Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas with Katharine Hepburn Spencer Tracy and the Electronic Brain Desk Set

Celebrate the holidays with The Desk Set

Desk Set Movie Poster 11x17
Desk Set is a 1957 American romantic comedy starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. It was originally a stage play by William Marchant. The film was released as His Other Woman in the UK.

The play opened on Broadway in October 1955. Shirley Booth as Bunny Watson received rave reviews. Among the actors to appear in the theatrical version were Joyce Van Patten, Louis Gossett Jr and Doris Roberts.

In the play notes Bunny is described as "a woman with encyclopedic knowledge and facts and figures at her fingertips." 

It’s set at Christmastime in New York City. Hepburn plays Bunny Watson, the head of the reference & research department in the large "Federal Broadcasting Network." Her last name is apparently in honor of IBM founder and CEO Thomas J Watson who died in mid-1956.

We see the exterior of Rockefeller Center (headquarters of NBC) decorated for the holidays. 

The time of year makes it more festive but also adds some motivation for people to reevaluate their lives – and to have one swell office party!

From the notes of the mid-1950s play: "In the midst of all the mayhem there is a typical office party at Christmastime when all the girls get to kiss the boss and when some young men think it's time they told him what they really think of
him. And running throughout is romance and just a little heartache."

This article will have a lot of spoilers. If you don’t want to know what happens before seeing it, my suggestion is that you take a break and enjoy the movie now.

"In the event of an air raid alarm remain in your seats and obey the instructions of the management." From the Director of Civil Defense. 
-- Inside cover of the Broadhurst Theatre Desk Set Playbill 1955


"Those Christmas parties where everything goes and anything can happen!"

There are two main threads to the story, the romantic comedy and the fact that new computer systems are being installed to manage the company’s accounting and research departments. 

Bunny has been seeing her boss, Mike Cutler, for the past seven years. She’s also been doing much of his job for him. She hopes that he’ll pop the question. 

Parts of the film are fanciful and typical of the time period. Some young women were sent to college or work supposedly to meet a man or in hopes of marrying the boss.

The computer, called EMERAC, is referred to as the Electronic Brain. The characters call it She, even naming it Emily or Emmie. Making it female is reasonable since the thing looks like someone parked a battleship in their office. It’s somewhat anthropomorphic. She's really another character in the movie.

I read that the computer was modeled after two real computers, the ENIAC and the UNIVAC, both invented by IBM rivals, Eckert and Mauchly. The suggestion was that calling the computer in Desk Set EMERAC might “perpetuate the public impression that all computers are made by IBM.”

UNIVAC I used 5,200 vacuum tubes, weighed 29,000 pounds (13 metric tons), consumed 125 kW, and could perform about 1,905 operations per second running on a 2.25 MHz clock. The Central Complex alone (i.e. the processor and memory unit) was 4.3 m by 2.4 m by 2.6 m high. The complete system occupied more than 35.5 m² of floor space.
-- info from Wikipedia

Spencer Tracy is Richard Sumner, Methods Engineer. "Efficiency Expert is an obsolete term," he says. He is the inventor of the computers, the one who’ll install them and acquaint the workers with them.

This is the eighth of nine movies that Hepburn and Tracy made together. The first was Woman of the Year in 1942, Desk Set was 1957. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner 1967 would be their final movie together. Mr. Tracy died just days after the completion of that film.

The credits proclaim, "We gratefully acknowledge the cooperation and assistance of the International Business Machines Corporation." The opening credits are efficiently typed out for you on a state of the art line printer. 

It’s important to note that IBM was essentially a partner in the production of Desk Set. Between the colorful IBM Selectric typewriters that the characters have at their stations to the computers that are central to the plot, IBM is in the movie one way or another start to finish. 

A little bit of full disclosure: I first started using computers in the late 1970s early 1980s. This included some that didn’t have monitors. They had the keyboard and one of those line printers. Windows wasn’t in existence yet. 

If there was a mouse on the desk, we’d tell our cat and he’d go after it. My experience with computers and my experience working in university libraries from the mid-1980s through the 2000s makes this film even more meaningful.

As a student worker I answered phones in the Reference department back in the late 1980s. A few callers could dial up and access our system. It was confusing as I read from a sheet and asked them about their speed and their baud rate.

As a staff member, I remember overhearing touring freshmen ask, “Why do we need the library now when everything’s online?” The concerns of the characters in Desk Set are perennial.

ADAM'S RIB, from left: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, 1949

The head of the network orders Tracy’s character to remain secretive about the computers. This serves to increase the anxiety. Staff members are consequently sure they’re losing their jobs and very suspicious of Sumner.

We see examples of what were probably the first bad search results if you can call them that. Human beings retrieved information from different sources and entered that data into the computer. Later someone asked a question and that data had to be retrieved.

