Sunday, 10 January 2010


“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” - Lesley P. Hartley

We watched a classic old movie yesterday, the 1957 Walter Lang film “Desk Set” with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. This dynamic duo and real life “illicit” couple made several films together and was able to bring the marvellous chemistry of their real life onto the screen. Something which is not always the case (compare for example the lack of chemistry between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in “Cleopatra”). The movie was lightweight, enjoyable, fun and an insight into other times and other places – interesting how time changes a place so that it becomes almost unrecognisable! The New York of 1957 is another place to the New York of 1987 or of 2007…

I am sure that in a few decades old films will be widely used in schools to teach history, sociology, economics, science. They are already historical documents in their own right, but a well-made film conserves a picture of society as it was, it shows how people interacted, what their environment was like, their mores, their habits, their relationships, their beliefs, their fears, their joys, their ethical values. It is interesting also to see what emphasis was placed on dialogue, rather than special effects or convolutions of the plot. It is rare to see a modern film where witty repartee plays a central role in the action of the film.

The plot of this film revolves around a mysterious man hanging about the research department of a big TV network. This in itself is an interesting proposition as most people nowadays find this a wonderfully quaint notion: To have a whole department with many staff doing what a simple search engine like Google will do in seconds today. The man proves to be engineer Richard Sumner (Tracy), who’s been ordered to keep his real purpose secret. His task is to computerise the office with a super-duper (ginormous) IBM computer (using punched cards, now that’s antique!). Department head Bunny Watson (Hepburn), who knows everything, needs no computer to get to know who Richard is and what his agenda really is. The resulting battle of wits and witty dialogue pits Bunny's fear of losing her job against her attraction to Richard.

The tale of man versus machine is well told by this film and it makes an overwhelmingly positive statement in terms of who the winner is (or does it? And of course reality and the future has something to say about this battle – remember what I said about Google?). The fear of machines replacing people in their workplace has been with us for hundreds of years. During the industrial revolution anti-machine sentiment was raised high and it culminated with the Luddite movement. The Luddites were organised groups of early 19th-century English craftsmen who surreptitiously destroyed the textile machinery that was replacing them. The movement began in Nottingham in 1811 and spread to other areas in 1812. The Luddites, or “Ludds”, were named after a probably mythical leader, Ned Ludd. They operated at night and often enjoyed local support. Harsh repressive measures by the government included a mass trial at York in 1813 that resulted in many hangings and banishments. The term Luddite was later used to describe anyone opposed to technological change.

Most people would find this Luddite concept quaint, and who would, nowadays, give up their computer either at work or at home? We may have lost our old jobs, but we have created new ones to replace them. No machine will run itself – it needs human input at several stages of its operation. What computer will program itself or repair itself or build a clone of itself? We may have machines, but machines and technology requires constant human support.

Now back to the film. Lightweight it may be but nevertheless enjoyable. The acting is old fashioned, the script simple, but the interaction between the leads fantastic and the supporting cast well chosen (Gig Young, Sue Randall, Joan Blondell and Dina Merrill). The treatment of Bunny by her long-term lover (Young) is a sub-plot and may have many people today cringing at the way he mistreats her (but I guess, it still happens now, although I should hope not as commonly as it used to).

Watch it and relax – it’s bubbly, but it’s also good history and sociology!


  1. One of my absolutely all time favorite movies starring two of my all time favorite actors. Thanks for the post. Maybe now more people will see it.

  2. I love this movie! thanks for the great review, reminds me to go out and find it and watch it again.

  3. I have loved that film for decades.
    The clothes!
    Those of us who started work in Melbourne offices in the 1960's can recall that entire scene. I was sent home to change my miss mod-white stockings by the office manager in 1965 because "they are inappropriate for the office dear".
    The Desk Set is the joyous version of the Mad Men series recently embraced by an age group with no idea how vile it was for women in the old days.
    Remarkable that the first film about a computer was written by the parents of the woman who wrote the first film about emails.

  4. I'll look for it and watch it because it sounds like a film I'd enjoy.