The opening: The Mondrian carpet, the computer, clattering typewriter… the sprightly, lighthearted music tell us that it’s a comedy.
Here is how I first saw Desk Set: At about 2:30am after working a double shift, one at Forbes and another at Newsweek, I got home, turned on the TV, and there it was. All television is a little hallucinogenic at that hour, and this was no exception.
Desk Set is a romantic comedy for sapiosexuals. It is the last romantic comedy featuring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. It was released in 1957, and it was the last time they would appear onscreen until their final screen pairing, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, released ten years later, completed just before Tracy’s passing.
I love this movie. Is it a great film? No, definitely not, nothing so lofty. But it has some pretty special moments: Katharine Hepburn doing a great drunk scene, perhaps her first since “Miss Pommery 1929” in The Philadelphia Story. Seeing Hepburn, usually such a paragon of self-discipline, letting down her hair and snorting with laughter, drinking Champagne with her friend Peg (Joan Blondell), then dancing and singing to “Night and Day” as she’s falling in love with Tracy (though she doesn’t quite know it yet) is delightful, and she does it so well!
Desk Set and Pat and Mike give Tracy and Hepburn relationships worthy of their affinity
For me Desk Set, along with Pat and Mike, are my favorites of the Tracy-Hepburn comedies. A minority view, I’m sure… But these two are the ones that really give them a relationship worthy of their affinity, a partnership where nobody has to be put in her place (it is always Hepburn who is). In both movies Tracy offers Hepburn an alternative to the stifling man in her life. He allows her to be, as Tracy Lord might say, “very much herself,” and as you know a man like that is rare indeed.
It is a first-class entertainment with a terrific script tailor-made to showcase its stars’ unique qualities and it gives them lots of room for verbal sparring. And Tracy and Hepburn deliver in spades, creating two middle-aged oddballs who are fated to be mated, and we have the pleasure of seeing them discover each other. It has an excellent supporting cast headlined by Gig Young as Hepburn’s narcissistic boss and boyfriend, and the goddess Joan Blondell, whose warm, earthy, incredibly smart performance adds so much gusto to the proceedings. The production values are top-notch: Technicolor, Cinemascope, and sets that beautifully evoke the settings, all but one in the Rockefeller Center building that is headquarters for the fictional Federal Broadcasting Company (FBC). The one scene that ventures outside the building is set at Hepburn’s Upper East Side brownstone, and it’s also credible.
Desk Set captures the atmosphere of a midcentury media workplace pretty well. I was born the year of its release but myself arrived in New York in 1974, 16 years old and ready to take on the world. And over the next 38 years I worked at several buildings within a block of Rockefeller Center—they were magazine publishers rather than TV networks, but Time Inc. had as much tradition and lore as any broadcasting network down the block. So I can tell you firsthand that Desk Set‘s midcentury flavor was still there in the mid-’70s and beyond. New York tends to change and modernize but leave archaeological traces of its former lives. Even now, if you look carefully, there are a few fabulous, grimy bits among the shine and distasteful clean that has engulfed the city, and that will in due time fall to the irresistible organic chaos and grime that wait patiently through every economic boom to reassert themselves.
I love the opulent, color-saturated Technicolor 20th-Century Fox Cinemascope logos, the studio orchestra playing the 20th theme, then a shot of a Mondrian-inspired floor with a single computer terminal at its center, which then prints out the film’s credits to a background of typewriter clatter, including this:
Then an establishing shot of Rockefeller Center, starting at ground level with the shiny Art Deco statue and flags and moving up the building from bottom to top.
And that, with one additional shot of the same building with the big Christmas tree, is all of real New York we’re going to see in this movie. The whole thing was shot on the 20th backlot. It’s funny how place is created in movies. Sometimes you can’t forget for a second that you’re on a set and other times the director and crew really get the flavor of place. I’d give Desk Set points for this. Those older office buildings are fascinating, with back doors leading to service elevators and shortcuts, and before the cubiclization of the workplace, offices could actually have some personality. The first day I freelanced at the last place I worked at in the city, I went out to lunch and actually came back to the wrong floor—but it took several minutes to figure that out because the layouts of the two floors were absolutely identical. I found the desk in the position where I had been sitting (but several floors away) and knew within ten seconds I was in the wrong place. But it was all so interchangeable.