Every step could have a mistake or misunderstanding. The computer was installed to help the librarians give callers answers faster. A person was between most of us and the answer that a computer would spit out. A librarian would evaluate & interpret the computer’s answer.

Many of the problems we face today with computers popped up right off the bat in Desk Set. How you phrase your search is important. Do you use Boolean searches?

Is the question vague, is part of it misspelled? How had the information been input in the first place? Garbage In Garbage Out they say.

The women in Reference were used to interpreting and distilling the callers' questions before even beginning to look for an answer. They knew where to look for the answer.

In the early days of computers, there was no Internet. There were no search engines; you didn’t get a list to choose from. With one huge computer, you asked one question at a time. No one cared if ‘you were feeling lucky.’

Whatever came up first was your answer, even if it was pages and pages long, you had to wait for it to type itself to the finish. 

Would we do better today, over 50 years later, answering the questions that callers asked then on today's Internet? Some of the questions are at the end of this post along with some IQ questions that Sumner asked Bunny.

Desk Set Katharine Hepburn, Neva Patterson, Spencer Tracy
Canvas Art Picture

"You know you can't interrupt EMERAC in the middle of a sequence!" Sumner says when a misspelling in a search mistakenly starts the computer typing out an 80 stanza poem. Hope you won’t get caught in an infinite loop.

The 1950s also saw IBM’s My Fair Ladies program luring women to careers in technology. The brochure, which was handed out - in part- to women on college campuses, had a bunch of purple flowers on the front and blossoms scattered throughout.

Shirley Booth's Broadway Bunny didn’t strike up a romance with efficiency expert Richard Sumner. The screenwriters added the romantic storyline to take advantage of the Tracy-Hepburn chemistry and box office magic.

His Other Woman/Desk Set
Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Joan Blondell Lobby Card

The Christmas and New Year’s backdrop is important in Desk Set. Even though Richard Sumner’s arrival (as the bearer of the machine) appears to mean the potential loss of jobs, Bunny gives him a Christmas gift.

She’s researched him as much as he has researched her. She gives him a 6-foot long knit scarf in his college colors. Looks like he really likes the gift.

The coworkers are close friends. They seem like a second family. The characters have qualities you’d look for in a holiday movie, people you’d like to see year after year. It’s nice to see a love story about smart, witty characters that aren’t so young. I know several people who watch Desk Set yearly at Christmastime.

Just like Sumner, Bunny Watson has a college degree. The women in the Reference department are great characters, especially for that time. They’re working women with different personalities, at different times of their lives. Would they continue working if they got married? Who knows?

They remain as calm as possible when faced with the probability of losing their jobs and when faced with the cacophony of ringing phones and a behemoth smoking beeeep-booping machine in their office.

His Other Woman/Desk Set
The Librarians rule, Computers Drool
Original Lobby Card

The supporting players are terrific. Perhaps top of the list is Joan Blondell as Peg Costello, Bunny's good friend and co-worker. She reminds Bunny that Cutler is using her and Bunny can do better. 

Blondell is well known for many films such as Golddiggers of 1933 and Nightmare Alley (1947). She went on to appear in The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Grease (1978), The Champ (1979) and television such as the 1960s ABC western series Here Come the Brides. 

Sue Randall is Ruthie Saylor, best known for her role as the Miss Landers, Beaver Cleaver’s teacher on Leave it to Beaver.

Dina Merrill as Sylvia Blair. She made her film debut in Desk Set. Ms. Merrill was asked to participate in the documentary, The Hollywood Librarian: Librarians in Cinema and Society.  

Ann Seidl, the writer and director of the documentary, said she was thrilled to have Ms. Merrill participate in the film. "Desk Set contains some of the most recognizable librarians in American cinema. And the issue of technology in libraries is one of the major themes of the movie and of the time period. Being able to talk with one of its stars on camera will add greatly to the documentary." -- Library Worklife, ALA-APA News, October 2005.

Neva Patterson (Miss Warriner) had a long career. In 1957, she played Cary Grant's fiancee in An Affair to Remember. In 1984, she was also in All of Me with Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin in 1984.

Gig Young was Mike Cutler, the department supervisor and Bunny’s so-called boyfriend. As friend Peg pointed out Bunny was too available to him and he treated her like an old coat in his closet. Relatively quickly he and Richard Sumner become jealous of one another and rivals for her attentions if not affections.

After working late Bunny and Richard leave the office in the pouring rain. They catch a ride in the car with a co-worker, Smithers, and his visiting family, ending up at Bunny’s apartment building.

