Added: 3 years ago
[scene opens inside the FBN reference department, as an older female librarian is speaking into her phone, when the other line starts ringing (it's Cathy the receptionist calling in order to warn the ladies about the impending arrival of engineer Richard Sumner)]
PEG COSTELLO: Hold it please ... Reference department. Miss Costello.
[scene changes to a split screen to show Cathy and Peg both speaking on the phone]
CATHY: Peg? Cathy.
PEG COSTELLO: Yes, Cathy.
CATHY: There's a character named Richard Sumner on his way down to see you.
PEG COSTELLO: Richard Sumner? What for? Who is he?
[her phone beeps]
CATHY: Ooh, my other phone. I'll call you back.
[camera focuses on Peg again, as she continues her previous phone conversation]
PEG COSTELLO: Thank you for waiting ... Is this the Society for the Preservation of Eskimo Culture? This is Miss Costello of the Federal Broadcasting Company, and I'm trying to find out the truth about the Eskimo habit of rubbing noses.
PEG COSTELLO: Yes, connect me. I'll hold on.
[camera pans out to reveal a large room filled with books and file cabinets, as three librarians (the other two younger than Miss Costello) are manning three separate desks, when one of the phones rings]
SYLVIA BLAIR: [into the phone] Reference department, Miss Blair ... Oh, yes, we've looked that up for you, and there are certain poisons which leave no trace, but it's network policy not to mention them on our programs.
[the other librarian's phone starts ringing]
RUTHIE SAYLOR: [into the phone] Reference, Miss Saylor ...
[she suddenly leans in and whispers into the phone]
RUTHIE SAYLOR: Oh, yes. I called earlier about that little black velvet strapless you had in the window.
PEG COSTELLO: [into the phone] Hello. I'm trying to find out the truth about the Eskimo habit of rubbing noses.
RUTHIE SAYLOR: [into the phone] That isn't very much of a reduction, is it?
PEG COSTELLO: [into the phone] Well, do they rub noses, or don't they?
RUTHIE SAYLOR: [into the phone] But I saw an identical one for ten dollars less in a store downtown.
PEG COSTELLO: Never mind. I'll call the Explorers Club ...
[she hangs up]
"Desk Set" ("His Other Woman" in the UK) is a 1957 American romantic comedy film directed by Walter Lang and starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. The screenplay was written by Phoebe Ephron and Henry Ephron from the play by William Marchant.
Desk Set takes place at the "Federal Broadcasting Network" (a transparent alias for NBC, given that the exterior shots are of Rockefeller Center). Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn) is in charge of its reference library, which is responsible for researching and answering questions on all manner of topics, such as the names of Santa's reindeer. She has been involved for seven years with network executive Mike Cutler (Gig Young), with no marriage in sight.
The network is negotiating a merger with another company, but is keeping it secret. To help the employees cope with the extra work that will result, the network head has ordered two computers (called "electronic brains" in the film). Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy), the inventor of EMERAC and an efficiency expert, is brought in to see how the library functions, to figure out how to ease the transition. Though extremely bright, as he gets to know Bunny, he is surprised to discover that she is every bit his match.
When they find out the computers are coming, the employees jump to the conclusion the machines are going to replace them. Their fears seem to be confirmed when everyone on the staff receives a pink slip printed out by the new payroll computer. Fortunately, it turns out to be a mistake; the machine fired everybody in the company, including the president.
THE thought of having Katharine Hepburn as an intellectual competitor is one that should throw fear and trepidation into the coils of any mechanical brain. Miss Hepburn is obviously a woman who is superior to a thinking machine. And that is the one reason "Desk Set," which came to the Roxy last night, is out of dramatic kilter, so far as its basic conflict is concerned.
It simply does not seem very ominous when they threaten to put a mechanical brain in a broadcasting company's reference library, over which the efficient Miss Hepburn holds sway.
