The Umpteenth Blogathon- “Desk Set” (1957)

One of the hallmarks of a classic film (regardless of age) is its rewatchability factor. There are plenty of good films, but if it’s not something that I’d ever watch again, it’d be hard for me to consider it a “classic.” I have plenty of films in my collection that many people would not consider classics, or even good movies, but if I love them, then that’s all that matters and they’re “classics” to me. With that said, for this blogathon, we were asked to write about a film that we’ve seen an umpeenth amount of times. This is a film that we’ll watch no matter how many times we’ve seen it. We’ll watch it when it’s on TV, even if we own the DVD. This is a film that never gets old no matter how many times we’ve seen it.

My collection is made up of tons of films that I’ve seen a million times. What’s the point in developing a collection of films if you’re only going to watch them once? One of my films that I never tire of watching is Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s penultimate screen pairing, Desk Set. Hepburn and Tracy made a total of nine films together. Their first film, Woman of the Year, or their last, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner might have more name recognition, but for my money, Desk Set is their best and my personal favorite.

Left to Right: Katharine Hepburn, Joan Blondell, Sue Randall, and Dina Merrill in “Desk Set.”

I’ve seen Desk Set multiple times. It’s always one of my go-to Christmas films, due solely to the wild Christmas party featured in the film. This past Christmas season, I watched this film two days in a row. Desk Set has always been one of my favorite films, but up until recently, I’d always wondered about the title. What was a “desk set” ? And how does this title relate to the film? Well I finally looked up “desk set,” and unfortunately, the answer was anticlimactic. A “desk set” is literally a desk. So that answer was pretty boring and I decided that the title was meant to describe office life.

SYLVIA (answering a question over the phone): Reference department, Miss Blair. Oh yes, we’ve looked that up for you, and there are certain poisons which leave no trace, but it’s network policy not to mention them on our programs.

Dina Merrill as “Sylvia Blair” in “Desk Set” (1957)

In Desk Set, Hepburn stars as Bunny Watson, the head librarian in the reference library at the Federal Broadcasting Network (FBN) in Manhattan. The reference library is basically a manual version of the internet, where anyone can call in and request any sort of information, from baseball statistics, to bible passages, to entire poems. No question is too big or too small for the reference library. Also working in the library is Bunny’s best friend, Peg Costello (Joan Blondell), Sylvia Blair (Dina Merrill), and newbie Ruthie Saylor (Sue Randall aka Miss Landers from “Leave it to Beaver”). The women have a camaraderie and work well together. Bunny is also dating Mike Cutler (Gig Young), an executive at the network, but they’ve been dating for over seven years and the relationship is seemingly going nowhere.

(BUNNY is getting ready to meet MIKE)
BUNNY: How do I look?
PEG: Too good for him

Katharine Hepburn as “Bunny Watson” and Joan Blondell as “Peg Costello” in “Desk Set” (1957)
Bunny and the dull Mike Cutler. I love her dress, but Mike has got to go!

One day, a methods engineer and efficiency expert, Richard Sumner (Tracy) comes to visit the employees at the FBN. He is the inventor of the Electromagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator, or EMERAC for short. EMERAC is one of my favorite things in movies, the large 1950s computer that fills up an entire room, has a lot of lights and sound effects, and shoots out pieces of paper. The head of FBN wants to possibly purchase an EMERAC and install it in the research library to help the librarians. However, as these things often go, rumors spread that Sumner is actually looking to replace the librarians with EMERAC and save FBN money over the long term.

RUTHIE: What do you suppose he’s (Richard) doing all that measuring for? Do you think we’re being redecorated?
SYLVIA: Does he look like an interior decorator to you?
PEG: No! He looks like one of those men who’s just suddenly switched to vodka!

