Big Shot: Desk Set

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Desk Set is an outstanding example golden age Hollywood’s classic comedies. With the dependable pairing of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, quick-witted dialog, and a plethora of tightly-plotted absurdities, there’s nothing not to like. It’s a sugar-coated method to skewer two seemingly unstoppable forces: the march of technology and the patriarchy.

With a premise as contemporary as Her or Ex-Machina, Desk Set is at once utterly prescient and retro. The Research department at the Federal Broadcasting Network, made up exclusively of clever ladies able to answer any query in record time, brace themselves as the company threatens to replace them with with a computer. In the midst of these uncertain times, their fearless leader, Bunny (Kate), finds her love life on unsteady ground with the arrival of efficiency expert, Mr. Sumner (Spence).

Bunny and her gang of research broads are an intimidating, self-reliant bunch. There’s the brassy Ms. Costello (Joan Blondell), resident baseball expert and general know-it-all, and two other chic, intelligent, and incredibly capable researchers left to their own devices in a theatrical Technicolor library-wonderland  to answer the hotlines and take on the multitudinous inquiries from who-knows-where for who-knows-what. The encroachment of Mr. Sumner, who arrives to install the dreaded computer, is initially barely even noted – the ladies cock an eyebrow at the funny duck poking his nose around their library, but they don’t defer to him. Mr. Sumner, out of his depth and reliant on his very specific brand of avuncular bumbling charm, has to work if he is going to earn any kind of recognition, respect, or friendship from this roomful of clever ladies.

Structurally, the film is a delight. Minimal plotting allows for luxurious sequences of giddy drunkenness to take the fore. First, a madcap one of mistaken intentions in Bunny’s apartment takes great advantage of Spence’s clumsy comic timing and uncanny ability to be in on the joke. And later, almost the entire second half is a tour de force office Christmas party (from whence Mad Men definitely gleaned some inspiration) wherein Bunny and Ms. Costello pop endless champagne bottles, bringing more and more of their coworkers into their increasingly effervescent fold. The pleasure these women take in each other’s company, their work, and their workplace is contagious, so when for a moment it seems that Mr. Sumner’s dreaded machine may take it all away from them, that loss is palpable. But not to worry – this is a Tracy-Hepburn comedy! The finale defuses the threat of the computer, definitively joins Mr. Sumner and Bunny together. The equilibrium and socially acceptable gender roles are restored and reinforced; all’s well that ends well.

Desk Set is a funny one. In the “ha-ha” way of course – there are great jokes! But also because of the parallel but seemingly incongruous messages of survival throughout the film. These completely capable women must find a way to prevail when the man upstairs decides they might be redundant. All the while, they strive to become and maintain the ideal of a perfect woman Scenes swap predictably between demonstrations of celebratory independence and quips about wasting time on unlikely prospects. The first problem is neatly solved with some plot machinations (ultimately the human brain prevails over machine). But when Bunny is given the opportunity to solve that pesky second problem, her options are less than ideal. Her boss and long-time advantage-taking boyfriend wants to retire her and take her to California with him, or Mr. Sumner offers an interesting alternative. He certainly sees and values her for who she is, but ever the non-conformist, he is plagued with a singular obsession – his beloved miracle machine, Emmy the computer. With him, Bunny can look forward to a future playing second fiddle to the very enemy she’s fought tooth and nail to discredit. The options aren’t great, but like so many modern lovers who find themselves competing with an iPhone for their significant other’s  attentions at the dinner table, Bunny goes with the lesser of two evils. God forbid she end up alone…

Despite this complicated romantic throughline, ever present in so many romantic comedies of the era, the late-period screwball at play in Desk Set allows for more subversion than the others for a combination of reasons, not least of which are the somewhat advanced ages of its leads. It’s unclear if Hepburn is supposed to be playing 35 or 55, and in the eyes of 1957 America, it doesn’t matter. Bunny is firmly middle-aged – a strange choice for a romantic leading lady, but ultimately a net benefit. Smart, uncompromising, and fun, she is a believable human being even in the most mad-cap of sequences. It’s a stark contrast to Hepburn’s earlier work in the genre, where roles like the scatterbrained, giddily opaque heiress Susan Vance (in 1938’s Bringing Up Baby) were the rule of the day. The frothy air-headed pretty young thing quotient is filled elsewhere, with the youngest of the research librarians who applies her detail-oriented mind to finding the perfect holiday party dress as much as to the rigorous queries of her job, leaving Hepburn free to bring dimension to the proceedings.

Less surprisingly, but still notable is Tracy’s longevity as a romantic lead. Though other actors of his generation (i.e. Clark Gable and Cary Grant) enjoyed long careers, Tracy’s charm is quite different, leaning more towards kooky drunk uncle than suave charm. Under most circumstances, a tough sell, but Hepburn is the perfect foil for Tracy’s foibles. Between the two of them lives a tenderness and vulnerability that makes them seem like people you know and love rather than unattainable movie stars, i.e. the ideal cast for a love story between a librarian and a computer scientist.