In which we reconsider and reevaluate a piece of pop culture. This week, Kazia is inspired by her library school classes to re-watch a classic Hepburn-Tracy rom-com.
Here’s the thing. I am totally biased. My family has been watching Desk Set since I can remember. My dad and I are obsessed with what we have dubbed “The Sandwich Scene,” during which Tracy and Hepburn eat white bread sandwiches and we crave them desperately. Every. Single. Time.
This movie holds so much personal nostalgia for me and is probably (subconsciously) one of the reasons reference work has always seemed so delightful to me. BUT: beyond the bias of childhood nostalgia, Desk Set is a really superb and relevant film.
Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn) is the head reference librarian at the Federal Broadcasting Network’s corporate library. When a company merger, temporarily kept secret from employees, creates a need for more efficiency (in an already extremely efficient library), Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) is hired to subtly evaluate the library for the installation of an absolutely ginormous computing system called EMERAC.
Sumner quickly butts heads with Bunny and her three co-workers, who are justifiably anxious that EMERAC may make their jobs obsolete. However, Sumner quickly wins them over with his Spencer Tracy crankiness,
and their uneasy sparring turns cordial as they quickly become friends. Bunny’s dead-end relationship with her boss (network executive Mike Cutler, played by Gig Young) steadily becomes less and less important to her the longer Sumner sticks around, and since it’s a rom-com you can guess how the rest pans out.
So, here’s the thing. Desk Set definitely plays into its fair share of tired gendered librarian stereotypes: it features four lady librarians, all single and unlucky in love.
But the lady librarians in Desk Set are also so much more than their potential cat-lady futures. They’re incredibly bright, but not unbelievably so, and their intelligence and efficiency are never questioned by any of the men in the film. It’s also worth noting that they have a librarian showdown, in which the four reference librarians race to find the most accurate information faster than EMERAC.
Now, Desk Set may be the all-time greatest film featuring librarians (this is practically a scientific fact–see the librarian showdown) and a delightful romantic comedy. But it is as much a story about technology and change as it is a rom-com. In our contemporary culture, which has integrated computers and digital technology into virtually every aspect of life, parts of Desk Set may feel silly or outdated. However, the questions that the film asks are the same questions we are asking in our digital-saturated age: Will technology make human employees obsolete? Is there a fundamental human element that technology cannot replace? Are humans and technology destined to be mortal enemies, or can they work in harmony for a greater good? (Okay, maybe this is a little melodramatic, but the heart of the question remains true).
In library school, we frequently talk about the ways that technological changes and advancements will affect our profession. Our classes are lead by professors who are not digital natives, and their concerns about adapting to and evaluating technology permeate our discussions. Desk Set reflects these anxieties of digital non-natives, and while we may not be worried about computers the size of a small room, we are still worried about new technologies that are beginning to permeate our lives. At the end of the film, we learn that it was never actually a question of librarians vs. technology, Bunny vs. EMERAC; rather, the technology was intended all along to aid the real, living, breathing librarians and make their work even more efficient. Ultimately, Desk Set reassures those of us who may be uncomfortable with technological advancements (digital natives or not, librarians or not) that it is not actually a question of who will triumph, humanity or machinery.
It is a question of how we can utilize technology to make the work of humanity the most effective it can be. That’s a pretty good question to ask.
Watched it recently and want other recs?
If you want more Katharine Hepburn –
Holiday (1938). A self-made man (Cary Grant) goes to meet his fiance’s very wealthy family, only to fall for her black sheep sister (Katharine Hepburn) instead. Also featuring Doris Nolan, Lew Ayres, and Edward Everett Horton.
Bringing Up Baby (1938). A missing brontosaurus bone, a leopard, Cary Grant, and a screenplay written for expressly for Katharine Hepburn. What else do you need to know?
Or if you want more Spencer Tracy (or, let’s be honest, more Hepburn/Tracy) –
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Classic film about how the political becomes personal when white liberalism is tested by interracial marriage. Sidney Poitier co-stars.
Adam’s Rib (1949). Hepburn and Tracy co-star as married lawyers working on opposite sides of a case. As one can imagine, tensions become quite high. Judy Holliday also co-stars.
And of course, the most classic Hepburn-Tracy film: Up