It was not always so. And Desk Set is about one of those cusps between eras, in this case the dawn of the automated workplace. Can you even imagine offices where people communicated either in memos that were sent via “Inter-office mail,” moved from sender to sendee by the mailroom staff? Or else they talked on the phone, or they met, in person? No computers at all—typewriters. Adding machines. Big, heavy telephones you had to lug around with you if you wanted to move while you talked. If you were going to be late or got stranded in the subway or an elevator, there was no way to tell anyone where you were. If you wanted to know what was going on, you had to make friends, talk to people at the water cooler. And of course there was lots of socializing (but no networking), and gossip, always gossip.
The sun was setting on that slower, more human, less-convenient era. Computers the size of your bedroom, which were less powerful than the cigarette-sized one you carry (that incidentally makes phone calls) were being installed in big corporations, and workers were scared.
Which is the premise for Desk Set.
Bunny Watson (Hepburn) runs the Reference Department at the Federal Broadcasting Company (which sounds like NBC to me, though apparently Bunny was based on a legendary reference librarian at CBS), and she and her all-female staff are paid to know stuff like who held the highest lifetime batting average (Tyrus Raymond Cobb; .367; played 21 years exclusively for the Detroit Tigers), and to recite Longfellow from memory (“By the shores of Gitchigoomi…”), and to look up what they don’t already know. The department is an in-house miniature New York Public Library. Back then this wasn’t unusual: Time Inc. had a company library just steps away from the Rock Center setting of this movie, which I was in a couple of times when I worked at various magazines at the Time/Life Building. In those distant days (I refer to the mid-’70s) reference libraries were an important part of media work for both print and television. Bunny and the girls work in the most wonderful space—it’s open, two stories high, with their desks on the first floor and a spiral stair that leads up to their library stacks above. I would kill to work in a place like that! I can smell the wonderful library smell…
The Reference Dept. answers questions for the whole network, all the shows. Peg Costello, Bunny’s pal and right-hand woman (Blondell), is calling the Society for the Preservation of Eskimo Culture “to find out the truth about the Eskimo habit of rubbing noses.”
Then Miss Blair (Dina Merrill) takes a call at her desk: “Reference Department, Miss Blair. Yes, we’ve looked that up for you, and there are certain poisons which leave no trace, but it’s network policy not to mention them on our programs.”
I want to work there, don’t you?
Pardon my nostalgia: Work didn’t used to be the brutal, soul-killing, endless marathon it has become. My first office jobs in New York, in the mid-’70s, were pretty civilized. People worked, but they weren’t expected to spend every last drop of blood all the time like they are now, for the privilege of keeping a crummy job with no future. If you showed up on time, dressed properly, did your work and were reasonably pleasant, you could keep your crummy job with no future for 20 years if you wanted to, then retire with lifelong healthcare (free!) and a pension (you youngsters, go look that word up).
Desk Set is a rare animal, a workplace romantic comedy from the late ’50s, when women were mostly exiled to the domestic sphere. When we do see them in workplace movies from this era they’re either secretaries or weird bitch-lady bosses who have become warped by living into their (presumably unnatural) worldly ambitions rather than the wifely and motherly role for which they were born (see The Best of Everything (1959), simultaneously a hoot and a truly grim assessment of the choices available to women at the time).
The movie was based on a play, The Desk Set, that was “ripped from the headlines”—about rising anxieties regarding the changes automation was rapidly bringing to the workplace. Viewed from the 21st century, almost 60 years after Desk Set was made, the world of work it presents seems very remote. Azae, the network president, is a friendly, unpretentious fella who kind of looks like the Monopoly guy, but without the monocle. Everybody at the network knows everybody knows everybody else, from Kenny the mailroom kid to Azae, and news and gossip are passed along constantly at every level. It is a corporation, but it lacks the low-affect, soulless quality that has become the norm, where people who work on the same floor walk past each other several times a day without making eye contact, much less getting to know each other.
The story: Computer pioneer and genial oddball Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) has been hired by the president of the Federal Broadcasting Company to automate various departments. We know he’s an absent-minded genius because he shows up in the Azae’s office a day earlier than his appointment. We also know he’s nobody’s fool: When Azae, the network president, says to him, “You don’t care whether you impress people or not, do you?” Sumner pats him on the shoulder and says, “You wait until you get my bill. You’ll be impressed.”
He’s already installed a computer in Payroll (after which half the staff was laid off) and is now beginning to plan and design the one for the Reference Department.
Brilliant, classy, lovelorn Bunny has been waiting for seven years for her smarmy boyfriend and boss, Mike Cutler (Gig Young) to get serious and propose, but why should he when showing up and flattering her, maybe offering a kiss or two, is all he has to do to get Bunny to fine-tune his budgets and presentations?