Sure, engineer Spencer Tracy can pry in his sly, mysterious way, taking recondite measurements of the available floor space and sticking Miss Hepburn full of quizzical pins. Sure, the office grapevine can hum with rumors and the other girls in the reference library can cringe. The prospect of automation is plainly no menace to Kate.
She stands up to Mr. Tracy's questions with the confidence of a Robert Strom, answering his most demanding queries with accuracy and wit (when Richards asks "what training have you had for your job?", her response comes quickly: "Well, a college education, and after that a library course at Columbia. I was gonna take a PhD, but I ran out of money ... Is this an interview? I mean, I would've had my hair done or something."). She cheerfully makes a monkey of him, as he putters about the place or seeks refuge in her apartment as a consequence of getting soaked in the rain. And even when he, unrelenting, has the mechanical brain installed, she looks upon it with Hepburn hauteur. She's no girl to be scared by a machine.
And so there is really not much tension in this thoroughly lighthearted film, which Phoebe and Henry Ephron have concocted for Twentieth Century-Fox out of William Marchant's play. Indeed, there is not much of anything except Miss Hepburn, Mr. Tracy, an eager cast and a few well-turned jokes and situations that the lot of them nimbly play.
There's Gig Young as a glossy "eager beaver" whom Miss Hepburn thinks she'd like to own; Joan Blondell as the life-of-the-office and Dina Merrill and Sue Randall as lovely help. There's Harry Ellerbe as the unctuous and inevitable purveyor of dire scuttlebut, and there's an office Christmas party that is more lively and extravagant than some.
Best of all, there are Miss Hepburn and Mr. Tracy. They can tote phone books on their heads or balance feathers on their chins and be amusing—which is about the size of what they do here. Under Walter Lang's relaxed direction, they lope through this trifling charade like a couple of old-timers who enjoy reminiscing with simple routines. Mr. Tracy is masculine and stubborn, Miss Hepburn is feminine and glib. The play is inconsequential. The sets and color are good.
Now, the next time they bring up automation, they'll have to pick on someone less formidable than Kate.
The Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn romantic comedy "Desk Set" (1957), filmed in DeLuxe Color, was released shortly after "Interlude." Tracy is Richard Sumner, a methods engineer and inventor of the Electronmagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator (EMARAC), who is hired by the Federal Broadcasting Company (FBC) to determine the feasibility of installing EMARAC in the company's Reference Department.
Hepburn is Bunny Watson, head of the Reference Department, who supervises an outstanding staff that relies on memory and print materials for obtaining information. The storyline is a familiar love triangle: Richard meets Bunny, who is in love (at least superficially) with Mike Cutler (Gig Young), the company administrator responsible for the Reference Department. Richard and Bunny develop a friendly but subtle adversarial relationship, and at film's end, Richard and Bunny fall in love as Mike quietly and unnoticeably walks out of the Reference Department, leaving the couple alone with EMARAC.
Early in the film, the president of FBC, Mr. Azae (Nicholas Joy), informs Richard that he must not tell the "girls in research" what he is doing; Azae does not want them to know "About this big thing that's coming up. It's vital that it be kept a secret."
The girls are Peg Costello (Joan Blondell), Sylvia Blair (Dina Merrill), and Ruthie Saylor (Sue Randall), and with Bunny, they are a formidable reference staff, providing answers to a variety of questions covering every subject matter.
Of the four librarians, only Bunny's educational preparation is revealed; she is a college graduate, with a library course at Columbia. She was going "to take a Ph.D., but ... ran out of money."
Approximately 70 of the film's 102 minutes occur in the Reference Department, and the competency of the staff is demonstrated repeatedly throughout the film, as they answer numerous telephone inquiries. Although each librarian is a generalist, they have subject specialties - Peg, for instance, is the "baseball expert."
