Desk Set (1957)

Filmed in truly glorious Technicolor, this is probably the lightest of the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn movies I’ve seen so far. ( I only have a couple of the ones they made together still to go.) This time there’s no real sense of conflict – although obviously the romantic comedy plot brings up its share of misunderstandings but more of friendship and shared humour, and sheer enjoyment of each other’s little eccentricities.

The film is directed by Walter Lang, with a script by Henry and Phoebe Ephron, based on a play by William Marchant.As so often with movies based on stage plays, the dialogue is beautifully crisp, but this one doesn’t feel too slow and stagey.

The plot seems extremely forward-looking for 1957, with Hepburn playing the woman in charge of a broadcasting station’s reference library, who fears she will be put out of work by a computer , invented by absent-minded boffin Tracy. Fifty years on, computers have, sadly, indeed put paid to such departments in some newspaper offices – I don’t know about broadcasters, but suspect it may be the same story there too. Anyway, the computer in this movie, EMERAC, nicknamed Emmie, is a magnificent sight, huge and taking up a whole room, with lights flashing and a selection of loud noises. My teenage son was most impressed to see it, and pointed out that it would have had a lot less power than a modern calculator!
An information overload

An information overload

I enjoyed the scenes in the library over the Christmas period, where Hepburn is constantly answering the phone and saying: “Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen.” Back in the 1980s, there used to be a list of Santa’s reindeer up on the wall in the reference library at a newspaper where I worked, because this exact query came so regularly over the festive season.

In those days, and still more so in the 1950s, it seemed unlikely that a computer would ever be able to answer any random question you put to it. Now, of course, with the arrival of the internet, computers can do just that, and the science fiction has become reality.

Tracy is endearing as scatter-brained scientist Richard – wearing one blue sock and one brown one, and constantly looking as if he isn’t quite sure where he’s just been or where he should be going next. “I had a tape measure a minute ago – you didn’t see where I put it, did you?”

Hepburn provides the perfect contrast as  quick-talking Bunny, with a memory at least equal to that of his computer.She might check her engagement diary for show, but you know she has it all by heart, and probably next year’s engagements too. I especially enjoyed the scene where Hepburn and Tracy eat a picnic in the cold while he fires questions from a prepared list.

Among the supporting cast, it’s fun to see Joan Blondell in good form as one of Hepburn’s colleagues, while Gig Young is suitably infuriating as Hepburn’s on-off lover Mike, an unthinking male chauvinist who has taken her for granted for years until some competition turns up.

I enjoyed the gentle, understated feeling to the whole movie – and, especially, the scenes where everyone is running around after Emmie the computer !

6 thoughts on “Desk Set (1957)

  1. I enjoyed reading yours too. It’s refreshing to see the word “gentle” used so naturally as a word of praise.

    I’ve not seen that many Tracey and Hepburn films. A couple. Actually I probably have seen few Tracey films: I would have seen those which played on Channel 9 because they were there, not because I sought them out. I can like American actors (e.g., James Cagney), but I know I prefer British ones.

    Now I’ve seen a lot of Hepburn’s films. The film from her later years I remember best is with Bogart: _The African Queen_.

    On computers, when I first went to work as a secretary in 1963 at the Federal Aviation Agency we did have a huge computer. It took up a whole floor of the building. I never did hear what it did, only that it was there :) So perhaps such big computers were spreading in forward-looking companies by the later 1950s.



  2. Great review! I said it before and I’ll say it again, I love this movie. It’s really perfect in every way. Although it took me ages to figure out what a “floating cloud” was (50’s desserts, like 50’s computers are kind of obsolete, I guess).

    I absolutely love the whole scene where Kate and Spence are in her apartment and then Gig Young drops in, only to find Spence wearing his robe. And then Joan Blondell shows up too! The dialogue is perfect and it’s also good to know that in RL, Kate, Spence and Joan Blondell got along beautifully, with Kate even going so far as to arrange accomodations for Joan’s dogs. It sounds silly, but I love when you find out that the off-set camaraderie was as good as the stuff you see on-screen.

    I too was infuriated by Gig Young (although I crack up at the idea that this is another movie where he gets dumped–AGAIN!). I cannot understand why Kate would have stayed with him for so long, so it’s wonderful to see Spence come in and sweep her off her feet.

    Another thing I love is the Christmas office party scene. I can’t even fathom that happening today. “The Apartment” is another one. People drank on the job! They ignored their jobs! It’s so mind-boggling to even imagine now–there would be lawsuits and firings left and right.

    Love this movie. Now I want to go watch it again!


  3. Thanks to Ellen for the encouraging comments. I loved ‘The African Queen’ – I must watch it again soon. I suppose I’m more keen on American actors at the moment, because I’m so into Hollywood films from the 1930s and 40s in particular, but I do like quite a few British actors too.

    I’m intrigued to hear that you did indeed have a big computer taking up a whole floor in the office where you worked – even if you never found out what it did!;)


  4. Rebecca, thanks for the praise – it means a lot to me, and I’m glad you love this movie too.:) I’d never heard of “floating cloud” before but vaguely gathered it was some kind of dessert – I must now go and look it up, though I probably won’t try the recipe…

    I agree that I also like to know that actors who seem friendly in a film were friends in real life too – it gives an added warmth, though there are plenty of films I like where the stars hated each other (eg Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins in ‘Old Acquaintance’.) I’m wondering if I’ve actually seen Gig Young in anything where he is playing someone sympathetic – I can’t stand his self-absorbed character in ‘Come Fill the Cup’, though I think he does a superb job in playing the role.

    On the parties, I must admit that at almost 48 I’m old enough to remember boozy lunches and office parties in newspaperland, though I don’t remember any parties on quite the scale of the one in the film.


  5. What a lovely review. I found you through your review of Brief Encounter, and BE & DS are 2 of my favourite movies. I look forward to exploring your site further. I’m a librarian & I love Bunny’s knowledge of just about everything, even the stops on the train lines. Her relationship with Mike is so 1950s. I wonder how he’ll manage in California without her to check his budget figures! I also love the scene at the party where Joan & Kate are tipsy & talk about the Mexican Avenue bus. Oh dear, I need to watch both these movies again immediately!


  6. Dear Lyn, thank you for the encouraging comments. I agree that Bunny’s knowledge of everything is great fun – I love the scene with her and Richard having their picnic where she knows the answer to every question he fires. Hope you can get hold of both the films and watch them again!:)


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