“I don’t smoke, I only drink champagne when I’m lucky enough to get it, my hair is naturally natural, I live alone… and so do you.” – Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn)
Merry Christmas — we’re being replaced by machines.
This is the pinning plot line of Desk Set, a 1957 film that scrutinizes efficiency technology through a romantic comedy portrayed with Hollywood’s most intellectual couple.
Katharine Hepburn plays Bunny Watson, a genius working in the reference department for a major network. Her life consists of answering questions from employees on literature, science, history and culture, and her romance with network hotshot Mike (Gig Young) is the biggest frustration she has in her life. But then Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) enters the picture, and his job as an efficiency expert and computer sales man means that he’s there to replace them all with a room-sized machine.
Desk Set is predictable based on its cast alone. Hepburn and Tracy don’t have to work very hard — they’re as charming together as they have been in movies like Without Love, with as much biting disdain for each other in the beginning as they exhibited in Adam’s Rib. As the story continues, they find themselves torn between seeing each other as enemies and as love interests. Bunny risks losing her job and boyfriend Mike. Sumner risks losing his sales. But these are small drawbacks that don’t detract from the magnetism between the two of them.
Something that makes the Tracy-Hepburn partnership work is their equality. Desk Set is the pinnacle of that even-handedness — both have a job and an ax to grind, and both know that the best way to achieve their goals is together. Walter Lang’s film is the last comedy the dynamic duo would complete together, and it’s a fitting way to say goodbye to an ideal relationship that starts out rocky but ends with a smooth albeit predictable end.
But Desk Set is more than the last comedy Hepburn and Tracy made together. It’s also a reminder that (wo)man cannot be replaced by machine. As Peg Costello (Joan Blondell), one of Bunny’s coworkers, says, “Well, if we do get canned, we won’t be the only ones to lose our jobs because of a machine.” 1957 was just the beginning of the downsize era where workforces shrank and computers grew in their places. As much as the film focuses on the relationship blossoming between Richard and Bunny (and the one dying between Bunny and Mike), at its core it preaches the power of humanity over the efficiency of machinery. Mike in a way represents the machine — steady, predictable and a silo for Bunny. Richard, however, gives her more of a challenge and is more willing to display his emotion when talking about the woman he once loved. He gives her a reason to keep working, even if it is to prove him wrong about how the department operates best.
Walter Lang’s film is a romantic comedy disguising something much more important for the era. Although computers no longer take up rooms (or our desk sets, even), the movie is a reminder that human contact and ingenuity will always win when it comes to curiosity, discovery and love.