Cast & Crew
When efficiency expert Richard Sumner comes to the research department of the Federal Broadcasting Company to evaluate work patterns, his eccentric behavior piques the curiosity of researchers Peg Costello, Sylvia Blair and Ruthie Saylor. Bunny Watson, the quick-witted, sharp-tongued head researcher, begins to worry when Sumner informs her that he is a methods engineer whose goal is to improve the man-work hour relationship. After observing the department, Sumner confers with Mr. Azae, the head of the network, about computerization, and Azae asks him to keep the project a secret. Meanwhile, Bunny admires a gown she has purchased in the hope that Mike Cutler, her boss and suitor of seven years, will invite her to a country club dance, prompting the wise-cracking Peg to counsel Bunny that she has made herself too available to Mike, who treats her "like an old coat." Soon after, Mike appears, and after asking Bunny to look over his department financial report, offhandedly invites her to the dance and a weekend in the country. Afterward, Sumner invites Bunny to lunch and she has visions of dining at a posh hotel until Sumner escorts her to the blustery rooftop of the office building and hands her a sandwich. Sumner then gives Bunny an ability test, and she astounds him by answering every question perfectly. Bunny quips that she has researched Sumner and discovered that he is the inventor and patent holder of EMMARAC, an electronic brain. Impressed, Sumner compliments Bunny by calling her a "rare tropical fish." After lunch, Bunny pumps Smithers, the office gossip, for information about Sumner. Upon returning to the office, Bunny is breathlessly informed by Peg that Sumner has come to replace them all with his mechanical brain. After Bunny reassures Peg that no machine can do their job, Peg counters that half the payroll department was dismissed after EMMARAC was installed in their division. As Sumner daily haunts the research department, the team becomes extremely paranoid. On the eve of the big weekend, Mike drops into Bunny's office to break their date because he has been asked to accompany Azae to Chicago as a result of "his" exemplary financial report. At the end of work that afternoon, Bunny and Sumner encounter Smithers in the hallway. It is storming outside, and consequently, Smithers offers them a ride with his squalling family. After Smithers drops them off in front of Bunny's apartment building, Bunny invites the soaked Sumner in for dinner and gives him a robe to wear that she has bought as a Christmas gift for Mike. They dine convivially, dressed only in their robes, and when Sumner walks into the kitchen to fetch dessert, Mike rings the doorbell and explains that his plane has been grounded. When Sumner appears, the pompous Mike is shocked to find Bunny entertaining another man. Peg rings the doorbell next, and when Mike apologizes for his unseemly behavior, Bunny thinks Mike is about to propose, but instead, he disappoints her once again. At the office Christmas party, the research staff laments the fact that this will be their last office party. As Peg and Bunny giggle, slightly tipsy from an abundance of champagne, Sumner scrutinizes his budget and Mike returns from Chicago. When Bunny presents Mike with a set of bongo drums as his Christmas gift, he starts to propose but is summoned to Azae's office. In Mike's absence, Sumner pounds the drums as Bunny sings. Sparks begin to fly between Bunny and Sumner, and Bunny accuses Sumner of never marrying because he is in love with EMMARAC. Mike then returns, bubbling with the news that he has been promoted to vice president. When Mike announces that he and Bunny will leave for the coast on Tuesday to be married, Bunny makes excuses about why she cannot possibly leave New York, and Mike accuses Bunny of being involved with Sumner and angrily storms out of the office. Sumner then merrily invites the entire office for a drink, but the air of congeniality is shattered when the coldly efficient, condescending Miss Warringer arrives from Sumner's office to arrange for the installation of EMMARAC. Soon after, EMMARAC arrives, overseen by Miss Warringer and her many prohibitions. When their pay envelopes arrive stuffed with pink dismissal slips, the staff sadly begins to pack up their desks and refuse to answer the phones, which are ringing off their hooks with research questions, forcing the befuddled Miss Warringer to deal with the onslaught of calls. Sumner is puzzled by the staff's lack of cooperation, and after EMMARAC goes berserk, Miss Warringer breaks down in hysterics and runs screaming from the office. After receiving his pink slip, Sumner discovers that the entire building has been fired by the payroll computer. Sumner then explains that EMMARAC was never intended to replace the research department, only to help them do their job, but the project was kept secret because of an impending merger with another network. After Sumner teaches Bunny to use EMMARAC, she fondly pats the machine. When Mike, bearing roses, enters Bunny's office, Sumner calls her out of the room and asks EMMARAC if Bunny should marry Mike or him. Asserting that EMMARAC would always come first in Sumner's life, Bunny pushes the destruct button to prove her point. As Mike leaves the roses on Bunny's desk and silently departs, Sumner repairs EMMARAC and then hugs Bunny.
Jack M. Lee
Paul S. Fox
Harry M. Leonard
Cyril J. Mockridge
Edward B. Powell
Walter M. Scott
E. Clayton Ward
Lyle R. Wheeler
Head researcher Bunny Watson (Hepburn) presides over an office of accomplished research whizzes including Peg Costello (Joan Blondell) and young experts-in-training Sylvia Blair (Dina Merrill) and Ruthie Saylor (Sue Randall). Soon the research office is set atwitter by the mysterious arrival of efficiency expert Richard Sumner (Tracy). He becomes a daily presence in the office observing the research department's ways and finding out how best to incorporate his computer invention, which he lovingly refers to as "Emmy," into the office. But Richard may have found a worthy rival for even his beloved super brain in the brilliant Bunny, who has an encyclopedic recall of every fact under the sun. Though their relationship shows signs of a romantic attraction, Bunny continues to date her handsome but non-committal boss Mike Cutler (Gig Young) who has been seeing Bunny for seven years but can't bring himself to propose.