Gossip in the office, is like the original intranet. One person tells another, then another. The Telephone game. Information morphs into misinformation, it spreads, getting mixed up as it goes along. The ones who talk the loudest and repeat their stories most often get heard and remembered.

Soaking wet from the storm, Bunny invites Richard inside. She unwraps a robe that’s to be a Christmas gift for Mike Cutler and gives it to Richard to put on while his clothes dry. She changes into something else herself. 

Desk Set/His Other Woman
Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn
Gig Young, Joan Blondell

This is reminiscent of a similar scene Hepburn had with Cary Grant in Bringing up Baby back in 1938.

There’s a great idea for a present. Buy something and personalize it yourself. Bunny says she can’t return the robe because she embroidered Cutler’s initials on it. Make it personal and special.

Of course Cutler ends up coming over and finding Sumner in Bunny’s apartment in a bathrobe. Richard makes the most of Cutler’s suspicions. The scene is great and many fans believe that Spencer Tracy was adlibbing some of the funniest bits. I like looking around her 1950's apartment, especially the kitchen.

Maybe this year you can serve floating island for dessert one evening? Sure looks yummy.

The office Christmas party is a highlight. Everyone is dressed up. The men are wearing red vests and holiday ties. The women’s dresses are festive, more glamorous than their usual attire. Someone asks about the policy at Christmastime. You just have to keep the doors open, they say.

This was the era of a panel game show, What’s My Line? Regular panelists came out five nights a week in tuxedos and sparkling evening attire to play a game guessing what people’s occupations were.

When the gals in Reference give the mail boy a cash Christmas gift they tell him to go to other departments and make a big show of what they gave him. They also suggest adding some money to it! The boy last year did it. "He made a big show of what we gave him and it worked. They met our figure."

His Other Woman/Desk Set
Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn
Jingle Bells-Night and Day Bongo Drum rendition
vintage Lobby Card

One of the gifts Cutler gives Bunny is a plush rabbit with a zipper up the back. Inside is a bottle of champagne. Bunny calls the rabbit Harvey, in reference to the Jimmy Stewart film from seven years earlier. 

She keeps expecting Cutler to propose and prove Peg wrong, but it doesn’t happen. Things need to change.

She gives Mike some bongo drums instead of the robe. He isn’t impressed. But Richard likes them. He plays them at the party as Bunny sings and dances.
They wheel in a piano and fill the water cooler with wine. 

His Other Woman/Desk Set
Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy
Original Lobby Card

Sitting in amongst the book stacks, Richard and Bunny get to know each other better. She asks why he’s never settled down.

"I never found any woman to put up with me except Caroline. She was a model. 5’10” in her stocking feet."

"You had occasion to measure her?"

"Among other things, yes. If it hadn’t been for the war..."

"Oh you got a Dear John letter?"

No, he says. "Imagine sitting on an ice cap in Greenland and getting a six-page letter telling me that women’s necklines were going to go up the following year... I don’t exactly look like a fella who’s interested in women’s fashions do I?"

"Not even in men’s," Bunny says.

He had his friend look her up and then he got his Dear John letter. 

Bunny says he hasn't settled down because he's in love with someone else: "Emily EMERAC. That monster machine you created, that’s who. She’s all you ever think about." 

He laughs at this suggestion, and then pauses. "I bet you write wonderful letters," he tells her, but Bunny is called away.

Miss Warriner, a very efficient no-nonsense woman who works with Sumner arrives to install EMERAC and everyone’s spirits take a nosedive. 

In the notes of the original play, Miss Warriner is described as being, “not yet 30. She is most modestly dressed in a grey suit but a certain brisk efficiency in her demeanor suggests that a permanent spinsterhood is most certainly to be hers.” I doubt this would have been in that brochure that IBM handed out to young college women.

James Stewart signed 8X10 sketch of Harvey (Inscribed To Margaret)
Miss Warriner is to program and run the computer. She will tell the librarians  never to touch a bright red lever. Emmie "will get upset and make lots of rude noises."

EMERAC is ultimately able to be tamed with a hairpin. This, among other things in the movie, should help calm anyone worried that machines are out to take over the world.

In short order they receive pink slips with their paychecks, their fears realized. They begin packing up their belongings. When the phones ring with people asking questions, the ladies tell Sumner and Miss Warriner to answer them.

This is where we see that interpreting the questions originally asked and how they’re entered into the computer (the search terms), where you get your answers are all very important.

Some questions don’t even seem to require the computer. Sumner is asked to name Santa's reindeer and he answers something along the lines of, “Dasher, Dancer, Bashful, Dopey, Doc and Rudolph.” 

Rudolph was around in book and song form in 1957 but he’s not one of the reindeer listed in ‘Twas the Night before Christmas. Snow White was also a famous film but her seven dwarves wouldn’t appreciate being mistaken for reindeer.

