Ep 9: Desk Set

Get the podcast: Listen here at PopD | Go to iTunes

Story Analysis & Ratings:

Lucy says: 5 Pops ~ Lucy’s rating breakdown: Structure: 5, Comedy: 5, Romance: 5

Jenny says: 5 Pops ~ Another gold standard romantic comedy on par with It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday. Wonderful romance expertly built on the screen. Must watch it again. Jenny’s rating breakdown: Structure: 5, Comedy: 5, Romance: 5

Blog Poll Rating: TBD

Movie Info:

Story: Richard thinks he’s going to replace Bunny with a computer. She thinks he’s wrong. Also he’s Spencer Tracy and she’s Katherine Hepburn, so you do the math. Release Date: May 1, 1957 Director: Walter Lang Writers: Phoebe Ephron, Henry Ephron. More info at IMDb.

26 responses to “Ep 9: Desk Set”

  1. Best of the bunch so far, I’d say. It beats It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday.

    Failed to tweet it, but hubby thinks William Shatner should walk out from behind the computer when we first time we see Emmie.

  2. I’m so glad you “made” me rent this. The fact that it was written by Nora Ephron’s parents and starred Hepburn + Tracy was a big draw, but I wouldn’t ahve known about the former and might have considered this a minor movie were it not for PD.

    I haven’t listedn to the podcast yet (look forward to it) but my thoughts after just watching it are that it was a witty, fast-paced, fun film, but that the romance was kind of sudden and not very well foreshadowed/built up throughout the film. I’d say Pretty Woman, which I know Jenny doesn’t consider rom-com, is much more of a romance than this, as I really believed those two characters fell for each other, and in Desk Set I only believed they liked flirting a little with each other. It also wasn’t exactly hilarious: funny, but not often laugh out loud funny, I felt. (Pretty Woman is funnier too, IMHO.) But still a strong film, and well worth watching.

    Sad though, that its moral (that computers will not take our jobs) was a total lie. Thank goodness they would have all retired before Google came along.

  3. Just listened to the podcast and have to say that Mike was teasing her and was not literally calling her stupid. He knew she wasn’t. It’s a bad joke but men make them. My Dad has a few infamous things he has said trying to be funny that are just horrid. I think Mike was selfish but not at the level of asshatery that Lucy thinks.

  4. I know what Lucy means. If the heroine chose to stay with someone who treated her badly, then would we (the reader or viewer) see the heroine as wise and strong. Wouldn’t choosing unwisely be out of character?

    Yet, on the other hand, this was an early movie and times were different, gender roles were different, so in that I agree with Jenny. So there you are. I’m safely on the fence, one foot in either yard. ; 0

    Good movie though. Very enjoyable.

  5. I did understand the point Lucy was making: If the previous boyfriend was such a jerk, why was she still with him? It’s a real problem in writing a romance, but I still say that you find out things about people later. Everybody’s on his or her best behavior in the beginning but after awhile, the human flaws show up and they’re either a deal breaker or you gradually absorb them and stop noticing until some catalyst enters the mix–not always a rival–and you see your partner with new eyes. I don’t think it’s a flaw in a heroine unless the ex is truly offensive. I agree that Mike was making a joke and it was a dumb joke and he shouldn’t have made it, but I don’t think it’s a major flaw in his personality. He was charming, he was successful, he was good-looking, and he was always happy to see her. Yeah, he was also thoughtless and selfish, but not enough to jar her out of her infatuation for him. People have gotten married on a lot less. The thing that’s important to the story is that she was already disenchanted with him at the beginning of the story, and when he blew his big chance to take her to the dance, she took Spencer Tracy home. She wasn’t a loser or a victim.

    The other thing that has a big effect, I think, is that her community/workplace admired him. He was big news there. And the pressure of your community/family is a big factor in acceptability.

