When William Marchant's play The Desk Set hit Broadway in 1955, it was a smash hit starring Shirley Booth. In 1957, Twentieth Century Fox released a film version starring Katharine Hepburn.
The story follows the concerns of Bunny Watson (Hepburn) and her crew of librarians in the reference department of a New York television broadcasting station. Their jobs may be replaced by a computer installed by electronics professional, Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy).
Mike Cutler (Gig Young) -Bunny's boyfriend and an executive with the same organization- might also replace Bunny -in his affections- if she mentions a desire to marry.
In the Man vs. Machine portion of this film, you'll note Sumner's all-consuming "pet" is a computer that he has named EMERAC. On the other hand, Bunny symbolizes nature and is seen with foliage -a bouquet of flowers, sitting near a Christmas tree and her "pet" is a philodendron. Bunny cracks that to keep her job, maybe she should dump all the plant food in and head the vine towards EMERAC.
Despite her warmth, she is a cold foe to this computer. "They can't build a machine that can do our work," Bunny explains confidently, "there are too many cross references in this place.... I'll match my memory against any machine's..."
In the romance department, however, our heroine is not so confident. Bunny does the work and Mike takes the bows. A lady of a certain age who fears matrimony has passed her by, Bunny is fine with this arrangement, as long as she won't be alone. Professional and social themes of gender tension lie about, subtly, as everyone accepts these arrangements as life's inevitabilities.
However, Bunny cannot hide her disappointment time and again when Cutler skips out on their dates or is not interested in anything important to his girlfriend. You'll see him embrace her after an argument but he still doesn't understand her; Bunny stands as limp as rag doll. Perhaps the presence of another man in the office - Richard- can put the fire under Mike.
The setting for this comedy is New York City. In films, the Big Apple is often presented as an impressive, but impersonal, giant. Because the camera rarely goes outside of the office (a remnant of the one-set play), New York feels almost cozy as we follow along with the concerns of Bunny and her fellow workers.
In any case, this is a great urban comedy about the encroachment of technology, the issues of dating above a certain age and the social challenges of a working lady who excels at some level beyond her boyfriend.
Watch for a comic performance by Joan Blondell as Bunny's sidekick. Desk Set is highly recommended.
- Desk Set is one of our 25 Christmas/Winter Movies
- Read the Desk Set review at The Great Katharine Hepburn Website