Desk Set (1957) Walter Lang

“Desk Set” is not the best Tracy and Hepburn comedy. For that, you would have check out superior films like, “Adam’s Rib” or “Woman of the Year.”  Then again, it’s not the worst either, I personally reserve that position for the preachy, badly directed, annoyingly written but crowd pleasing, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”  “Desk Set” is a charming piece thanks mostly to its charismatic beloved two stars. The film is also a look back at a time when computers, first entering the workplace, were so huge they required special rooms with specific climatic conditions, today all that computer power is compacted into a laptop that you can carry anywhere. It was also a time when smoking in the office place was common and a no smoking sign was one of those special conditions reserved for the new computer room.  The film is also a reflection on how office politics has changed. Women were mostly regulated to secretarial jobs, or if they were in a supervisor position, like Hepburn, it was in a backroom reference library type position. Finally, there is the Christmas party, the kind filled with champagne overflowing with every bottle that is popped!

The story takes place mostly in the reference library of the Federal Broadcasting System, a television station. An exterior shot shows we are in New York and the location is 30 Rockefeller Center, the real life home of NBC. Tracy is Richard Sumner, an efficiency expert, read consultant or a “methods engineer,” as he calls himself. He is busy snooping around the office, not revealing to anyone, what his real purpose is; preparing for the implementation of a computer known as EMMARAC (Electromagnetic and Research Arithmetical Calculator), aka Miss Emmy, into the workplace. Not even the reference room’s supervisor, Bunny Watson (Katherine Hepburn) knows what he is up too.  But it does soon become apparent to Bunny and her staff of women, which includes Joan Blondell and Dina Merrill, that Sumner is here to automate the office, and as anyone who has worked in an office knows, that means jobs are going to be lost. Sumner is a bit arrogant but he meets his match in the intelligence department with Bunny. She’s quick, personable and more than a perfect match for the “methods engineer.”

Bunny has been dating Mike Cutler (Gig Young), an up and coming executive at the company. She has been waiting for a marriage proposal from him for seven years now. Meanwhile, she and Sumner develop a friendly peace that is slowly turning into something more like love leaving boyfriend, Cutler hanging in the wind. The women of the back office also prove to be more efficient than the big bad ass computer. We also find out, Sumner and the company officials are not looking to fire anyone. The computer has been implemented, not to reduce jobs and payroll, but to free these employees up to do more important work. Right! That’s what companies do all the time, implement new faster, more powerful expensive programs, systems, etc. so they can free up their staff to do more important work… like how to collect unemployment.

That all said, “Desk Set,” is a delightful piece of fluff thanks to Tracy and Hepburn who retained the same skillful comedic timing they displayed in “Pat and Mike,”  “Adam’s Rib” and “Woman of the Year” in years past.  Hepburn is particularly charming as Bunny, a woman with a brain so quick that even today she would make a desktop quiver in fear.  Joan Blondell is perfect as Peg, one of Hepburn’s staff and spunky best friend. Blondell’s down to earth character is a nice contrast to Hepburn’s more intellectual Bunny Watson. Gig Young, playing Mike Cutler, is his usual overly charming playboy second banana, and a young and attractive Dina Merrill as another of Bunny’s staff.  Mention should also be made of Neva Patterson who brings an edgy comedic tension in her role as Miss Warriner, EMMARAC’S overly protective operator.

The film’s representation of a computer’s ability is both silly, the use of a hairpin to fix a glitch, and innovative, typing in a question and the computer spitting out an answer. The film also reflects, as we all know, a computer’s response is only as good as the original data input (garbage in/garbage out).

Based on a play by William Marchant with a screen adaption by the husband and wife team of Henry and Phoebe Ephron, (parents of Nora and Delia), “Desk Set” was, at the time, considered a contemporary comedy, running on Broadway for close to year totaling 297 performances. Shirley Booth was the star playing Bunny Watson. Many in the play’s original cast would become better known in later years including Lou Gossett who played the mail boy. Also in the play were Joyce Van Patton, Doris Roberts and Elizabeth Wilson. Producer and Screenwriter Charles Brackett had purchased the screen rights and gave Henry Ephron a copy of the play to read. Both Ephron’s read the play, loved it and agreed to write a screenplay with Henry also producing.

