Movie: “Desk Set” (1957)

We watched “Desk Set” with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy last night. I’m pretty sure I had added this to my Netflix queue on a recommendation from a film director, although I’ve lost the source on that. It does look like a film a director would like.

"Desk Set"

Publicity photo for “Desk Set” / Public Domain (from Wikimedia Commons).

Briefly, it’s a romantic comedy about the women who work in the reference department of a major media company, dealing with the arrival of office automation, which they all fear will steal their jobs. Hepburn is the “real head” of this department, although the nominal head is her boss with whom she’s had a protracted and stagnant romantic involvement. Tracy is a representative for the computer company.  Despite the romantic entanglements, the themes of work, automation, and human and machine competencies are actually a pretty big theme. For those who are interested, the film also definitely passes the “Bechdel test“, since a lot of the women’s discussions are about their jobs, rather than their love lives (although there’s a lot of both).

It is a very well-made movie. The flow from scene to scene is just really fluid, and there’s some nice on-screen composition. The scene when all the women get ‘pink slips’ looks a lot like the “Where do we go from here?” shot in “Once More with Feeling” (the Buffy musical episode).

It’s also both illuminating and amusing to look at the 1957 idea of what a “computer” looks like. Not a big surprise after watching other work from that era, but this wasn’t a “science-fiction” computer, but the pop-culture idea of what a contemporary computer would look like.


About Terry Hancock

Terry Hancock is the producer and director of "Lunatics" ( ). He is also a regular columnist for Free Software Magazine ( ), and a lifelong advocate for space, science, and technology. More at
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