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Desk Set

Desk Set (or His Other Woman in the U.K.) is a 1957 romantic comedy film directed by Walter Lang[?] and starring Spencer Tracy (as "Richard Sumner") and Katharine Hepburn (as "Bunny Watson"). Its screenplay was written by Phoebe Ephron[?] and Henry Ephron[?] from the play by William Marchant[?].

Warning: Wikipedia contains spoilers

The Plot

Desk Set takes place at the "Federal Broadcasting Network" (a transparent alias for NBC, given that the exterior shots are of Rockefeller Center). The network is negotiating a merger with another company but is keeping that secret so far. To enable the employees to cope with the extra work from the increase in the company's size, the network head has ordered two computers. When they find out the computers are coming, the employees jump to the conclusion the computers are going to replace them, and that misunderstanding leads to classic comedy.

Views of Desk Set

As a movie, Desk Set has often been criticized, but the critics differ somewhat over whether the main problem was the unbelievable characterizations in the original play or the casting of Tracy and Hepburn in those parts. Watson, for example, is a capable executive running the reference library (a key department for the network), but she buys a formal gown on approval in the breathless hope her executive boyfriend (who has been stringing her along for the past seven years) will ask her to the Country Club dance this Christmas -- the same boyfriend (played by Gig Young[?]) who is her boss and gets his promotion to vice president because of the departmental budget she finalizes for him from his working draft. With the public, however, no film would be a financial flop if it was about Tracy and Hepburn sparring wittily with each other and then agreeing at the end to marry, and the comedy is, indeed, witty and entertaining -- as much so today as then, which is one reason the film is a classic.

The movie's real importance, though, is as propaganda, using that term in its broadest and most favorable sense of a public relations effort to convey a message of social significance to some population. At the beginning of Desk Set, right after the credits, is a message about how much IBM helped in making the movie; at that time IBM had not quite finished establishing its dominance over the computer market, but computers were already starting to replace whole offices of clerical workers, and most Americans did not know much more than that about computers. This movie would prepare them for what computers were about to do to their society.

In the movie, Sumner is a computer engineer (called an "efficiency expert" then but perhaps a "hacker" now) who is installing the two computers he has just sold FBN: one for the payroll department, and one for Watson's reference department. This showed, decades before the Internet was ever dreamed of, that besides its role as a calculating machine, the computer would revolutionize information storage and retrieval, too.

The room-sized EMERAC units (which is the size computers really were then) are portrayed as big, mechanical babies that need a safe environment (preparing people for the air-conditioning (both temperature and filtration) requirements and other engineering considerations of real computers then) and human beings, not only to program and maintain them, but to love them, too, for them to be able to carry out their intended missions. The explicit moral of the story, articulated by Sumner/Tracy so no one can miss it, is that a computer is not a monster that will take people's jobs away but a tool that will make their work easier and more enjoyable. One of the implicit morals is that computer people may seem a little quirky at times, but they are basically nice people.

External link to Desk Set (http://us.imdb.com/Title?0050307) IMDb page



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