Desk Set (1957)

Directed by Walter Lang


Desk Set felt like a somewhat lazy film.  It’s one of those old films that I feel like I should appreciate because… it’s more of a museum piece or a symbol of the times.  If anything, it’s a Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn film, and from what I can tell, they were like the Brad and Angelina of the time.  Other than The African Queen, I’m not overly familiar with Hepburn’s career, but I do know that they both appeared in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1968), and they were basically the selling point to attract a big enough audience which, at the time, was probably not too welcoming of the idea of an interracial marriage presented onscreen.

So this film is important, on some level.  It’s a sign of what and who attracted audiences at the time.  This film is also about the move towards more computer automatization, which is an important turning point in our history (whenever that “point” was).  Hidden Figures has a similar plot in which an entire department is put at risk when their jobs seem eligible to be replaced by the coming computer revolution.

In Desk Set, a film which seems to take place on no more than three sets (each sequence feels like one long scene), Tracy plays Richard Sumner, a man who comes into a large corporation to help install the super computers which he himself designed.  The head of the reference department, Bunny Watson (Hepburn), is a woman with a photographic memory, and her department is what the computer risks making obsolete.  At the start of the film, when someone needs any kind of information at all, they phone the reference department, and each of the four women who works there seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of just about everything, from Ty Cobb’s lifetime batting average to the lyrics of any and all Christmas songs.

The conflict, of course, becomes when Richard and Bunny begin to fall in love, and Richard withholds the truth as to why he’s really there.  At the same time, Bunny fawns over Mike Cutler (Gig Young), the man she hopes to marry but who only swings by when convenient for him.  He’s very much and very obviously set up as the guy who she will have to kick to the side of the road when Richard presents himself as a much more appealing, alternative love interest.

There is an argument to be made for why there needs to be a love interest at all.  Bunny is a bold, intelligent character who has made it this far in life, and her ultimate choice ends up being nothing more than which man to marry.  But this also feels like an obligation for the film, something in an unwritten rule book for what audiences look to going into a picture.

I had some frustrations about the plot turns at the end of Desk Set.  First, everyone gets a pink slip, meaning they’ve been fired, and it confirms the characters’ (and our) suspicions, about the computerization of records making their jobs obsolete.  And in a funny moment, when Richard finds out they’ve been fired, he calls the president of the company who says that he too has received a pink slip.  Richard’s computer, down in payroll, made a mistake and fired the whole company.  It’s a nice gag, but it’s the first in a series of moments that all could have been cleared up due to a little communication.

Bunny finally confronts Richard about the computer, saying that she and her department are frustrated because he put them out of work.  But, Richard clarifies, the computer is only meant to make their jobs easier, not to replace them.  They shrug it off, and everything is fine.

Then Cutler presents his case to Bunny, asking to marry her now that he’s gotten his sought-after promotion, but Richard pulls her aside and makes it clear that he’s the one who should marry her.

It’s a nice, pleasant film, with little in the way of consequence.  The best part of the film is the comically large nature of the computer, which looks very much like something out of The Jetsons, or really any kind of depiction of computers of the future from the 1950s or 60s.  While the computer was likely made bigger and louder for comical effect (when it goes berzerk, it basically screams and sprays paper, like a giant baby having a tantrum), it does seem to be a representation of what people at the time thought computers and future technology would look like.

The computer is loud, taking up most of the reference department, and it dominates their space.  It’s impossible to ignore, it’s loud, and it’s obnoxious.  While before the department felt like a library, now it’s a laboratory, and even if it is a happy ending, Bunny’s job will now feature a lot more mechanical babysitting, and there has to be the impression that the computer will slowly melt her brain, drive her insane and ruin her marriage to Richard.

Maybe not quite that, actually, but the computer is sooooo large that I want to think the director was saying something beyond the happy ending.  Perhaps it’s an indictment of technology.  After all, we see Bunny and her fellow reference department employees spit out not only accurate, obscure facts, but they do it as fast as any computer could.  And then when the computer is actually put to use, it takes longer than we’ve seen the humans take.  Or maybe Bunny and her employees are just superheroes.

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