Plainspoken Peg thinks Bunny ought to make a move, Cutler-wise: Stop being so available.
Peg: You’re like an old coat that’s hanging in his closet. Every time he reaches in, there you are…
Bunny: He’d just go out and buy himself a new coat.
Peg: He’s been wearing this one for seven years…and what makes you think he won’t anyway?
Bunny: Well if he did, it…it would be awful, wouldn’t it?
Peg: Yes, it is. I know. You go along thinking tomorrow something wonderful’s gonna happen. You’re not gonna be alone anymore. And then one day you realize it’s all over. You’re out of circulation. It all happened, and you didn’t even know when it happened.
Bunny: Well, when that day comes, we’ll move in together and keep cats.
Peg [laughs]: I don’t like cats, I like men, and so do you.
By the way, there is not the slightest hint of any hanky-panky between Cutler and Bunny, neither the coded sex of noir nor the unfettered, frank sex that would invade movies by the end of the following decade. Despite a scene played for farce, when Cutler interrupts an innocent bathrobe-clad dinner at Bunny’s apartment and assumes the worst, the whole affair is pretty sexless—which is not a problem. I don’t know that I believe anyone dated for seven years without doing it, but this isn’t real life, and I don’t feel cheated about not seeing Hepburn, Tracy, et al doing anything hotter than a little leisurely smooching. These days sex is everywhere, whereas witty repartee is in short supply.
Meanwhile, back in the movie, the girls in Reference are alarmed by Sumner: They know what happened in Payroll. Sumner is not tipping his hand, saying only that he is working on a report for Azae (who has sworn Sumner to secrecy). Bunny accepts Sumner’s lunch invitation, assuming he’ll take her to one of those pricey, expense-account restaurants that lined the streets of Midtown. But instead he takes her to the roof**, plies her with sandwiches and coffee, and gives her an intelligence test that I would most assuredly fail. The questions involve memory, math, logic, and knowing what a palindrome is (the one question I would have gotten right). Bunny aces it, even while she’s chewing tough roast beef and shivering, and the look in Sumner’s eyes tells us she’s won a little more than his admiration.
Sumner: Now, this is a little mathematical problem.
Sumner. [offering her a container] Celery and olives?
Bunny [looking inside] Four olives, three pieces of celery.
Sumner: Right. That doesn’t happen to be the question. Now. “A train started out at Grand Central… with 17 passengers aboard and a crew of nine. At 125th Street four got off and nine got on. At White Plains, three got off and one got on, At Chappaqua nine got off and four got on. And at each successive stop thereafter… nobody got off, nobody got on, till the train reached its next-to-the-last stop, where five people got off and one got on. Then it reached the terminal.”
Bunny: Well, that’s easy. Eleven passengers and a crew of nine.
Sumner: Eh…that’s not the question.
Bunny: I’m sorry.
Sumner: How many people got off at…Chappaqua?
Sumner [taken aback]: That’s correct.
Bunny: Yes, I know.
Sumner: Uh, would you mind telling me how you arrived at that conclusion?
Bunny: Spooky, isn’t it? Did you notice that there are also nine letters in “Chappaqua”?
Sumner: Are you in the habit of associating words…you know, with the number of letters in them?
Bunny: I associate many things with many things.
Yes, she associates many things with many things! I never worked with Bunny Watson exactly, but I sure feel like I did. I crossed paths with and worked with real women—smart, tough, sophisticated professional women who are Bunny’s inspiration, and they inspire me still. Bunny would have been right at home in any of those offices.
This is Tracy and Hepburn at their best: Their mutual regard, affection, and admiration are obvious and utterly charming. He’s a bit gruff and is wearing one brown and one black sock, and she’s more than a bit spinsterish, but both are dreamers—they are exactly right for each other.
**The roof scene isn’t based on the roof of 30 Rock—the set was left over from How to Marry a Millionaire. But in my real life down the block at Time Inc., we had a roof terrace where we could eat lunch when the weather permitted. The company cafeteria was on the 9th floor, and that’s where the terrace was. So while there weren’t panoramic views, we had a pretty nice view of 6th Avenue, the city going about its endless business. It was one of the great little perks of working there. The cafeteria got moved to the 2nd floor a long time ago, and the terrace closed. But every time I see this scene in Desk Set, it reminded me of eating lunch outside of the 9th floor….