    But it’s a big deal when you write a romance. He has to be bad enough to leave but not bad enough that you wonder what the hell she saw in him. Or he becomes really awful in the course of the book as he’s thwarted. Many perfectly amiable men become raging dickheads when they get dumped, and it’s only then that you look back and realize the dickhead was there all along in the little things. I think sometimes we go on the theory that if he doesn’t hit and he doesn’t cheat, we’ve got a keeper. Although that’s really a Lucy March conversation not a PopD topic because I don’t think that baseline would fly in a romance novel. As Lucy kept saying, fiction has to be better than real life.

  6. I wouldn’t have thought that a mention of the Mel Gibson tapes would cause me to laugh out loud, but dang it you two have managed it. ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. This was a great movie, followed by a great podcast. ๐Ÿ™‚

    For me, Mike was simply a wasted opportunity. Had he been more likeable, and had we understood Bunny’s attraction to him, then it would have introduced a welcome tension to the relationship between Bunny and Richard. Had Mike been – as Lucy and Jenny said – a good man who simply wasn’t right for her, then my only criticism of an otherwise charming film would have been sunk.

    Much has been said about the brilliance of Hepburn and Tracy, and the dialogue sparkles throughout; I’d also add my praise for the beautiful set design and staging. It seems clear that it remained largely unchanged from the original stage production, but the open spaces and clean camera work allow the action to flow without interruption.

    Oh, and Desk Set is an infinitely better title than His Other Woman, the name under which it was released here in the UK.

    Thank you both for another awesome show!

  8. I agree with Diane: I felt it was more about fun flirting than swooning romance. It’s still fun to watch, though I was more in the “crush zone” than full on in bloom watching it.

    Wow, that is the longest drunken office party I have ever seen. As a young’un I am amazed that people could get that drunk at work for hours. But my office parties are 2 hours long, at lunch, and utterly sober, so…yeah.

    I relate to this because I have a computer job that (a) has been known to make people bitch that their jobs will be eliminated, and (b) if you think about it, theoretically, my job should become so automated that I’ll put myself out of a job.
    However, they have been working on this computer program that I work on for over a decade now, and believe me, IT AIN’T THAT AUTOMATED. It really is like the system in this show: good at digging up the nitpicking detail, but you need an actual human to go look up anything that requires thought. Some things really never do change!

  9. I really enjoyed this. It had so many great moments.

    “Something about the way you wear the pencil in your hair spells money.”

    “I bet you write wonderful letters.” Oh, the look on Richard’s face. I got goosebumps!

  10. I know, I loved the way he looked at her. It was kind of the way Walter looked at Hildy: a sort of acknowledgement that she was absolutely amazing and one of a kind and he needed to be with her as much as possible. There’s something about that much respect and admiration mixed with love that’s just devastating.

  11. One thing that always stood out for me that showed how different the two men were and how they saw Bunny was that Richard had no trouble sitting down at the desk and taking messages and working ‘just like one of the girls’ but you know, in a million years, that Mike Cutler would never have done that. It makes a huge difference in how we see them and in how Bunny sees them, too.

    This movie is always a ‘go to’ movie for me. I wore out several copies on VHS and I don’t even put away my DVD copy anymore. Love this one!!

  12. Hi…this was my first time listening to the podcast – how fun! (I am Ropo on Twitter, by the way.)

    One of the things not mentioned in the podcast was how Peg obviously didn’t like Mike Cutler much, which is our clue that he’s not going to be The Guy. But I do agree with Jenny that he was only joking when he said Bunny didn’t have a brain in her head.

    The computer was pretty ridiculous but …not really! Look at this pic of an actual early computer:

    Jennifer, there’s a similar drunken office party coming up in “The Apartment!”

    I already owned “Desk Set” on DVD, because I’ve always loved it, and it’s mostly for the reasons you guys talked about in the podcast: It’s charming, witty, and the main characters like and love each other for their brains and personalities.

    I did start to watch again after we were done, with the commentary on, but Dina Merrill didn’t really talk much about this movie, other than saying that Katharine and Spencer were lovely. And the other person on the commentary talked a lot about the making of the movie and the studios at the time but he was reading from a script and telling us trivia rather than actually being someone who worked on the movie and was talking about anything from experience. It was one of the oddest commentaries I’ve ever heard, I think! Very weird.

