Desk Set (1957)
I’m slowly working my way through the films Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn made together. It’s going slowly because I’m finding the movies in various places because I lack the money to buy the Tracy/Hepburn box set! I’ve seen Adam’s Rib and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner previously, both of them at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of the actors lives and careers. They’re also where the bar is set in terms of future quality. Desk Set is an odd little entry into the Tracy/Hepburn collection in that it’s highly eclectic, almost quirky. It’s not as tight in the plot department as the two films above, nor does it seem to have the humor or the romance between the leads. The plot and script seem loose, almost like this was a slump in the oeuvre of the stars. It’s an adequate film but not the shining and humorous romantic comedy I’d come to expect.
Richard Sumner (Tracy) is an efficiency expert hanging around the research department a television network. His job is to see how the women running the department would fare with an “electronic brain” (1950s term for computer). Of course the women, led by head researcher Bunny Watson (Hepburn) believe they’re about to be fired. As Richard and Bunny become closer the two must juggle their jobs with their romance.
In all honesty I’ve been attempting to write this review for three days (right after I saw the film) and I just couldn’t do it. I have a hard time describing my problems with this movie, it just felt weird. The humor’s incredibly dry with the characters seemingly laughing at their own jokes, the plot is thin and yet scattered at the same time involving at least three different plots, and the romance between Tracy and Hepburn doesn’t feel genuine. It feels like the screenwriters remembered the duo had to be together at the end and tacked something on there. I’ve read that this is a great representation of what it’s like to work in an office and if that’s the case no wonder I don’t get it…I’ve never worked in an office (I guess that’s why I didn’t connect with Office Space).
On to the movie itself. Before we meet our leads we’re introduced to the three other reference ladies who act as the comic relief/Greek chorus who know all the back story and fill in the audience. Each character is fun in their own way and we learn all about them via how they answer the telephones. My personal favorite has to be Joan Blondell as Peg Costello. She’s the sassy smart aleck, the “baseball expert,” and the woman who looks up the references to quirky questions we all want to know about. The first question she’s meant to research is whether Eskimos really rub noses (do they?). As all this is going on Richard Sumner arrives, has a conversation with the head of the building and goes down to research.
Bunny Watson is by far the smartest character Katherine Hepburn has ever played (that I’ve seen). It’s never mentioned but either Bunny reads A LOT, works A LOT, or is a certified genius. I’m inclined to believe she’s the last option. She has instant recall of any magazine article, book passage, and can answer questions lightening fast and she possess the ability associate words and numbers with things in her life. She answers the phone and is able to quote extended passages from Longfellow and can look at a memo and know instantly where to find the answer. Bunny is practically a female Sherlock Holmes! Hepburn’s clipped cadence already evokes an intelligent image but having her able to instantly conjure up facts enhances said image all the more. Along with that she also has the more complex relationship of the film (compared to Richard who has one scene discussing his past and that’s it…even then it comes more towards the end of the film).
Bunny is in love with Mike Cutler (Gig Young), her boss. Compared to other romantic comedies where Bunny would be blind to Mike’s asinine behavior, she’s painfully aware of it and just rationalizes it. Peg perfectly sums up their relationship by telling Bunny she’s the “old coat” in his closet, always there when he decides to use it to which Bunny painfully responds that if she left “he’d just find himself a new coat.” Young isn’t quite the heartless jerk you’d expect but he’s definitely not the right man for Bunny. He too knows about Bunny’s feelings towards him and sadly Bunny isn’t able to pretend she’s mysterious or unavailable for him. When he asks her out to a dance she knows the answers ahead of time because she’s been waiting for him to ask her to just such an occasion. Bunny is such a dejected character and you feel so bad that she’s put herself in this relationship. I almost wished the film had been a solo Hepburn vehicle to explore their relationship, specifically the power-struggle of the employer-employee romance.
Instead we have the introduction to Richard. I’ve jumped through quite a bit of story and yet it takes 15 minutes to actually tell the audience who the hell Richard is and what he’s doing! If it takes that long to tell the point of a character, it seems to indicate the screenwriter doesn’t know what the point is either! He’s there to see how the research department would operate with a computer (I love how they call it an “electronic brain” like something from Lost in Space). Either way the discussion about why Richard’s there is almost a throwaway moment and we’re shoved right into the romance between Richard and Bunny.