Sue Randall as “Ruthie Saylor,” Dina Merrill as “Sylvia Blair,” and Joan Blondell as “Peg Costello” in “Desk Set” (1957)

At the same time, since this is a Hepburn/Tracy film, we anticipate Gig Young getting out of the picture so that they can be together. This happens when Bunny and Richard find themselves bonding over sandwiches in the cold, frigid air. Bunny impresses Richard with her ability to recall facts and use logic and previous experiences to solve the riddles he tries to stump her with. Later, the two are caught in a rainstorm and Bunny invites Richard to her home to dry off and warm up. One of my favorite parts of this scene is when Bunny, needing to find something for Richard to wear while his clothes dry, offers him one of Mike’s Christmas presents–a bathrobe with an “MC” monogram. Both Peg and Mike show up and are surprised to see Richard. They’ve even more surprised to see Richard in a bathrobe with Mike’s monogram. Oops.

BUNNY: I’ve read every New York newspaper backward and forward for the past 15 years. I don’t smoke. I only drink champagne when I’m lucky enough to get it, my hair is naturally natural, I live alone–and so do you.
RICHARD: How do you know that?
BUNNY: Because you’re wearing one brown sock and one black sock.

Katharine Hepburn as “Bunny Watson” and Spencer Tracy as “Richard Sumner” in “Desk Set” (1957)
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in “Desk Set.”

Later, the employees at FBN have the greatest Christmas party. It ranks up there with the Christmas party in The Apartment. This party is absurd and could only happen in the 1950s when it was not only allowed, but encouraged to be drinking alcohol while at work. The champagne is seemingly flowing out of a faucet as the women in the reference library float around from department to department drinking and carousing. Obviously, no actual work gets done at FBN on Christmas Party Day. Poor Ruthie says, “But I don’t want to drink in the middle of the day!” but her pleas fall on deaf ears. It is at the Christmas party when Mike drops the bombshell that he and Bunny are moving to California and are going to marry. This is news to Bunny as Mike didn’t even formally propose to her. Bunny has to break it to Mike that she doesn’t want to move, and they end up breaking up–FINALLY.

BUNNY: Have some tequila, Peg
PEG: I don’t think I should. There are 85 calories in a glass of champagne.
BUNNY: I have a little place in my neighborhood where I can get it for 65.

Katharine Hepburn as “Bunny Watson” and Joan Blondell as “Peg Costello” in “Desk Set” (1957)
The reference librarians attend the best work Christmas party

A few weeks later, EMERAC is delivered and put to work. Sumner’s prissy assistant, Miss Warringer, is there to demonstrate EMERAC. The women in the reference library have seemingly been compiling data on punch-cards to feed into the machine. Then payday arrives and the reference librarians expect the worst–pink slips. Unfortunately, their worst fears are confirmed when each woman pulls a pink slip out of their envelope. Then Sumner arrives to demonstrate EMERAC. Then the phone starts ringing off the hook with all kinds of crazy questions. The women in the reference library refuse to help due to their recent firing. Miss Warringer is forced to take the calls and the reference librarians look on in amusement as she struggles to even take the calls, let alone actually finding the answer.

BUNNY: Really, you girls kill me. I was here until ten o’clock last night and this morning at 9, I had to go to IBM to see a demonstration of the new electronic brain.

Katharine Hepburn as “Bunny Watson” in “Desk Set” (1957)

Miss Warringer enters the wrong information into EMERAC and is unable to answer the question correctly. The reference librarians use their resources in the stacks to find the correct answer. This routine continues a few more moments with each successive question, with Miss Warringer getting more frustrated by the minute. EMERAC eventually malfunctions and starts going crazy just as Bunny starts reciting the “Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight” poem to mock Miss Warringer’s misspelling of the name of the island of “Corfu.” Miss Warringer, knowing that she’s being made fun of, storms out in disgust.