That already tenuous relationship is threatened in one of the film's most memorably screwball scenes when Mike shows up unannounced at Bunny's apartment on the same night that Richard has wrapped himself in an incriminating robe and slippers while seeking shelter from a rainstorm. But the threat posed by Richard may be secondary to that posed by the room-sized, temperamental EMERAC, as pink slips begin to arrive in the research department.
The International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) was thanked in the credits for Desk Set for their assistance on the film, though the actual EMERAC machine, as portrayed in the film, seemed more like a science fiction concept than a realistic computer, capable of feats no 21st century machine could duplicate.
The EMERAC computer was in fact modeled on two real computers, the first general purpose computer ENIAC, developed at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946 and the UNIVAC, released in 1951. Though computers were relatively unknown to movie audiences and did not have the dominance they have today, by the time Desk Set was made, computers were, indeed, beginning to replace whole offices of workers.
William Marchant's play was loosely based on an actual CBS research librarian, Agnes E. Law, though the film's establishing shots of Rockefeller Center suggest that the company in Desk Set was meant to evoke NBC. The Katharine Hepburn role was played onstage by Shirley Booth. In Marchant's play there was no romance between efficiency expert Richard Sumner and Bunny, but screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron added a romantic story line in order to capitalize on the famous on-screen chemistry between Tracy and Hepburn.
Desk Set was the eighth screen pairing of Hepburn and Tracy, after a lull of five years since Pat and Mike (1952). But Desk Set was a first for Hepburn and Tracy in many regards: the first film the pair made together outside MGM, their first color movie and their first CinemaScope production. They would make only one more film together, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967).
Though the film took full-advantage of the magnificent romantic repartee between Tracy and Hepburn, critics were less than kind when appraising the film as a whole. John McCarten of The New Yorker wrote "both Mr. Tracy and Miss Hepburn give their formidable all to Desk Set, and occasionally they make the thing seem reasonably acceptable, but the material is too shoddy even for them, and in the long pull the movie is a bore."
Almost every reviewer at the time attributed what moderate fun the film did provide to the memorable performances by not only Tracy and Hepburn but a strong supporting staff, including Gig Young who accepted a secondary role in the film for the chance to work with Tracy and Hepburn. Young had recently married future "Bewitched" star Elizabeth Montgomery despite father Robert Montgomery's strong dislike for his son-in-law who he saw as too old and professionally unaccomplished for his daughter.
The socialite-heiress Dina Merrill made her film debut in Desk Set and found a champion for her work in Tracy. Months after Desk Set had wrapped, Tracy petitioned to have Merrill play a role in a film of John O'Hara's book, Ten North Frederick (1958) in which he was also appearing. Tracy was so adamant that Merrill appear in the picture that when she was turned down for the role, Tracy left the production as well, with Gary Cooper replacing Tracy.
"They were so generous and so nice and kind," Merrill remembered of Tracy and Hepburn, especially when compared to some of her other famous co-workers. When Merrill auditioned for a part in Sayonara (1957) Marlon Brando told the director Joshua Logan that he didn't want Merrill to appear in the film, calling her "too tall and...too damn bossy."
Director: Walter Lang
Producer: Henry Ephron
Screenplay: Phoebe Ephron and Henry Ephron from the play The Desk Set by William Marchant Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Production Design: Lyle R. Wheeler and Maurice Ransford
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Richard Sumner), Katharine Hepburn (Bunny Watson), Gig Young (Mike Cutler), Joan Blondell (Peg Costello), Dina Merrill (Sylvia Blair), Sue Randall (Ruthie Saylor), Neva Patterson (Miss Warringer), Harry Ellerbe (Smithers).
C-104m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Felicia Feaster
You don't care whether you impress people or not, do you?- Mr. Azae
You wait until you get my bill. You'll be impressed.- Richard Sumner
Now what is the first thing you notice in a person?- Richard Sumner
Whether the person is male or female.- Bunny Watson
That's correct!- Richard Sumner
Yes, I know.- Bunny Watson
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
How do you know that?- Richard Sumner
Because you're wearing one brown sock and one black sock.- Bunny Watson
Tough question?- Richard Sumner
No...(chewing)...Tough roast beef.- Bunny Watson
The working title of this film was His Other Woman. The film's opening credits are depicted as being spewed out by a computer. They are followed by a written acknowledgment thanking the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) for their assistance. A 1986 obituary in Park LaBrea News notes that William Marchant's play was loosely based on the experiences of Agnes E. Law, the former CBS librarian who established the network's research library. According to a November 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item, Shirley Booth, who starred in the stage version, was to repeat her role for the film and Marchant was signed to write the screen adaptation.
In the play, the librarian's interactions with the efficiency expert were brief and somewhat hostile. Screenwriters Phoebe and Henry Ephron built up the role of the efficiency expert and tailored the interactions between him and the researcher to fit Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
Desk Set was the first picture that Hepburn and Tracy made together outside M-G-M. According to a March 1957 Los Angeles Times news item, Hepburn chose Dina Merrill, Sue Randall, Merry Anders and Diane Jergens for their roles in the picture, which marked Merrill's screen debut. Harry Ellerbe reprised his stage role of "Smithers" for the film. Although Hollywood Reporter news items add Wilmot Donald, Buzz Barbee, Henry Hollins, Terry Terrill, Joseph Gilbert, William Janssen, Wanda Barbour, Ann Gardner, Lorraine Bond, Dee Sharon, Evelen Ceder, Alena Murray and Bopeep Karlin to the cast, their appearance in the released film has not been confirmed.
Released in United States on Video March 1, 1990
Released in United States Spring May 1957
Released in United States on Video March 1, 1990
Released in United States Spring May 1957