    = Robbie =

  13. Love that computer picture, thank you!
    And I may give the commentary a miss after all. Thanks for the heads-up, too.

  14. I think that Lucy’s opinion that “reality is no excuse for fiction” doesn’t work in this case. Suzanne Brockmann’s characters occasionally comment that there’s no way that a good woman would be waiting around for a hero to appear, but I think that there are an awful lot of people who are either in compromised/ deluded relationships or are alone because they haven’t been in the right place at the right time. The two situations are pretty much the two mirror-image possibilities for those of us who haven’t found true love.

    When one embarks upon a relationship, one doesn’t have complete knowledge, and sometimes, the new info creeps up on one gradually, without one single jolting shock that might cause a break. Having invested in the relationship, sometimes one clings to it, hoping to rediscover or re-train it to the happy place where it started. And if Lucy doesn’t know anyone who stuck with a relationship for several years, hoping for marriage and not getting it, well, clearly the composition of our respective circles of friends differs.

    And if this is, indeed, a flaw in the heroine (which it may well be – a heroine who is a victim is a bit depressing), why can’t it be the one that is mended in her arc? I don’t think it’s a deal-breaker, like being a mass murderer or someone who stamps her food when she gets angry.

  15. Also, Lucy, did you and Jenny have this argument when you were working on D&G, because what about Shar’s loser guy in that?

    I’m firmly in the “why waste my time on a guy who isn’t right?” camp, but I think that’s a symptom of my being risk-averse, not any testimony to my strength of character!

  16. Diane – I’m sorry if you lost your job because of a computer, but on the flip side, there have been many jobs created because of computers too. All of my jobs have been because of my skill set working with computers. So, the fear of computers taking away jobs, is more a fear of change.

    I truly liked this movie in part because of my careers – I’m a computer engineer and a librarian – so I could relate very well to both Richard & Bunny.

  17. It’s just part of the industrial revolution. Every time there’s a leap forward in technology, jobs are lost and jobs are created.
    Doesn’t make it any better if you’re being ground under the wheels of progress, though.

  18. This movie has been one of my favorites for a long time, and the first time I saw it I missed the title completely. Spent years trying to remember it, and when I finally tracked it down again, I watched it three times in a row.

    I love the humor and flirting, especially the interview over lunch on the roof. I love how the payroll machine fires everyone. Most of all, I love Bunny’s job. I think the main reason I love the movie as much as I do is that her job is my dream job – all day researching and referencing the mundane to the obscure. *happy sigh* Heaven.

  19. I have always loved, loved, loved Desk Set. So sweet, so subtle, such GOOD acting. So after watching on Friday, I decided to watch Pat and Mike, which I’d never seen.
    I would proposed that if you want Lucy’s head to pop clean off her body, you have her watch it. It is a similar set-up (KatHep has a fella then meets SpenTra) but Aldo Ray, the boyfriend, is the asshattiest, most punch-worthy fellow. He makes Mike Cutler look like a 21st century dream.
    Having said that, Pat and Mike was great in several ways, particularly because it’s a RomCom about a serious female athlete. I don’t think that was done again until Wimbledon in 2004.

  20. If we make it through this historical survey and start doing theme months, there’s gonna be a Hepburn month, if only for Adam’s Rib. And Pat and Mike. And Holiday. And probably Woman of the Year although I’ve heard that it hasn’t aged well (I’ve never seen it.)

  21. Had a few comments on Bunny’s relationship with Mike. First of all – a relationship that is 7 years old has established patterns – and Mike saying Bunny doesn’t have a brain in her head is part of their pattern and probably slipped in over the 7 years. If a new guy said that to her without the history, yeah she would have decked him.