They are a cohesive team and exhibit a great degree of camaraderie; although personal money is tight, Bunny brokers the loans (mostly from her purse) so they have spending money until payday. Each librarian has a keen sense of humor. When Richard is standing on the balcony reeling in his measuring tape after determining the distance from the balcony to the first floor, Sylvia asks "Catch anything?" Just moments later when he asks Sylvia to hold the tape for him, she responds, "35 24 35." Richard bounces back with, "Oh, and very nice too," indicating that he understands their humor. Even Mike displays a sense of humor. He often checks on the department, primarily to see Bunny. After chatting with her on one occasion, he remarks to the staff as he leaves, "Bye, girls. Always a pleasure seeing your freshly scrubbed, smiling faces. Remember our motto: Be on time, do your work, be down in the bar at 5:30."
Although humor is a key ingredient in the atmosphere of the library, when rumors about the purpose of Richard's work reach the Reference Department, staff members become apprehensive about losing their jobs. The installation of EMARAC in payroll resulted in a 50 percent reduction in staff in that department. Although Bunny assures Peg that a machine cannot replace them, the staff is pessimistic about the future. The Reference Department's Christmas party, hwoever, is loud and jovial, due in part to the imbibing of champagne and the staff belief that it is their last convivial occasion.
The party reaches its zenith when Richard offers to take them all to the Plaza for drinks. As Richard opens the door for them to leave, Miss Warriner (Neva Patterson) from his lab enters. He immediately suggests that she come back after Christmas, but she begins talking about moving the furniture for the installation of EMARAC on Monday.
The staff is aghast at her pronouncement - their first notice of the impending change; Warriner seemingly validates the rumors that they will soon be terminated when she later adds, "According to Mr. Sumner's figures, it will save in this department alone 6,240 man-hours a year."
The group's holiday spirit is dashed, as is the group's esteem for Richard. Attempting to reignite the holiday spark, he continues, "Now, why don't we all go over to the Plaza and have that drink we were ... uh ... " Bunny stops him with "Why don't you and Miss EMARAC go over and hoist a few?" Richard, realizing the futility of the situation, ushers his employee out the door. Pausing at the door to attempt a reconciliation, he utters, "Look, uh ... " Bunny responds before he can say anything else, "And a very merry Christmas to you, too."
Two weeks later, EMARAC is operational. Staff members, busy assisting Warriner prepare EMARAC for its debut, are very somber as they await their imminent dismissal. Peg reveals their depression in her reply to Ruthie's concern about the late delivery of paychecks, "There's probably something extra in it, like a pink slip."
Later the same day, Azae gives a tour of the building to the "boys" and requests Richard to give a brief overview of the capabilities of EMARAC. When Richard asks for a question to test EMARAC, Bunny offers a question that required three weeks for her staff to research the answer: "How much damage is done annually to the American forest by the spruce budworm?"
FBC's president then asks Bunny if she remembers the answer; she does, "$138,464,359, and some cents."
Emmy, as Richard affectionately calls the machine on occasion, prints out the answer - $138,464,359.12.
The touring "boys" are impressed by the quickness and accuracy of EMERAC. Turning to Bunny, Richard asks how much staff time it took to find the answer. Acting nonchalantly and with a quick snap of her fingers (as if it were an easy question), she responds, "Forty-five minutes." Richard, emphasizing the efficiency of EMARAC, remarks, "Well, even at that, you can see that this one operation alone saved your department 44 minutes." Azae is impressed with the increased efficiency and leads the group to payroll, where another of Richard's EMARAC machines is installed.
As soon as the tour group exits the library, paychecks arrive. Each staff member stares at her pay envelope, each anticipating termination. Bunny breaks the silence, "Oh, who's afraid. C'mon, all together." All four have pink slips, and Bunny (attempting to lighten the impact of the bad news) comments, "Not only that, but they took out for Blue Cross again this week." They now turn their attention to finding some boxes and helping Bunny pack her office items - she has eleven years of accumulation.
As staff members scurry about gathering personal items in preparation for leaving, Warriner handles the telephone inquiries, revealing for the first time a complete absence of reference skills. When Richard returns from the tour, she asks for help; he, in turn, asks, "Where is everybody?"
