gig Young who are delightful. The movie is also gorgeous to look at and from what I can gather, it made a huge impact on fashion, setting trends for the workplace across the board. The film’s script is also smart and enjoyable, particularly the snappy dialogue and exchanges between Tracy and Hepburn, scenes which take everything up several notches. You just can’t beat these two together – their timing, comfort level, inflections, looks – it all translates to magic. Spencer’s naturalness and Kate’s exuberance are complementary in every sense.
In the vein of great Tracy/Hepburn scenes in the movies is the one I mentioned above that takes place during the Christmas party, my favorite in this film…
So there they are, just sitting on the floor and talking. She asks him why he’s not gotten married. He tells her he just hasn’t found the right woman and recounts the story of a beautiful woman he dated for several years, a model who could talk and write about nothing but the latest fashion and says reading her letters was torture. Just then, feeling something shifting between them, Bunny gets up to leave but Richard grabs her hand and says, “I’ll bet you write beautiful letters.” It’s as tender a moment as I’ve ever seen from Spencer. Kate pauses and looks down at him with such depth – what I call an “Oh my” moment, it’s a look that’s much more than. And they’re fascinating to watch.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that Marchant’s play didn’t include any romantic ties between the Bunny Watson and Richard Sumner characters, but screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron (Nora’s parents) added the romance in the story to capitalize on the chemistry between Tracy and Hepburn. I say, thank goodness! It is, for me, what makes this movie.
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn teamed once more on-screen, ten years after Desk Set for what would be Tracy’s last film, Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Yet another unforgettable collaboration.
This post is my entry to The Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon hosted by Margaret Perry. Margaret is the perfect person to host an event dedicated to the great Kate because she possesses superior knowledge about the legend’s life and career. In fact, if there was a research department dedicated to Kate, Margaret would be its Bunny Watson. Be sure to visit her blog to read the many entries dedicated to Hepburn this week honoring what would have been her birthday.