Cutler breezes by to cancel his date with Bunny for the country club dance: He’s all excited, going off on an executive trip to Chicago with Azae. When dejected Bunny finally heads home, she almost locks the oblivious Sumner in the department, and a coworker (Mr. Smithers!) offers the two of them a ride to their neighborhood, which is great because it’s raining hard and there isn’t an empty cab in all of Midtown (still totally true; some things never change). Bunny invites Sumner in to have dinner in her apartment. She gives him a bathrobe (which she had planned to give Cutler for Christmas) to wear while his clothes dry. And note: He doesn’t plan it, but here is Sumner slipping into Cutler’s robe. They have a great time: He makes fried chicken for her, and for dessert she’ll serve floating island.
And by now the differences between Sumner and Cutler are becoming clear: Sumner loves the Reference Department, he likes hanging out there. If a phone rings and nobody’s around, he’ll take the call and try to help out. He can’t wait to cook dinner for Bunny. In other words, he’s a colleague. Whereas Cutler is a boss. Cutler may be courting Bunny, but he never forgets he’s her boss, and he’s building his career with her work. Catch him picking up a phone or doing anything to help anyone who isn’t Mike Cutler.
Just as Tracy presented Hepburn with a better alternative to her fiancé in Pat and Mike, so here he offers her a relationship with a partner, an equal, whereas the other guy cares for her, but only if he can keep her in line. This is another thing that’s special about this movie and that, for me, puts this and Pat and Mike above the beloved Adam’s Rib, where Hepburn’s Amanda is a little bit ridiculous and in need (again) of being put in her place as Hepburn has been since her comeback in The Philadelphia Story. I think Hepburn survived her famous Boxoffice Poison label by reinventing her persona from the out-there, wild girl of Sylvia Scarlett and Bringing Up Baby to one as brilliant, daring, and fabulous, only throughout the ’40s note that Hepburn is always tamed and made a little ridiculous. Pat and Mike, and Desk Set remedy that. I think she was aging out of playing young characters (she’s about 10 years too old for Gig Young in Desk Set) and she has earned her authority. She doesn’t have to have the crap kicked out of her anymore to avoid threatening the audience.
Sumner and Bunny are finishing the main course and starting dessert when the doorbell rings: It’s Cutler, whose flight has been canceled. When he sees Sumner in the bathrobe he makes the obvious assumptions (just as George did in Philadelphia Story, with, as Tracy says, not much imagination but of a certain kind) and says presumptuous things like “The last thing I expected was to find you here with another man” that for the first time in their seven years of desultory dating get Bunny’s goat. Cutler backs off, and…scene.
Hepburn and Blondell play a fantastic drunk girlfriend scene during the Christmas party sequence, another reason I love this movie. I want to go to that Christmas party! Bunny and Peg been following company policy, as Miss Blair says, “anything goes as long as you don’t lock the doors”—and had already dipped into the Champagne before Smithers shows up from Legal to escort them to the party over there. The ladies from Reference wonder if this will be their last party, what with EMMERAC being installed anytime, so feelings are running high.
Bunny comes back to her office to pick up her last bottle of Champagne and finds Sumner working away. Peg comes looking for Bunny, and…
Peg: If you take that Champagne back to Legal, you won’t even get another swallow.
Bunny: That’s right. Maybe I better drink it right here. Join me, Peg?
Peg: Certainly! How does Champagne go with Four Roses, scotch, Martinis and Bloody Marys?
Bunny: Oh, fine. They’re all the same base—alcohol. Pull up a chair, Peg, and rest your hands and face.
Peg: What year is that? [they squint at the label] “1947”… It was a good year.
Bunny [mournfully]: Not for me, it wasn’t. It was the year of the blizzard, remember? I spent Christmas Eve in a subway station at Canal Street. [she pours them both Champagne in paper cups]
Peg: Awwwww. Hey, that reminds me. Just as I was getting off the Mexican Avenue bus last night—
Peg: What’s so funny?
Bunny: [giggles, snorts, looks very serious] The Mexican Avenue bus. … You mean the “Mexington” Avenue bus, don’t you?
Peg: Ha! So I do! [both laugh] And here was this brand-new Coupe de Ville… with the most attractive-looking gray-haired man in it. And he slowly drove around the block, three times. And I could tell by the way he was looking at me… that if I had been any other kind of a girl, it would have been the start of a very beautiful romance.
Bunny: More power to you. You may be lonely, but more power to you. … It has usually been my experience… when a car cruises around the block slowly, it has usually been my experience… that they are mostly just looking for a place to park…. Peg [Bunny is cracking herself up], did you know that our Mr. Sumner also lives on the Mexican Avenue bus? [they both laugh, Bunny snorts]
Peg: Oh, no!
