Desk Set (1957) starring Spencer Tracy: Movie Review

Desk Set is not the best Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn comedy. For that, you would have to check out superior films like, say, Adam’s Rib or Woman of the Year. Then again, it’s not the worst either.

Desk Set is a charming piece thanks mostly to its charismatic beloved two stars. The 1957 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 officeplace 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 network. 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 that 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 her 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-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 a year with 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 Patten, 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 Ephrons 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, and the hours spent in a studio water tank being beaten up by artificial waves had taken a 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 and Bunny, even restructuring the play to enlarge Tracy’s role.

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 her. 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 57 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, as well as 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 workplace was like and the threat and skepticism computers were met with at the time.

John Greco has had a life-long fascination with cinema and photography. Raised in New York City, he is now living in Florida. For more information, visit Twenty Four Frames.