    Also, Lucy’s comment of no women this smart settling for someone like Mike – ummm Bunny’s was a mature woman who was single and in that era she was probably considered on the shelf about 10 years BEFORE Mike showed up. Mike probably looked pretty good at the beginning. Wearing thin as the years went on, but realistically, how many other romantic options did Bunny have before Richard showed up?

    The discussion in the podcast just reinforced that no matter what decisions your characters make, the reader (viewer) is going to bring their own baggage and judge the character no matter how in character the character is acting.

  22. Hey, all! What a hearty debate – I love it!

    Re: “Reality is no defense for fiction.” This is really important, and really true, always. Here’s what I mean: When someone has a problem with a narrative element, and someone else says, “But that happens in real life,” it’s a sideways argument, and always, always, always wrong. You can give me an argument that’s based in the story – “But Mike Cutler needs to be that way because it serves the purpose of x. y, and z,” and then you’ve got an argument. Or even to say, “It’s not a character violation because Bunny obviously values career status and good looks over intelligence and respect, based on x, y, and z in the story,” would work. But to say it happens in real life doesn’t make it narratively defensible. Real life is no defense for fiction.

    And here’s why; fiction doesn’t have to be better than reality, but it has to be more believable than reality. I understand that wonderful women fall in love with worthless men all the time; that’s not enough to justify Cutler’s complete unsuitability for Bunny, and the fact that she doesn’t see it after seven years. And I don’t care if he was joking about “you don’t have a brain in her head.” If he made that joke while taking some kind of action that showed respect or adoration for her – for example, while NOT leaving all his work for her to do so he could take credit – that would be fine. But a joke like that just means he’s charming her WHILE actively degrading and belittling her. Humor like that is only funny if it’s truly meant ironically; since he obviously has no respect for her, it simply makes Bunny look like a fool.

    And THAT’s where I fall down on this. Bunny is no fool. I can see her being charmed by Mike’s success and good looks, but that shit wears off after a year or so of being used and held on the line, when what she wanted was a marriage proposal, and he was never going to propose – not until someone else showed interest, that was, and even then, given the fact that Mike’s career was his priority, it might have only to been to be sure that Bunny was always there to write his freaking reports. I can see her putting up with that shit for a year, maybe two, and with no goo-goo eyes. Seven years and goo-goo eyes breaks Bunny’s character.

    No, I stand by my assessment here; if Bunny and Mike had just started dating, if it annoyed her that he was using her for his advancement, if she was younger and perhaps not as experienced romantically, if she didn’t so obviously want something he was never going to give her, if he respected her at least a little, if he could offer her something other than good looks and a penis, I would have bought it. But the Bunny who glowed while she sparred with Spencer Tracy, and the Bunny who rolled over for Mike while making goo-goo eyes like he was some swell fella – not the same chick. It’s a character violation, no matter what time frame you put it into.

    And I stand by it. So there.

    As for Ray in D&G – he served his narrative purpose, which was never to provide romantic tension between Sam and Shar. He was a representation of Shar’s old life vs. the new. Shar wanted him to move in, but only recently had been rebuffed; they hadn’t been together 7 years with him not giving her what she wanted; he understood her work and respected it; he wasn’t using her for his career advancement; he was an average shithead, but he never degraded and insulted her; and she wasn’t all making goo-goo eyes at him while he gave her a taser. She was ready to move on pretty much from the beginning, and there was never, nor was there ever supposed to be, any “how do I ever choose?” romantic tension.

    You could make the argument that Mike serves the exact same narrative function as Ray – I’d buy that. But even so, it’s still a character violation that she’s still making goo-goo eyes at him at the beginning. Bunny Watson knows better than that. She definitely arcs well throughout the story, and by the time he shows up in her apartment to find Richard in his robe, Bunny’s fine. It’s the goo-goo eyes at him in the beginning, when she’s known he’s a shithead for SEVEN YEARS. That’s where it falls down for me, I don’t care what time frame it’s set in.

