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Film / Desk Set

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Desk Set is a 1957 Romantic Comedy film directed by Walter Lang, adapted by screenwriters Phoebe and Henry Ephron from the 1955 play The Desk Set by William Marchant.

Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn) is the head of the research department at a large broadcasting network in New York City. Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) is a "methods engineer" who is studying ways to use computers to make businesses more efficient. When he starts hanging around Bunny's department, she's convinced he's trying to replace her and her staff with a computer. She's sort of right...

This was the second-to-last movie that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn appeared in together, followed only by Guess Who's Coming to Dinner a decade later. Also in the cast are Joan Blondell as as Bunny's friend Peg and Gig Young as her longtime boyfriend Mike.

Tropes appearing in this film:

  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: The original play ends with Bunny listening to an apology and proposal message from Cutler, with the implication that she will accept and transfer with him. Meanwhile, the film ends with Cutler letting Bunny go, and Bunny instead returning Sumner's feelings and staying at her position.
  • Adaptation Expansion: The original play all took place in the reference department, where the film expands to several locations. In addition, the film adds:
    • The subplot about the company merger that Sumner has to keep secret.
    • The romantic subplot between Bunny and Sumner (who was younger in the play), including the entire apartment scene. The original play implied Bunny would stay with Cutler.
    • Scenes that makes it clearer how the gossip chain works in the office.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: Where Sumner of the film is generally easy-going and admires Bunny's intelligence from the off, Sumner of the original play is more uptight and haughty, and outright calls Bunny a freak for her incredible memory.
  • Age Lift: Richard Sumner is implied to be a young man in the original play, as he is Mr. Azae's nephew and makes a couple of ageist comments towards Bunny. The film's Sumner was played by a then 57-year-old Spencer Tracy, and is more of a contemporary of Bunny's.
  • Alcohol Hic: The building's receptionist loudly hiccups on the day of the boozy Christmas party. Richard suggests she get something to drink.
  • Big Red Button: Or rather, a small red toggle switch that, when removed, sends the computer into a whirring, beeping, paper-spewing frenzy. Its actual purpose is never explained—it and its 'do not touch label' apprently exist just to tempt fate.
  • Brand X: The characters all work for a fictional broadcasting network (the Federal Broadcasting Corporation) with headquarters in 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
  • Brick Joke: Sumner puts his wet shoes in Bunny's oven to dry off. After the argument with Mike, they start commenting on a burning smell and decide it's a blocked ventilator. Once Peg drops in she actually checks... and brings out Sumner's smoking, overcooked shoes.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: No, not that Bunny - Sumner. He wanders around the office not quite knowing what day it is, likes to eat on the rooftop in the middle of December, doesn't bother about prestige, and is a world-class computer expert.
  • Companion Cube: Bunny says that EMERAC is Sumner's love more than herself and asks him to prove otherwise by pulling the lever to see if he'll ignore it. He makes a valiant effort to do so, for about sixty seconds.
  • Convenience Store Gift Shopping: Bunny's Christmas gift to Mike. She had monogrammed a nice bathrobe for him, but he'd already seen it—on Sumner. So she grabbed a pair of bongos that was under a sign reading "For the Man Who Has Everything."
  • Caught in the Rain: Bunny and Richard have a fairly innocent — if suspicious-looking — version of this. She invites him into her flat to get out of the rain and they share dinner together.
  • Digging Yourself Deeper:
    • Mike has already offended Bunny by accusing her of cheating on him, then he compounds it by saying he never expected to see her with another man in a way that implies she's unattractive.
    • Sumner says that he'd better go change—his clothes are in the bedroom. He realizes this with an air of casual amusement, since he's aware they're all pretty close to rock-bottom anyway.
  • Distinction Without a Difference: Bunny asks if Sumner is an efficiency expert. Sumner dislikes this term and calls himself a "methods engineer" instead. What's he engineering? A way to make the office more efficient.
  • Good with Numbers: Bunny, who uses mneumonics to keep track of the math questions that Sumner puts her to and edits Mike's financial reports.
  • Foreshadowing: The repeated mentions of the other machine Richard is installing in the payroll department. At the climax of the movie, it fires everybody, including the CEO and Richard himself.
  • Fun with Palindromes: "Able was I, ere I saw Elba" makes an appearance.
  • Googling the New Acquaintance: As a research librarian, Bunny is able to do this to Richard despite living in the pre-Google era.
    You were born in Columbus, Ohio in May. That makes you a Gemini. You're a graduate of M.I.T. with a PhD in Science. You're a Phi Beta Kappa, although you don't wear your key, which means either that you're modest or that you lost it. You spent World War II in Greenland ... working on something so top secret that even I couldn't find out about it. You're one of the leading exponents of the electronic brain in this country, and the inventor of an electronic brain machine called EMARAC - the Electromagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator.

