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16 December 2012

DESK SET (1957): A Happy Hepburn Christmas

Walter Lang's DESK SET (1957) is one of Katharine Hepburn's few "Christmas movies." You could possibly count LITTLE WOMEN (Cukor, 1933) or Anthony Harvey's THE LION IN WINTER (1968), but DESK SET stands out as a film that really captures the Christmas spirit, at least for the first half of the film. Below is a selection from an academic paper I wrote about "communities of women" in Hepburn's films. I compared and contrasted two Hepburn films centred on a group of professional women: STAGE DOOR (1937) and DESK SET (1957). This post is written in a more formal, analytical tone, but I hope it will inspire deeper thinking about the films we all enjoy. Warning: this post contains spoilers, highlighted in yellow.
DESK SET is about the internal workings of the research department of a television network. The department consists of four women, headed by Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn). The group start to worry about losing their jobs when engineer Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) begins taking measurements for the instalment of a new computer, which threatens to replace them all. Bunny has her own troubles with seven-year beau Mike Cutler (Gig Young) who finally proposes when he gets a promotion. But she cannot decide whether marriage is worth sacrificing her career and leaving her group of co-workers. Sumner makes matters right when he proposes, giving Bunny an alternative: marriage to a man who respects her intelligence and would support, rather than interfere with, her career.

Katharine Hepburn’s character Bunny is both the leader and the core of the group of women she manages in the research department. She is best friends with the oldest member and role model for the youngest member. Throughout the film, the audience is consistently allied with the female group, rather than with a single male or female protagonist. Not only is each member of the group presented favorably, but the rhetoric of the members of the group, combined with their easy relationships with other members of the larger company, form a united front of solidarity.
The women are shown as friends as well as co-workers and this establishes an appealing unity which the audience wishes to see perpetuated. The viewer also becomes defensive of the group a whole, wishing to see it protected from the external forces which would enable or necessitate its dissolution. Although Hepburn is undeniably the central character of the film, the audience is made to care for the future of the whole group rather than a single member of the group. For example, Mike’s proposal comes as a personal success for Bunny, who has been trying for seven years to get him to think of marriage, but the audience heaves a sigh of relief when she denies him on the grounds of her unwillingness to abandon the female group. If Sumner did not offer the implied opportunity for Bunny to continue her work in the department, the audience would fail to register her personal success (i.e. marriage) as a desirous outcome for the film as a whole.
The youngest member of the group, Ruthie (Sue Randall), offers a very interesting study into the potentials of a young (eligible) professional woman of the 1950s. On the one hand, she clearly cares about her physical appearance and her eligibility for marriage. On the other, she is devoted to her work. In one scene, Ruthie offers to stay overtime for extra work, arguing that “It was hard enough getting this job and I want to keep it.” She also expresses gratitude when Miss Watson offers to recommend her for a raise in the new year. There is also a subtle but decided connection between Ruthie and Bunny Watson, Bunny as the most senior member of the group and Ruthie as her protégé. It is these two women of the group who are made to assert, or reassert, their positions in the department. Ruthie’s position is challenged when Miss Warriner (Neva Patterson), from Mr. Sumner’s lab, tries to take over Ruthie’s desk as her own (“Hey, that’s my desk!”). Miss Watson’s assertion is implicit in the comment that it would “take a moving van” to get her out of her office when they all get fired.
The relationship between these two women in particular is representative of the relationship between Hepburn’s star persona and the audience of women who looked to that persona as a model for their own quest for autonomy. This connection between Ruthie and Hepburn’s character allows for the representation of Ruthie’s radical life goals. The audience has accepted Hepburn’s star persona as independent and so is able to accept Ruthie’s desires by association with Hepburn’s achievements. It is clear that Ruthie is not likely to pass up any opportunities for success in the field of romance or career. She has two examples of woman to look to for guidance: Peg (Joan Blondell), who passed up any chance for marriage and regrets it, and Bunny, who has found a way of achieving success in both career and marriage, if a little late in life.
"I don't like cats - I like men, and so do you."
From the start of the film, it becomes clear that Bunny and Peg will either marry or become old maids and keep cats. Bunny comes to the realization midway through the picture that the situation she has created for herself is more black and white than she would have hoped. She knows she wants marriage, and until Sumner comes along, that meant marriage to her seven-year-beau, Mike Cutler. It isn’t until Mike actually proposes and threatens to take her away from work and her group of female co-workers that she realizes that her loyalties actually lie with the solidarity of the female group. When he asks why she hesitates to accept his proposal, her arguments defend her autonomy as a legitimate member of a social group which excludes him. He cannot comprehend how the group from which he is excluded can have such a hold on the woman whom he wishes to possess.
Bunny – “Well, there’s my job. I can’t just walk out.”
Mike – “I’m a vice president. I hereby transfer you to the west coast to take care of me! Anything else?”
Bunny – “What about the girls, Mike? I can’t just leave them, just leave them. Not when they’re so worried about their jobs.”
Mike – “Sorry. I can’t help you there. I don’t propose to take them on my honeymoon! But, they’re all invited to visit us next summer when we have our own house.”
Mike – “What’s the matter, Bunny?”
Bunny – “Nothing! You just threw it at me so fast I just can’t think!”
Mike – “What’s there to think about? What do you want to do with your life? Marry the Federal Broadcasting Company?”
Mike – “When two people want to get married, they don’t worry about apartments or jobs or anything else. Look, I had every reason to think you wanted this just as much as I did!”
Bunny – “You had every reason to think I wanted it twice as much as you did!”
The more strongly the audience is allied with the female community, the less it sympathizes with Mike because he threatens the solidarity of that community even more than Sumner does. Mike threatens to remove the essential member from the community by posing as her choice to leave it voluntarily. The forced disintegration of the group by the computer has the potential of making the group more united ideologically whereas the voluntary separation of its key leading member could demoralize the purpose of the friendship structure. As Ruthie says, “You know even if we do get other jobs, we won’t be together. I’ll miss all of you terribly,” to which Peg replies, “Don’t worry, Ruthie, we’ll get together once a year regularly, like the Ziegfeld Girls.”