    Reality is no defense for fiction. I stand by it. And Jenny and I argued plenty during D&G. It was some of the most fun I’ve had. Usually, she came to realize I was right eventually, but if she didn’t, I let it go, because I’m awesome like that. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  23. I could bring up the courtyard, but I won’t.

    I agree that reality is no defense. But I would argue that perfection is worse.

    If you eliminate everything dumb thing that people do in relationships because fiction has to be better than reality, you’re left with people who have nowhere to go, nowhere to arc to. Bunny’s complacent in her job and complacent in her relationship, they’re two halves of the same coin of her life. Richard comes in as a catalyst and says, “Hey, there’s something better than Mike, and I can take the drudgery out of your job so you can concentrate on the stuff that challenges you.” Bunny’s in a dead end at work and in love and that happens and it’s realistic and necessary to the story.

    I think two things are happening here that are making you wrong, wrong, wrong Lucy. One we won’t talk about. The other is that I think you have too draconian a view of “fiction must be better than reality.” That rule is handy, but not ironclad and it really refers to implausibility/impossibility more than it does to “I don’t like what she’s doing and I don’t think she’d do that.” We hit it a lot when we used to look at manuscripts in Maui, which was not a romance conference. There were a lot of memoirs disguised as novels, and we’d look at the plots and say, “Look, this doesn’t have anything to do with your story, you can cut that for focus,” and they’d say, “No, no that’s the way it HAPPENED.” Which is when we’d say, “Fine, write a memoir, but if it’s going to be fiction, it has to make sense, it has to be better than reality.” It’s about shaping and focusing and yes, characterization, but it didn’t mean that characters always had to make the smart move or do the right thing. Characters make mistakes.

    I know, I know, you think it’s a character violation for Bunny to want Mike. I just don’t understand why. He’s prime husband material: good job, good looking, charming, well-liked by her community, not overtly abusive, brings her flowers, asks her to dances, and he’s not married. Even if you ignore the era when it would have been pressing for Bunny to marry–she’s an old maid if she’s in her forties–the fact is that people want pair bonds. They want a stable relationship with another person. And they are equals in their community, they enjoy each other’s company, there are a million reasons for her to fall for him just as there are a million reasons for her not to realize that her job could be better. She’s fallen into a rut. There’s every indication that in the beginning he was more attentive–that kind of slacks off after seven years–and he is not abusive. He’s teasing her about her brains, he obviously respects her intelligence, he gives her the report and asks her to read it and tells her how much he values her opinion when he says he doesn’t want to turn it in without her checking it. If you have to judge somebody on what they say or what they do, always pick what they do. So yes, when he stands her up again for his job, that’s a big red flag, but she sees it. She’s not just sucking it up, she’s mad. And she invited Richard in because of it. And when Mike shows up at the door, she yells at him while he’s slanging at Richard. She’s not stupid. She’s human and she’s flawed but she changes and she grows because Richard comes in as a catalyst and everything shifts over a space, and suddenly it’s all new.

    Because really, if Mike wasn’t so careless with her, she’d have no reason to fall for Richard. Mike’s right there, everything she needs, part of her world. It isn’t until Richard comes in and remakes the shape of her world that she can choose because she’s basically choosing between being Mike’s wife–and props to him for planning to support her and not expecting her to work for him, by the way, even though it shows how little he knows her–being Richard’s partner. She’s choosing between two worlds, the old one and the new one. If she couldn’t stand the thought of the computer, she’d have gone with Mike because her old world was ruined. Because she accepts the computer and even appreciates it and wants to work with it, she moves into a new world, leaving the stale one behind with Mike.

    I don’t think this movie works if Mike is a good guy, or at least an acceptable guy. He represents what she has to let go of.

    Or, to put it more succinctly, you’re wrong.

  24. Another example of reality being no excuse.
    In an old copy of Jane Eyre, there was a foreword that mentioned the ESP scene (where Jane hears Rochester calling her, though he’s hundreds of miles away). People apparently told Charlotte Bronte that it was an absurd scene to have written. And her defense was, “But that’s a true story; it really happened!”