Desk Set

Do you think we’re being re-decorated?

Does he look like an interior decorator to you?”

No, he looks like one of those men that suddenly switched to vodka.

With all the things this movie has going for it, and there’s a lot, I have to admit that it’s this kind of banter that I get Desk Set out for to watch again and again. It is in every scene.

Directed by Walter Lang in 1957, Desk Set is set in a mid-century New York City office during Christmas time. The threat of the effects from the introduction of computers into the lives of the the mighty all-female staff of the reference department at the Federal Broadcasting Company provides the tension for the movie. The uncertainty is scary, the anxiety evident right away. You immediately root for these ladies, long before you even know what they’re fighting against.

Yep, it’s a romantic comedy.

Maybe it’s the quick wit in the Phoebe and Henry Ephron script…


…or the fabulous mid-century styles and design…


…or maybe it’s Joan Blondell’s sarcastic humor as Peg Costello (she’s so good here)…

…or maybe it’s that oh-so-special Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn chemistry.

It’s a lot of things. Especially one of my favorite movies.

We owe Walter Lang and the Ephrons a lot of credit for this one. It holds up well all these years later.

Right away, first scene, I’m hooked. Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) grabs me from a real life crummy day and plops me down in the middle of his intriguing meandering. As he weaves his way mysteriously through the offices and hallways of the Federal Broadcasting Company my head fills up with the hows and whys of his strange behavior. I’ve forgotten the perfectly crummy day I was having – and Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn are front and center! Where they should be.

Bunny Watson (Hepburn) is a fountain of knowledge. Today, we’d call her Google. It’s her job to know a lot and she does it well. There doesn’t seem to be much she doesn’t know and she knows exactly where to find what she doesn’t. This “electric brain” isn’t gonna be any kind of match to her, right? Puh-lease.

Richard Sumner (Tracy) is a man obsessed with learning everything he can to ensure the success of his “electric brain” invention – to the point that he’s oblivious to everything else.

This comes over loud and clear when he smugly tries to stump Bunny with trivia and math during their rooftop lunch.  Nice try, Sumner, but Bunny doesn’t flinch. However, she is confused as to why he took her to the rooftop for lunch, especially on a freezing-cold day. She’s stumped. Confusion and cold aside, confidence still oozes from Bunny. Without missing a beat, she answers every one of Sumner’s questions off the top of her head, in between shivers and bites of her sandwich. She successfully tackles everything he throws at her even though by this point it’s obvious she’s worried about what this “electric brain” means for the job she loves. You can feel Sumner’s admiration growing for her with every question he asks. It’s wonderful.

Bunny’s confidence lacks in just one place: her relationship with Mike Cutler (Gig Young), her boss and long-time boyfriend. After all the years they’ve dated (“six…no, seven!”), Bunny just can’t get him to commit, no matter how hard she tries. Yet she keeps trying.

In the funny scene in Bunny’s apartment where she’s having dinner with Sumner while they’re both in bathrobes, (they get stuck in the rain), Mike barges in. He’s far from happy at what he sees. Sumner laughs at Mike and Bunny as they argue, and we finally we see a little bit of that professional Bunny confidence bubble up with Mike. It’s about time.

At this point, Desk Set is a full blown love triangle with the added suspense of the invasion of the “electric brain.” This is my kind of movie…

…I am crazy about the Bunny Watson Hepburn has created in Desk Set. She’s inspiring, funny, oh-so-smart and struggles with vulnerabilities despite it all. This is a woman I want to drink that champagne with at the Christmas party. Actually, I wanna drink champagne with all these women. This movie feels good to spend time with no matter how many times I’ve seen it.

Desk Set, 1957
20th Century Fox
Directed by Walter Lang
Written by Phoebe and Henry Ephron

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