Kate Hepburn had just finishing filming “The Rainmaker” and was looking for something light and also wanted to work with Tracy again. Spencer was finishing up a very tough shoot making “The Old Man and the Sea.” The hours spent in a studio water tank being beaten up by the artificial waves was taking its toll on him. Kate also liked the idea of working with Tracy again so she could keep an eye on his drinking. The Ephrons, from the beginning, wanted Tracy and Hepburn for the roles of Richard Sumner and Bunny Watson, even restructuring the play, enlarging Tracy’s part.

While the basic concept of the film remains the same as the play, the romance between Bunny and Richard did not exist in the play.  The play ends with Mike Cutler proposing to Bunny over a Dictaphone machine as opposed to his realization at the end of the film that he has lost Bunny. Richard Sumner was a much younger man in the play, as well as the nephew of company’s senior officer, Mr. Azale. To fit Tracy, who was fifty-seven at the time, and looked even older, his character was changed, still a “methods engineer” but a newly hired employee. The entire romance between Bunny and Sumner, the scenes in her apartment were all new. There were some notable changes in dialogue eliminating references to the still recent blacklist and some suggestive sexual remarks.

The movie was a moderate success financially and with critics but certainly had to push some button with white collar workers of the day who would come face to face for the first time with a threat to their job security due to a machine. For young workers today it may be unimaginable to think what the work place was like and the threat and skepticism computers were met with at the time.

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17 comments on “Desk Set (1957) Walter Lang

  1. KimWilson says:

    Cute film, but not all that memorable. As for computers in the workplace, older people who avoid embracing them often find themselves pushed into early retirement. I used to teach middle school, and when I first went to work 95% of the teachers (all over the age of 45) didn’t want to use email or SmartBoards–the same people who were supposed to be promoting educational advancement. It was not a pretty sight!

    • R. D. Finch says:

      Kim, I also encountered this when I worked in education when computers were just beginning to be used in teaching, and I too considered those people dinosaurs. Then I found that they had all jumped on the computer bandwagon in the early days and taken computer courses together–where attempts were made to teach computer programming to English teachers! When more user-friendly and WYSIWYG programs were developed, they resisted because of their bad previous experiences. It took a long time for them to accept the uses of computers in education. The clerical support staff adapted long before the instructors.

      • John Greco says:

        i remember those days too. Some people are/were just afraid of change and cannot or refuse to adapt. in the end, they just get left behind.

  2. R. D. Finch says:

    John, you just about summed up this film when you called it “a delightful piece of fluff thanks to Tracy and Hepburn.” I’d agree exactly with your placement of it in the nine films Tracy and Hepburn made together–about in the middle, with “Adam’s Rib” and “Woman of the Year” and for me “Pat and Mike” at the top, and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” along with “Keeper of the Flame” at the bottom. I found your discussion of the differences between the play and the movie most interesting, because the things that were changed or added for the film were what I liked best about it! I especially like the wonderful Joan Blondell as Kate’s confidante. It was good to see her in a role that made use of her comedic skills in a dignified way. I could have used even more of her.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks, R.D.

      Blondell is always a treat and she is a delight here in this film. We seem to be in agreement with the hierarchy of the Tracy/Hepburn films, though I still need to see “Keeper of the Flame.” The first three films you mention are pure delights. It is amazing how many people love “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” despite how bad it is.

      • Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve always enjoyed “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. You should review it next, explaining why you think it isn’t very good.

      • John Greco says:

        Hi Peter,

        I never bought into the characters. They all seemed like caricatures, the rich white liberal couple who have their values tested. Poitier’s character, (a prominent Doctor, so rich, so handsome, so perfect, how could they object? My question is what was it about Katherine Houghton’s character that intrigued him so? She certainly was not intellectually on the same level as he was. And if I remember correctly, it’s the two fathers both who object to the interracial marriage.
        It’s very stereotypical, very lightweight on a serious topic; then again as I think about it now, back in 1967 that was probably the only way one could make a movie about such a sensitive subject and have it accepted by a large percentage of the population.

        Maybe, I should give Stanley Kramer more credit for at least getting this kind of story out there to the masses and maybe I should give it another look.

  3. Nice take on “Desk Set.” Not the most memorable of the Hepburn/Tracy films but certainly easy to watch and enjoy. Let’s talk “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” someday — perhaps a conversation that could go on our blogs under my “Take Two” heading.

    • John Greco says:

      Agree CFB, it middle of the road but enjoyable. The GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER “talk” is interesting but I would first have to watch it again.

