Classic Woman-centric Movie Review: “Desk Set”

Happy Friday, Persephoneers! Let’s kick off our shoes and put our feet up to a perfectly lovely romantic comedy starring one of Hollywood’s most perfectly lovely IRL couples. This weekend’s choice in “Desk Set,” made in 1956 and directed by Walter Lang. It stars Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in the lead roles. Phoebe and Henry Ephron (you know, Nora’s parents) adapted the screenplay from a play by William Marchant.

Desk Set movie still: Hepburn and Tracy in the library
Still from film.

Bunny Watson (Hepburn) is head of the reference library at the Federal Broadcasting Network. She and her coworkers are the go-to girls for researching and finding the answers to all sorts of questions. But something big is coming: The network is going to merge with a larger company, which heralds the arrival of a computer to help pick up the extra work. The computer, called EMERAC, was invented by efficiency expert Richard Sumner (Tracy), who is there to help the reference department with the transition. The reference department is terrified that the computer might eventually replace them. While they are working alongside each other, Bunny and Richard soon find that their personalities are similar and that they get along with each other very well. Yet the specter of the electronic brain, EMERAC, hangs over their budding attraction.

“Desk Set” handles the question of whether or not machines will eventually replace human beings in the future. It shows the two sides of the coin quite well. While the reference department might not be able to find an answer to a question right away, they do find the right one. While EMERAC might be able to answer a question right away, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the answer that the person with the question is looking for or even if it’s the correct answer at all. In a way, it’s a precursor to how we use computers and other information technology today. A computer might be able to make things more efficient or process more information, but in the end, it’s up to the person who operates it, too.

Desk Set poster
Cinema poster for “Desk Set”

Bunny and Richard’s budding romance is also a point for discussion. Unlike her relationship with the rising executive at the station, Bunny’s relationship with Richard is more egalitarian. They’re on the same footing when it comes to their work and are both looking to do the same thing, but just in different ways. They are both extremely intelligent people and they recognize it immediately. And you can’t miss the banter that always occurs between Hepburn and many of her leading men. But there is also a certain sweetness to the interactions between Hepburn and Tracy, and as a viewer, it’s almost like you’re able to see how they really behaved together as a couple. Bunny, much like Hepburn, is an independent woman who does things her own way, and Richard not only accepts it, he is allured by it.

Considering how many films like “Pillow Talk” portrayed relationships in the 1950s, this one is a breath of fresh air because it shows how it’s possible for a man and a woman to have a relationship based on equality and accepting each other simply as people. In an era that expected relationships to be built on what was regarded as traditional gender roles, this film is quite progressive.

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