Bunny replies, "Here we are, Mr. Sumner," as the four staff members with pink slips stand idly by and watch the developing fiasco. When it becomes apparent to Bunny that their clients will be receiving inaccurate information, she puts her staff to work to demonstrate that they can be as effective as EMARAC in answering questions.
Upset and in a state of confusion, Warriner makes a mistake with EMARAC, and its console begins to smolder, the lights on the display flash on and off, and its bells and whistles sound. She begins screaming and crying, while Richard wants to know the "stupid mistake" she made so that he can fix the problem. Crying and screaming in anger that the staff sabotages her work and creates an atmospher of hate and suspicion, she blames Bunny for the problems, maintains that Richard is just as bad as the reference staff, and runs out of the department.
As Richard and Bunny reset EMARAC, the department courier arrives with mail for Richard. The telephone rings, prompting him to ask why they refuse to answer the telephone, and Bunny responds, "We don't work here anymore." "I don't understand," he remarks, adding inquisitively, "What did you do?" Opening the envelope, he finds a pink slip, exclaiming, "I don't even work here!"
Realizing the staff has been fired, he rushes to telephone the president. "Azae, you broke a promise to me. You know everybody down her in research has been fired?" Azae, waving his pink slip in the air, shouts into the telephone, "The whole darn building's been fired. That crazy fool machine of yours in payroll went berzerk this morning and gave everybody a pink slip."
Richard exclaims, "That's impossible, that just couldn't happen." Richard informs the reference staff of the mistake, assuring them that they are still employed, that the workload will be increasing, and that the company will be adding "a few more girls. I just hope they're as good as all you are." The staff is ecstatic, and Richard's popularity soars among staff members in the Reference Department.
Bunny, Peg, Sylvia, and Ruthie make a distinct break with the image of librarians in previous films, especially in clothes; they wear very colorful, fashionable ensembles. Being smartly dressed is important to the staff, as indicated by Ruthie in the first six minutes of the film. Answering the telephone, Ruthie responds to a caller, "Oh, yes," and then lowering her voice, continues, "I called earlier about that little black velvet strapless you had in the window ... But, I saw an identical one for $10 less in a store downtown."
All of the "girls in research" are stylishly coiffured women; Peg, a blonde, has a pizie style bob with a full bang; Sylvia, a blone, has a page with a half bang and both sides held back with combs; Ruthie, a brunette, has a bob with a flip in back; and Bunny, a redhead, sports an attractive bun with pincurls on the top and side - the only hairstyle that even closely approximates the visual characteristic. Costume designer Charles Le Maire either failed to examine or purposely ignored the costumes of past reel librarians. His costumes enhance the beauty of these four, as does the makeup artistry of Ben Nye.
Bunny and Peg are "only 38" but project images and personalities radically different from previous "only 38" librarians. They sing, they dance, and they drink champagne in the library - conduct unbecoming for preceding "only 38" reel librarians who were deliberately portrayed as sedate; as elderly by costume, makeup and age; and as autocratic interpreters of library rules, often illustrated by the commanding "shush" for silence.
Because the Reference Department is a special library, the research unit of a large corporation, the governing rules are established by the company and do not parallel the restrictive rules for behavior and conduct of tax-supported libraries; for example, municipal public libraries and state university libraries. The department is not silent; in fact, the opposite is true, and until EMARAC arrived, smoking was permitted. Although the department does not resemble the traditional library of previous motion pictures and its staff does not resemble previous reel librarians, the "girls in research" exhibit most of the occupational tasks that identify reel librarians - answering telephones, finding answers to inquiries, sitting behind desks, and working in book stacks. That they are librarians is indisputable. That they are creating a new image of reel librarians is indisputable. That this new image will be acknowledged by and reflected in the post-1957 work of actors, writers, and directors is very problematical.