February 15, 2016 was the seventieth anniversary of the unveiling of ENIAC, without which none of us would be tapping away at laptops smaller than coffee table books, or blogging, or sending e-mail, or using self-check cash registers, and so on and so forth. It goes without saying that we can’t imagine life without computers. If anyone still doubts this, and I don’t think anyone does, try borrowing someone’s smartphone.
It’s hard to believe there was a time when all the jobs now done by computers were done by people. On one hand, it saved time and effort. On the other, it meant a lot of people were put out of work. For some folks, though, what was likely a rocky transition was comedy gold, such as 1957’s hilarious and impeccably timed Desk Set.
Written by Phoebe and Henry Ephron (yep, those are Nora and Delia’s parents), 1957’s Desk Set was originally a stage play by William Marchant and stars Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn plays Bunny Watson, the head of the research department at the Federal Broadcasting Company. She’s been there eleven years, and to say Bunny Watson is smart and knowledgeable is putting it very mildly. The truth of it is, Bunny is the Encyclopedia Britannica on legs. Ask any question, show her any quote, fact or figure, no matter how obscure, pose any problem no matter how complicated, and Bunny can rattle off the answer immediately. If she doesn’t know something, Bunny knows where to find it out. She has three other women working under her, and the research department is a busy, chummy place to be. Friends wander in and out, like Kenny, the mailroom boy, and the old lady who was the face of the company in its salad days (Ida Moore, best known as Emma on the Andy Griffith Show).
Bunny does have a life outside the office, though–she has a sorta suitor, Mike, played by Gig Young. Mike has this idea that Bunny will always be waiting for him to come home from his frequent business trips, ready at a moment’s notice to go to a country club dance or to the movies. Maybe. Bunny has been only too happy to fill this role for the past seven years, giddy that she has a suitor. One of the other Research Department ladies, Peg (Joan Blondell), tells Bunny she needs to play hard to get with Mike, who takes her for granted, but Bunny is too starry-eyed to see how much she’s settling.
Enter Spencer Tracy as Richard Sumner, who calls himself a methods engineer. He brings along a measuring tape and makes cryptic remarks about what he’s doing there. He’s evaluating everything and everyone in the building, and they’re all naturally suspicious. One of the research ladies thinks they’re going to finally get an air-conditioner, but since it’s November, that idea’s out. Word on the grapevine is that Mr. Sumner is an efficiency expert and their jobs are in jeopardy. Word also has it that a fancy new computer called EMARAC is going to replace them.
The usual responses in these situations is fight, flight, or freeze, and the ladies of the Research Department set out to fight by making themselves indispensable. Computers? We don’t need no stinkin’ computers. It doesn’t help that Sumner hangs around, making everyone nervous. Fortunately, he seems to be a good egg who knows how to stay in the background. He and Bunny even get to be friends, much to the chagrin of Mike, Bunny’s sorta suitor. He comes over to Bunny’s apartment one rainy night to find Richard wearing a bathrobe, having a chummy meal of fried chicken with Bunny. It’s hard to tell if Mike is jealous or just shocked that Bunny isn’t waiting breathlessly for him to come around.
Seeing as Richard is the mysterious guy with the measuring tape, there’s nothing Mike can really do about his presence around Bunny. Far more pressing is Richard’s invention, EMARAC, or Electromagnetic Memory And Research Arithmetical Calculator. IBM was a sponsor of Desk Set, so there’s more than a little product placement throughout the movie, whether by strategically situated logos, or just plain old name-dropping. Anyway, EMARAC looms over FBC like a bird of prey. Not even a rollicking Christmas party can stop its approach. Literally–Richard’s lab assistant, Miss Warner, shows up in the midst of the festivities to get the lay of the land, and everyone in the Research Department assumes they’re going to be fired. Nothing kills Christmas spirit like a possible pink slip.
EMARAC is installed forthwith, and the fact that it seems to take up so little space is kinda head-scratching, as similar computers of that time took up entire rooms. They also generated tons of heat because they contained lots of vacuum tubes, so the ladies of the Research Department standing around comfortably in wool dresses probably wouldn’t have happened. Ah, Hollywood. Relief would have been on the way, though–the transistor was invented in 1957, which meant that computers (plus TVs, phones, and radios) would get smaller and run cooler.
The big question is, of course, will EMARAC work? What’s more, how will the Research Department get along without Bunny and her gang? Or will they have to? Here’s a slight spoiler: Then, as now, where there are computers, there will be bugs of all shapes and sizes, particularly if the human element is not minding the proceedings.
Desk Set is a delight. It’s riotously funny, it’s intelligent, and it takes a refreshingly lighthearted approach to the challenges of adapting to new technology. Every member of the cast is first-rate. Tracy and Hepburn were obviously enjoying themselves in this movie, as well as enjoying each other–there’s a special little spark in their eyes whenever they’re together. It’s also nice to see a film about older people in romantic situations, too–youth is so prized in Hollywood, which is a shame because storytelling finds lots of new angles if one just thinks outside the box a little. Desk Set is completely worth it.
Thanks for reading, everyone, and check back here next week when we celebrate Olivia and Errol in…
Next month we’re double-dipping on the blogathons, because we also have this coming up:
Fritzi Kramer’s heading this one, so if you’d like to be in on it, go to Movies Silently for details. See you on July first!