    That's all I found out so far, but I only had half an hour.
  • Gossipy Hens:
    • Office gossip spreads like wildfire. The building receptionists keep an open communication with the other departments, alerting them to possible developments that might affect their employment (hence the rumor that EMERAC is going to replace the reference librarians outright).
    • Smithers in the legal department is a male example, a pleasant but nebbish fellow who is quite nosy and chatty.
  • Graceful Loser: Mike and Sumner arrive at the same time to propose to Bunny. When Mike sees the two of them together, he quietly slips out of the office.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Bunny and Peg are joined at the hip.
  • Hypocrite: When Bunny hesitates at the idea of moving to the West Coast on short notice, Mike storms out in a huff over having "waited" seven years.
    Bunny: You waited!
  • I Was Quite a Looker: The old lady who shuffles around the building as though she owns it. When Sumner asks who she is, Bunny points to the drawing of a young Athena-like figure; the lady was the model for the network's mascot when they first started, and the company still pays her a salary.
  • Man Versus Machine: It's set up to look like this is going to happen — but it turns out in the end that Richard is actually installing EMARAC to help the Research Department with trivial tasks, not to replace them. He just can't talk about it because of the company's impending merger.
  • Mood Whiplash: Even with the argument between Mike and Bunny, the office Christmas celebrations are ready to end on a high note when someone wheels a piano into the reference library and Sumner decides to take everyone out for a drink. Then Sumner's computer assistant turns up and starts talking about where the new computer is going to go.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: EMERAC is basically ENIAC.
  • Not What It Looks Like: Bunny invites Richard into her apartment to dry off, and gives him a bathrobe. Nothing especially racy happens, but Mike has trouble believing that when he walks in on the two of them eating ice cream together in their bathrobes (especially since Richard is wearing a bathrobe that Bunny was going to give Mike for Christmas).
  • Office Romance: Between Bunny and Mike, initially. Later it becomes Bunny and Richard.
  • Omnidisciplinary Scientist: Somehow, Sumner got a PhD in "science" from MIT. Not computer science, which is the only one he demonstrates expertise in, just... science.
  • Photographic Memory: Bunny has this, or something very much like it. It's a job requirement.
  • Promoted to Love Interest: Sumner in the original play was merely an antagonist to Bunny who eventually gained a grudging respect for her, and was implied to be much younger than her to boot. But when you cast Spencer Tracy in the role, alongside Katherine Hepburn as Bunny, well... adjustments must be made.
  • Romantic Runner-Up: Mike spends most of the movie as Bunny's nominal boyfriend, even though neither seems particularly fond of the other. At the end Richard convinces her to walk out on Mike in the middle of him trying to propose to her.
  • Rouge Angles of Satin: One of the issues with EMERAC. If you put in the wrong spelling or the wrong context, it'll spit out an answer, but not the answer. Or a hundred-stanza poem that cannot be interrupted until it's done.
  • Running Gag: Throughout the film, the Reference Department gets multiple calls requesting the names of Santa's reindeer. Apparently at least some of them are from the same person.
  • Sarcasm-Blind: Sumner's assistant, Miss Warriner. When Bunny starts to needle her at the Christmas party and sarcastically claims a terrible memory, Warriner confusedly asks why she went into reference. Sumner pulls her away.
    "Watch out, you're playing in the major leagues."
  • Sherlock Scan: Bunny notes that Richard must be single, as he's wearing mismatched socks.
  • Shout-Out: Mike brings Bunny a large stuffed rabbit with a champagne bottle inside, which she refers to as "Harvey."
  • Stock Lateral Thinking Puzzle: Richard administers Bunny a test that includes some of these, including the one with the two dead goldfish.
  • Techno Babble: After hearing Sumner talk about his ideas for a few minutes, Mr. Azae says he has no idea what any of it meant but that it sounds terrific.
  • Wrong Guy First: Mike Cutler. The main objection is how he takes Bunny for granted; she's been wanting to advance the relationship for seven years and he can't even commit to taking her to a dance... but then expects her to drop everything with a few day's notice when he's transferred.