Friday, October 21, 2011

Movie Review: Desk Set, 1957

Photo from the AMC TV Blog
The holidays are coming, the holidays are coming, the holidays are coming!! Well, according to the weather here in California, it still feels like summer, but I still say the holidays are coming because realistically there are only 64 days until Christmas and TargĂ© already has ornaments and holiday cards on their shelves.  

In the spirit of the holidays I'm posting my movie review for Desk Set (1957) starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, directed by Walter Lang.  I love this movie not only because it is a great film with the right mix of romance and comedy, as well as charm and nostalgia, but I also love it because it is about librarians and it is set during the holidays.  Never mind all the great acting, I mean c'mon, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, as well as Gig Young and Joan Blondell!  The story centers on Katharine Hepburn as Bunny Watson and Spencer Tracy as Richard Sumner.  Bunny is head librarian of the reference department of the Federal Broadcasting Network.  When news hits that a computer will be integrated into the department, everyone assumes that they are being replaced, especially when Richard Sumner breezes in and makes it seem like it is no big deal (he is not supposed to say anything definitive about it).  This leads to some witty dialogue and great writing in the film, especially between Hepburn and Tracy.  Once the machine is in place everyone gets a pink slip, so of course their suspicions were true! But it was just a glitch and even the president of the company received one. 

When you think about it, the story is kind of ahead of its time.  Richard Sumner is trying to replace a living and breathing librarian with an electronic machine that spits out answers (sort of like the internet).  But as we have learned, not everything can come from a whirring, processing machine.  Yes, we can read books on a tablet and yes search engines can research people and places for us, but libraries are still places where you can freely browse books, magazines, newspapers, journals, and the like.  You can also attend lectures, cooking demonstrations, story times, book club meetings and even watch classic movies like Desk Set.  So it's nice to know that movies like these remind us that nothing is meant to be infallible and that the human connection is still the best medium to explore the world (in this librarian's opinion).

Here are a few bits of trivia about the film, as well as a Desk Set movie trailer from YouTube.
  • The role of Bunny Watson is based on the real librarian that built up the research library at CBS.
  • The movie is adapted from the Broadway play, which opened in 1955 and held 296 performances.
  • The machine in the movie is called "EMARAC", which stands for Electromagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator.  It is based on the actual first general purpose electronic computer, ENIAC, whose slogan was "Making machines do more, so that man can do less".
  • The sound effects that were created specifically to depict the EMARAC were re-used in several future films, including Fantastic Voyage (1966).


  1. The Man in the White Suit would be another example of a film made about 50 years ago that dealt with automation and how workers respond.

  2. Oh cool! I hadn't heard of The Man in the White Suit, and also based on a play! Awesome, thanks!