Bunny: Can’t you just see him standing there… in his serape and bare feet, holding on to the strap?
Cutler breezes in wearing a Santa hat, bearing gifts. He and Bunny are drinking a toast in her office when Sumner interrupts and sends Cutler racing out, summoned again by Azae. With Cutler, Bunny will always play second fiddle to the network.
And just as Cutler races out, the little brown-noser, the party from Legal spills into Reference, a piano borrowed from the recording studio beating out an exuberant boogie woogie Jingle Bells, everybody singing, drinking, and dancing… all the women in chic black dresses with holiday trim, all the guys in suits. Everybody looks fantastic, and they are having so much fun. I want to go to this party. But I did get to go to parties at various magazines… up at Time Inc. there were Champagne “pours” on any pretext back in the day—birthdays, launches, holidays… Every department had its own Christmas party at some restaurant, usually a lunch, and then the publications each had their own big party as well. I feel like I’m describing something out of a novel, some fantasy, but it was true. We worked hard, for long hours, but we got wined and dined, and it did make us feel a little bit special. Still, I never saw a party like the one in Desk Set, and I want to go hang out in the stacks of Reference on the balcony, looking down at everybody dancing and flirting…
The writing and acting in this movie are so good. They put to shame most of what has passed for romantic comedy in the past 40 years. In Desk Set there are actual relationships developing and fraying. We know that while Cutler has been in Chicago for a month Sumner has been hanging out with Bunny, quietly biding his time. Bunny is preoccupied worrying about her staff and her own job; she’s not focused on Sumner, whose courtly interest would be obvious to her if she were observing it happening to someone else. She doesn’t even quite realize yet that she’s crossed the boundary from her habitual frustration with Cutler to being deeply dissatisfied, that what she has thought she wanted more than anything for the past seven years is finally pulling into range, she doesn’t want it.
The piano swings into a vigorous version of “Night and Day,” and tipsy Bunny finds Sumner playing the bongo drums she has just given Cutler. Bunny is wearing the scarf she just gave Sumner for Christmas, and she sings and dancers for him, just for a minute. It’s so charming…
This is the scene where Bunny first realizes Richard has a thing for her, and is surprised to be stirred by him as well. It’s the sweet side of the Christmas party in The Apartment, when both Fran and Baxter get their hearts broken and the general air of debauchery is exciting but disturbing. At the Desk Set party hopes are kindled, not dashed.
Bunny and Sumner are up on the balcony. Bunny pretends they’re casting off on a cruise.
Bunny: I’m independently wealthy, you know. I’ve made this cruise often.
Sumner: Yes. Yes, there’s something about the way you wear that pencil in your hair spells money.
(Note: I wore a pen behind my ear at work for many years, very much emulating Bunny Watson)
And here is where we get the only veiled reference to sex in the whole movie. Bunny is researching Sumner’s romantic life, asking why he never married, if he likes women, etc. Sumner says he’s never found anyone willing to put up with him, except Caroline, who was a model, “5’10” in her stockinged feet.”
Bunny: You had occasion to measure her?
Sumner: Among other things, yes, yes.
He explains how during the war Caroline’s letters, all about fashion, bored him so that he had a friend look her up and then got a Dear John letter. Bunny accuses him of being in love with EMMERAC, that’s all he ever thinks about, that’s why his socks don’t match. Ah, but they do… and “they have matched for some time. You just haven’t noticed it.” See, he’s courting her but slowly, patiently, carefully—like the good engineer that he is. And…now she has noticed, and she’s scared. So she gets up to leave.
“I’ll bet you write wonderful letters,” he says.
Oh, yeah. He struck her heart with that line, as he would mine.
They’ve had their moment, and now the ending is assured. There’s some comedy about EMMERAC, who makes silly toot-toot noises, very friendly and goofy, and one more scene with Cutler where he finally proposes and she realizes it’s over, and Sumner makes her ask EMMERAC which of them she should marry…
We knew from the interview on the roof. It was just a matter of how they got there. But of course, getting there is at least half the fun. And getting there with Hepburn and Tracy? Try it sometime.
To read about their real-life relationship, click here
To learn how to be more like Kate, click here
To read about her own unique style, click here
To see the whole Tracy-Hepburn collaboration, click here
To watch Desk Set, click here
To see Hepburn's tribute to Tracy, click here
This post was written for the 2nd annual Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, hosted by Margaret Perry. Go read more of the sparkling entries here.