  4. Judy says:

    Great piece, John – I’m another fan of the Tracy/Hepburn movies, and I really enjoyed all the background info you have put together. Very interesting to learn which scenes were added from the original play and how the part played by Tracy was adapted to fit him. I also agree with you about the fears over the computer striking a chord with workers in many fields – it certainly does with me, as I work in newspapers, where computers have brought massive changes and many jobs have gone over the years.

    I think my favourite Tracy/Hepburn movie is ‘Adam’s Rib’, but I also really like ‘Sea of Grass’ and ‘Without Love’ – must agree with R.D. that ‘Keeper of the Flame’ isn’t much good. I agree with you that there are a lot of problems with ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’, though I still think it is worth seeing for Tracy, Hepburn and Poitier working together and there are some good bits, often the scenes which don’t have much to do with the main story, like Tracy trying to remember the ice cream flavour he had last time.

  5. Sam Juliano says:

    Yes a delioghtful piece of fluff is indeed the most sensibly way to appraise this one, and as John notes it’s in the middle range of the Tracy-Hepburn collaborations. I can take GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER a bit more than you John, but I’ve long known the less-than-favorable position on it’s racial shtick. For me it’s a guilty pleasure, but one I have had fond memories of. In any case I couldn’t agree with you more as to the laughable computer “insights.” This is what ultimately reduces the film to camp and prevents it from being taken seriously in any way. Yes ADAM’S RIB is way superior (as are others you mention) but Tracy and Hepburn never fail to deliver the goods.

    I do recall Leon Shamroy’s widescreen color cinematography as a striking asset, and Cyril Mockridge’s score is quite good.

    Again you hit the mark here John, most engagingly.

  6. The Lady Eve says:

    I’ve always enjoyed “Desk Set” – definitely a bit of ‘fluff’, but fun fluff due to the presence of Tracy & Hepburn, its ’50s office setting and, of course, the computer angle.

    You and I are on exactly the same page regarding “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” Well-intentioned, of course, but such a cliche (and Katharine Hepburn’s niece was no actress…).

    Great back story detail, by the way. I can imagine why Tracy needed something less grueling after “The Old Man and the Sea.” That had to be a very odd filming experience.

    • John Greco says:

      Eve, – It is enjoyable for sure.A film can be lightweight and not great and still be enjoyable, in this case, as you point out, due to Tracy and Hepburn and I will add in Joan Blondell.

      Yeah,”Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was old fashion even back in 1967. in a way it was a gimmick film having Poitier in the film, and he is so damn perfect, that was part of the problem too. They just could not have made him more of a regular guy. He had to be a superman.

  7. Joe says:

    John! I come to this belatedly. I always found “Desk Set” to be most companionable and more than a little underrated. Also, for me, it’s the most modern of the Hepburn-Tracy collaborations. (Full disclosure: I’m not exactly a Hepburn-Tracy fan; blasphemy, I know!) Frankly, I’ve secretly hoped that Nora Ephron would tackle and remake her parents’ script; at one time, I thought it would be perfect for Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins – when they were still together. Anyway, it’s one of my “compulsively watchable” films.

    • John Greco says:

      Joe,

      It’s certainly a fun film and certainly for me a film I could multiple times. Then again, I can say the say thing about WOMAN OF THE YEAR and ADAM’S RIB. As I mention in the review, I am no fan of GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER, a film that many seem to love. I love the way DESK SET forsees the work place of the future. In that respect it was ahead of its time. I like the idea of Nora Ephron tackling her parents’ script. Thanks for adding you thoughts here Joe!

      • Joe says:

        John! I’ve a huge aversion to “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” which I find way too slick, shallow and facile, especially given its subject matter. It’s Kramer’s least effective film and I say that not as a typical Kramer-basher but as someone who constantly defends him against the bashers. (“Mad World” runs a close second to “Dinner” for awfulness.) Also by the time “Dinner” was released, I found it painful to watch Hepburn, who was always too mannered for my taste anyway. Tracy, on the other hand, improved with age – particularly in Kramer’s “Inherit the Wind.”

      • John Greco says:

        Joe,

        I feel the same way about GUESS WHO’s COMING TO DINNER. It seemed like it was trying too hard to be relevant even back in the 60’s (“slick and shallow” are excellent descriptions). MAD WORLD is another film that tried too hard, in this case, to be funny, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. R.P.M. is another. However, I am a big fan of INHERIT THE WIND, THE DEFIANT ONES and JUDGEMENT A NUREMBERG. He really did seem to lose touch with the audience, particularly the youth audience of the day during the late part of his directing career.

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