Desk Set (1957)
Comedy, 103 minutes
Released by 20th Century-Fox
Directed by Walter Lang
Play by William Marchant
Phoebe and Henry Ephron (parents of Nora and Delia
Spencer Tracy . . . . . . . . . Richard Sumner
Katharine Hepburn . . . . . . . Bunny Watson
Joan Blondell . . . . . . . . . Peg Costello
Dina Merrill . . . . . . . . . . Sylvia Blair
Sue Randall . . . . . . . . . . Ruthie Saylor
Neva Patterson . . . . . . . . . Miss Warriner
Harry Ellerbe . . . . . . . . . Smithers
Nicholas Joy . . . . . . . . . . Mr. Azae
Shut down your system if you don’t want spoilers!
In the 1950s, the mainframe computer moved out of the laboratory and into the business world. Consequently, people were starting to worry about someday being replaced by something called “office automation”. Desk Set, the penultimate entry in the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn movie pairings and the first in color, took that theme and stood it on its head. The result is a wonderful gem of a movie, one that’s especially funny for anyone involved in computing and the corporate world.
Tracy plays Richard Sumner, a computer engineer and “efficiency expert”, who’s shown up at the offices of a large television network. He’s particularly interested in the network research department, headed by the superbly efficient Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn). Sumner’s arrival throws Bunny and her staff into a mild panic as they try to discover why he’s there. It doesn’t help when they learn, through the rumor mill, that the entire department is to be replaced … by an “electronic brain”!
Sumner ensconces himself comfortably in the department and observes the research staff’s every move. They attempt to find out what he’s up to, but Sumner insists he’s just there to watch and take notes. Meanwhile, along with keeping an eye on Sumner, Bunny tries to manage her romantic relationship with her boss, Mike Cutler (Gig Young). After seven years of dating, she’s hoping he’ll soon ask her to become Mrs. Cutler. The problem is that Cutler seems not quite as ready to tie the knot as Bunny … and now there’s Richard Sumner on the scene. Things get interesting as Sumner and Bunny start to take more than a professional interest in each other.
When Sumner invites Bunny to lunch, it’s the start of one of the most memorable sequences in the movie. He takes her to the top of the building, to a small break area that’s perfectly fine in good weather – but it’s more than a little chilly on the day in question. As their meal begins, Sumner has planned to find out just how smart the intelligent Miss Watson is, by means of a little logic questionnaire he’s worked up. However, it’s not long before he begins to wonder just who’s going to win this battle of wits! It’s a lesson in acting to watch these two legendary professionals play off each other, as they did in all their movies together and in real life.
Finally, speculation ends when Sumner’s purpose is revealed, and the dreaded computer is installed in the department. Bunny and her staff are introduced to EMERAC and its administrator, the no-nonsense Miss Warriner. Bunny marshals her staff to prove that anything an old machine can do, they can do as well or better. Is EMERAC up to the job? Will the Research Deparment get canned? Who’s going to wind up with Bunny Watson? Desk Set has recently been re-released in an excellent DVD version, and comes highly recommended both as a nice little nostalgic movie, and as one of the best entries in the Tracy-Hepburn series.
The Internet Movie Database
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repeated viewing of the film