Bunny is finally beginning to accept Cutler for who he really is.  It turns out a malfunction with the electronic brain’s counterpart in Payroll is responsible for the pink slips. Everyone in the building got one, including the president of the network. Even Sumner himself and he doesn’t even there.

The movie ends with events that bring about some personal clarity on the parts of both Bunny and Richard. Cutler gets a promotion and wants Bunny to accompany him to the west coast. After all, she does most of his work for him. There are meltdowns by both EMERAC and Miss Warriner.

Instead of directly expressing his feelings for her, Sumner suggests that Bunny ask the computer if she should marry him or Mike Cutler. She gets the message loud and clear. It’s a happy ending for another maybe non-traditional Christmas movie.

Christmas and New Year’s are good times to think about your life. If coincidentally there’s an upheaval in your workplace, and an interesting new man into your life, maybe you should take advantage of gifts that are given to you take a new path.

Katharine Hepburn. (1907-2003)
Autograph Letter sending Christmas and New Year's Greetings.
These clips contain Sumner's asking Bunny the IQ Questions,
The end of part 4 and beginning of Part 5

Part 4, IQ questions start about 2:30

Part 5 begins at the beginning

Activity One:

This was the gist of the IQ test that Sumner gave Bunny on the roof of the building at lunchtime. Chances are that he intentionally took her to spot where she would be uncomfortable and he would not. 

If you want to try it, read the questions aloud to someone and see what their answers are. Should be asked aloud since you’re supposed to use your head to solve the problems.

The IQ questions

1) A train started out at Grand Central with 17 passengers aboard and a crew of
This is part of the
Christmas Movie Blogathon

At 125th street 4 got off and 9 got on.  
At White Plains 3 got off and 1 got on.  
At Chappaqua 9 got off and 4 got on.
At each successive stop nobody got on, nobody got on until the train reached its next to the last stop, where 5 people got off and 1 got on. 

Then it reached the terminal.

She says 11 passengers and a crew of 9. He tells her that's not the Question
How many people got off at Chappaqua?

2) Do you notice anything unusual about the following sentence?
“Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba”
(It’s a Palindrome)

3) He says three telephone numbers and asks her to repeat them back to him

4) Advice Never Assume* A detective broke into an apartment and found Harry and Grace lying on the floor dead. Beside them was a small pool of water and some fragments of broken glass. Above them on a sofa looking down on them was a pet cat, his back arched. The detective concluded without further investigation that the victims had died of strangulation. How was this conclusion possible?

In a class by itself is the question of....
All available statistics on Corfu [** Query was input as Curfew and the computer printed out an 80-stanza poem; Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight is a narrative poem written by Rose Hartwick Thorpe when she was 16 years old, in 1867. "You know you can't interrupt EMERAC in the middle of a sequence!" You also couldn’t ask anything else until this was finished.]

In 1989 Katharine Hepburn won the American Comedy Awards
Lifetime Achievement Award

The statue is available as a one of a kind movie collectible

Christmas Card featuring
Katharine Hepburn and Snowman friend in Little Women, 1933

Activity Two:

Here are some of the questions that people called and asked on the phone. You may want to print these out, hand them out to different people and see what answers people get with today’s technology. 

It’s really not a fair comparison for a few reasons. To begin with, in the film the questions were asked over the phone. On the parts of the callers and those entering the questions into the machines, there were spelling errors which brought very wrong answers.  Also these were asked in 1957.

What are the names of Santa's Reindeer

What is Scrooge's first name?

How many brothers and sisters did Tiny Tim have?

What was Scrooge's partner's name?

What is the total weight of the earth?

Does the king of the Watusis, like those in the movie, King Solomon’s Mines, drive an automobile? (The caller was asked to spell it and explain what the Watusis were and then even say what publication would probably hold the answer to the question.  Somehow the person on the phone suggested a recent issue of a newspaper, the Herald Tribune. Not sure how the caller knows all of this). How would you answer this question?

Can you confirm the Eskimo habit of rubbing noses as their way of kissing?

What is the traditional Thanksgiving song?
How much damage is done annually to the American forest by the spruce bud worm?

The entire text of A Visit from St. Nick (which you had to read to them) 

Why not read it to someone you love?

Related Pages of Interest
There's a Skeleton in My Love Story: Adam's Rib and Bringing Up Baby? How is the 1923 Silent movie Adam's Rib similar to the 1938 classic screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby?

1 comment:

  1. I generally put "Desk Set" on sometime in September. It's not really too Christmassy, but it has that grand party to get me in the mood to start some early shopping.

    "I bet you write wonderful letters" Isn't that the most wonder "I love you" in the movies?

    Great selection for this blogathon. Well done and Merry Christmas.


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