Through a series of misadventures the two end up soaked from the rain and stuck in Bunny’s apartment. Of course Mike ends up there as well and believes something untoward is going on. Mike is a total dick in this scene (I try to avoid dropping callous curses but it applies here!). When he first arrives he casually says he doesn’t expect anyone to be visiting Bunny”I assumed no one would be here”…because she’s a total spinster with no friends I guess. Once Mike sees Richard though he attacks Bunny and implies she’s a slut! Wow, way to show how far relationships have come! Richard handles things like a pro though telling Mike curtly that he probably should have called. Bunny handles things as appropriately as I would have, by elegantly telling Mike he‘s a dick, “I have a constant stream of men going in and out of here!”
Once the electronic brain is set to be installed the women in the research department assume their all fired. Thankfully they’re not fired, they’re just meant to be minions to the brain. The office turns from a place of frivolity and community to enforcing strict rules including no smoking, shutting doors, etc. By this point the movie is almost over and it’s here where I said, “for a film called ‘Desk Set‘ I’d assumed it was about journalism or something where a desk played a crucial role!” The technology angle of the second half feels cold, sterile, and out-of-place with the rest of the plot. I know part of that is intentional, at least in showing the division of technology with manual labor but once you add the romance it becomes a game of shoving a round plot into a square movie!
The last few minutes of Desk Set are by far the funniest. The computer comes with a handler known as Ms. Warriner (Neva Patterson). She of course has no idea how to answer the phones, or run the research department; she merely runs the computer. It ultimately shows that newer employees who are trained in fancy electronics (the easy way out) don’t hold the knowledge or interest of those who have paid their dues or genuinely love the work. When the computer starts malfunction Ms. Warriner’s meltdown is hysterical and included above for your enjoyment. I think I’ve had similar meltdowns with computers but as she leaves and her screams become gibberish ending with “And I don’t care!” It’s amazing and a scene-stealing performance from Patterson.
In the end Hepburn and Tracy end up together and I just didn’t believe it. In Adam’s Rib and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner the relationship between them is already established and feels organic, like they’ve been in love forever. Here the love feels like one of obligation; again like they’re coming together because it’s the end of the movie. Tracy also doesn’t seem compelling in this role. Sumner is such a cold, curt character that I never saw that inner warmth compared to his turns as similar curmudgeons. I do recommend Desk Set just to round out the Tracy/Hepburn canon of films, but it’s not nearly as good as the other two films above.
Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
This is by far my favorite of the Hepburn/Tracy film cycle and I wrote my undergraduate thesis about it, so I’m sorry you didn’t like it. I find that it really shows off the intellectual angle of Hepburn’s persona (which you did point out) and I find it immensely funny – quirky, like you said. I also think that it is a heartwarming Christmas story because the relationship between the women in the department is really at the center of the film, rather than the romantic relationship. And I think that the relationship between Sumner and Bunny is made plausible by the alternative as represented by Mike Cutler, who is CLEARLY not the right man for her.Audiences of the time would have had an intuitive assumption that the Hepburn and Tracy characters should be together, so the film didn’t need to be overly heavy-handed in that romance. I believe you’ve read my post about “Communities of Women” and in the last paragraph I mention DESK SET. One of these days I’ll get around to writing a full post about this movie in particular, and maybe I’ll be able to change your mind! Thank you for your post!
I’m all for having my mind changed. I just think I found Hepburn a more rounded and complete character than Tracy.
Yes, well that’s definitely true. This is definitely a film about the group of women, not about the romance.
I work in the computer industry so it was amusing (in a silly way) for how the computerization was presented in the film, even for the time the movie was made. I’m pretty much used to it, though. The point of the scenes were to reassure audiences that humans were far better at doing things than computers (hence the inevitable failure scene). The truth is – computers only do what humans tell them to do. It’s just that humans are often not clear on what they want themselves or how to go about getting it.
The computer sequences were hilarious to say the least. And while computers are controlled by humans I think a few too many sci-fi movies are alluding that computers could totally raise up on us someday lol.
Must say I really liked this film and thought Tracy and Hepburn were very warm together – the office atmosphere rings true to me (I’ve worked in one for years) and I love the scenes with that huge early computer and the eerie way it foretells the internet by answering questions. Sorry you didn’t enjoy it so much but I still enjoyed your piece.
I loved the computer sequence at the end! Glad to know I still kept you reading despite my overall thoughts on the film lol.