EMERAC loses its mind

Sumner understandably wants to know why the reference librarians are being so rude to Miss Warringer and he learns of their firing. Then it comes out that an EMERAC was also installed in payroll, and that machine also went insane and issued pink slips to everyone in the building, including the president! Sumner then clears up the misunderstanding (which probably could have been cleared up a hour ago, but then we wouldn’t have a movie) and explains that EMERAC is only meant to assist, not replace. The women are relieved and Sumner then asks EMERAC if he should marry Bunny. Well duh, he designed the machine and it’s a Hepburn/Tracy film, so you can imagine the answer.

RICHARD (to BUNNY): Something about the way you wear that pencil in your hair spells money.

Spencer Tracy as “Richard Sumner” in “Desk Set” (1957)

The film ends with the FBN reference library intact and Bunny and Sumner are engaged.

I love this movie. I love the scenes of EMERAC. The big computers are always so much fun to watch (see Touch of Mink, 1962). I love poor Miss Warringer’s big tantrum. I love the scenes of Hepburn and Blondell together. Blondell always makes every film better. Hepburn and Tracy were charming together. I loved Hepburn’s wardrobe and her fabulous apartment. This entire film is so much fun to watch and it’s enjoyable to see a career woman actually succeeding in her career, wanting to keep her career, and finding a partner who finds her intelligence exciting and isn’t intimidated. Sumner finds Bunny’s encyclopedic knowledge a turn-on versus Mike who seemingly doesn’t think much of Bunny’s job if he thinks that she’s willing to follow him to the West Coast with no notice. I imagine that after this film, Sumner and Bunny marry, they’re happy, and together they make the reference library better and better.

Bunny hilariously mocks EMERAC

Despite being over sixty years old, Desk Set still feels modern. People are still worried about being replaced by machines and sadly, in many instances, their fears are well-founded. However, no amount of artificial intelligence will ever replace a person’s unique set of experiences, knowledge, and skill sets. Were FBN a real company that was still around today, I’m sure that the reference library would have long since been phased out once the internet became more accessible. However, I could see the reference librarians moving into the roles of fact checking, as those types of roles are always needed by television, movies, news outlets, etc. etc.

What grown woman, especially a woman like Bunny, would want a giant Bunny for Christmas? And, why would a woman named Bunny, want a Bunny stuffed animal? She probably gets bunny stuffed animals all the time! Come on Mike! No wonder she broke up with you.

9 thoughts on “The Umpteenth Blogathon- “Desk Set” (1957)

  1. Of all their pairings, this is the only Tracy & Hepburn film I have not seen in its entirety. Let me give this a read and see what I’ve been missing. Thank you for joining me here at the blogathon. I appreciate you joining in! 🙂

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  2. it’s funny how some movies just give us comfort and joy. I can feel the love you have for this bunch just pouring off the page! Oh, and I love that you state Joan Blondell makes every film better just by being there – I could not agree more.

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  3. I’m so with you, this and Pat and Mike are my favorite Hepburn/Tracy pairings, much better imo than the better known ones.

    Wondered why, and for me it’s that in the others, Hepburn’s character is often taken down a peg (Woman of the Year, Adam’s Rib), and Tracy’s is clearly the better person, and just somehow…right. Whereas in Desk Set and in Pat and Mike, as you say, it’s a real partnership, each supporting and grooving on the other, and that’s so rare and so satisfying.

    Thanks for sharing your love of this movie with us, I really enjoyed it!

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  4. Stephanie Kreps

    As both a Tracy/Hepburn fan and someone who’s been a librarian, I’ve always loved this one, too, and watched over and over. You are right about the dialog. I’d forgotten that the Ephrons had written it. What they wrote for Bunny, about champagne’s 85 calories, “I have a little place in my neighborhood where I can get it for 65,” is so funny and so New York. I think it was Rita Wilson in a TCM film fest event on daughter Nora Ephron who described Nora’s strong opinions on where to get the best of everything in NYC. “Boo boop a doop to you!” and “Mexington Ave” are genius. Thanks for this!

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  5. For some reason, it look me a long time to see this film, but I fell in love with it when I saw it. I love the relationship the women have, and I love that they’re portrayed as smart, competent people. Fab choice for the blogathon!

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