Desk Set (1957)

(Image via Twenty Four Frames)

(Image via Twenty Four Frames)

A note from Lindsey: Today is the day of the graduation ceremony for my master’s program! For those of you who don’t already know, my degree is in Library and Information Science. So, naturally, to celebrate the occasion I’ve decided to review a film about a librarian — Desk Set (1957), in which Katharine Hepburn stars as a corporate librarian. 

Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn) is the head of the research department at a big New York City broadcasting company, leading a team that also includes Peg Costello (Joan Blondell), Sylvia Blair (Dina Merrill), and Ruthie Saylor (Sue Randall).

A mysterious man named Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) arrives at the office one day, giving few details about why he is there other than the fact that he is an “efficiency expert.” Naturally, the office goes into a panic. Are their work performances being judged? Are layoffs on the horizon?

The truth: Richard is looking to incorporate a computer-brain into the research department, as he has already done in the payroll department. But Bunny and her team are great at the work they do — how could they possibly be replaced by a machine?

Workplace drama and romantic complications ensue as Richard gets to know the research department in 1957’s Desk Set. The film was directed by Walter Lang from a screenplay by Henry and Phoebe Ephron.

Choosing a favorite Hepburn/Tracy collaboration is, for many classic film fans, as difficult as choosing a favorite child. Few screen pairs have matched the chemistry and charm of these two. After watching Desk Set again, I still find it impossible to choose one favorite… but this one definitely lands high in the ranking.

Let me begin by getting my library-based fan-girling out of the way. It makes me so happy to see librarian characters like Bunny, which are rare among the sea of dowdy, grumpy, frumpy stereotypes. All of the librarians of Desk Set‘s research department are beautiful, intelligent, lively, sociable women. Desk Set also brings a non-traditional library environment to the screen in the form of corporate reference, which I love, because contrary to popular misconception, public librarians are not the only librarians! It even brings to the screen some of the quirks of the profession, such as having to repeatedly answer the same questions at certain times of year.

Also a delight to the librarian viewer is the film’s surprisingly realistic and still-relevant commentary on the nature of librarianship, and the field’s need to change with the times by coexisting with technology rather than fearing it. The end of the film shows that humans aren’t replaceable by machines, in Bunny’s research department or in the real world. Richard’s computer needs skilled operators in order to function properly; technology can’t fulfill any need without someone there to make it work. (In other words, technology needs us. Librarian power!)

desk set 2

(Image via Opera Rex)

As a film, apart from its appeal to me as a member of the LIS profession, Desk Set is simply a great watch. The story is engaging, with Tracy going into spy mode to examine the reference department, his respect for Hepburn slowly growing as he watches her work. The progression of their relationship is great to watch. Even better is the fact that Hepburn’s character of Bunny doesn’t end up with the suave man (Gig Young) who kind of sees her work as meaningless, and has strung her along for seven years.

Desk Set is not one to miss if you’ve never seen it, and if you have — watch it again!

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