It’s interesting when older movies have themes that can transcend the trappings of their time – in Walter Lang’s 1957 Desk Set, it’s the fear of incoming technology that will displace human workers. A later effort that brings together Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, Desk Set tells the story of a TV network’s research department, that is being fitted with a computer to streamline things.
The Federal Broadcasting Company relies on its research department, headed by efficiency personified, Bunny Watson (Hepburn), who leads a team of young ladies who are unfailingly competent in their duties coming up with answers to all sorts of questions like the weight of the earth or the names of Santa Claus’ reindeer. Bunny’s well-loved by her team (Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill and ENTER NAME). She’s also in love with an executive at FBC (Gig Young).
Enter Richard Sumner (Tracy), who is hired to see about making things more efficient by implementing a computer. Bunny and company of course are wary of these developments, but reluctantly welcome Richard, who eyes Bunny. Sparks predictably fly between the two – Richard can’t resist Bunny who matches wits with the guy and shows that despite the impressive capabilities of a computer, nothing can replace the human touch.
In the Tracy-Hepburn canon, Desk Set doesn’t usually rank very high: it’s light and fluffy, without a whole lot going on. Still, it has Hepburn and she’s in top comedic form. She’s especially coltish, and delivers her quippy lines with her much-mocked New England lock jaw bray (she sounds veddy, veddy cultured). And her laughably strident rendition of “Night and Day” at a boozy office Christmas party is also lovely to hear. Tracy gives the subtler performance, letting his leading lady steal the show. He’s got an impish twinkle, and performs admirably as the straight man to Hepburn’s showy turn.
While none of the scenes in the film compete with classic Tracy-Hepburn exchanges, there are some pips:
- There’s a rooftop scene that’s pretty nifty. Richard drags Bunny to the rooftop of the building in the middle of winter to match her smarts with his computer by putting her through a battery of mind twisters. There’s a fun rat-a-tat-tat between the two stars, and Hepburn’s poignantly shivering in the cold, as she’s trying to enjoy her lunch and taking the impromptu quiz, despite the frigid temperatures.
- In something out of French farce, Bunny has to juggle the suspicious and jealous Mike (an excellent Young) as a flippant Richard when she invites the later to her apartment after a long day’s work. Because it was raining like a monsoon, she offers Richard a robe and the two are caught enjoying an idyllic dinner, until interrupted by a none-to-pleased Mike. This funny scene is probably Spencer’s comic highlight in the film – he’s given all the joke lines, as he needles Mike with his nonchalance and exaggerated patience and kindness
- The climax is awesome, too as Bunny and her cohorts prove that the computer is no match for their personal touch, as Richard’s new hire cannot seem to get the computer to get her the right answers, because all of her entries are either misspelled or homophones.
I remember liking this movie a lot less when I first caught it on TV. But a second viewing made me appreciate it a lot more. The fear of technology seems a bit quaint – but as I said, in this current economy, it’s a pretty timely topic: folks worrying about losing their jobs. Despite the potential seriousness of the subject, Desk Set still manages to be an airy form of escapist fun.