Throughout the film, Mike is consistently kept separate from the group. He physically separates himself a number of times by insisting on meeting in Bunny’s office, behind closed doors. He does not take into account the fact that the doors are glass and that Bunny is both literally and metaphorically impossible to separate from the female group. He, in effect, separates himself from the group by maintaining the presumption that he is somehow hierarchically senior to the group. He may have seniority within the company, but within the hierarchy of allegiance with the audience, he is on the bottom-most rung. The hierarchy of allegiance starts with Bunny, then her female co-workers, then Sumner, then her male co-workers, and eventually Mike.

Although the men in DESK SET do not immediately threaten the solidarity of the group, none of them is shown as positively as any of the female characters and they all indirectly have some control over the women’s jobs. Although women in 1955 could be found employed in many jobs usually reserved for men, “the percentage in high level positions remained small” (Kaledin 66). Bunny, for example, holds a respected position as head of research, but all her seniors in the company are men. The scene in which Bunny checks Mike’s financial report (which we find later is one of the reasons for his promotion) shows the audience that she is just as capable, if not more so, of doing his job as he is, thus perpetuating the idea that “seniority was invariably the reward of long-term presence on the job – not of capability” (Kaledin 67). However, we discover later in the film that Bunny has been with the company for over a decade. We do not know how long Mike has been with the company but there are certain implications that suggest he came after she did. This question of seniority is complicated further when examined alongside the text of alliances in the film.

Even before he begins his work in the research department, Sumner is wary of the potentials of the female group, but he does not underestimate them. The audience is directed to feel a fondness for Mr. Sumner who is not part of the male machine of the corporation. His presence in the department poses more of an immediate threat to the solidarity of the female group, though he is innocent of any presumptions the group or the audience may have made. Unlike Mike, Sumner does not alienate himself from the group, but rather he infiltrates the group. Although the prospect of the installation of a computer concerns the women, Sumner’s eccentricities prevent them from feeling threatened by him personally. His constant presence endears him to the group in a way Mike’s absence and self-imposed separation alienates him from the group.

In fact, it is only after Sumner’s exit from the department that trouble really sets in for the community of women. The computer replaces Sumner’s presence; he has no need to be around anymore when computer is working. The audience misses his human presence because a male as part of the female group is more welcome than the computer that threatens it. It is by contrast to the machine that the audience comes to realize the humanity of Sumner’s character. The gender difference is explained away by the introduction of Miss Warriner who is a female, but who is more like the machine than Sumner. It is as if Sumner is forgiven for being a male by the idea that his female replacement could in fact be worse.

It is also legitimate to note that by this time in the Tracy/Hepburn film cycle most 1957 American audiences would recognize from the beginning that their characters would ultimately unite to form what scholar Andrew Britton would call the ideal democratic couple: “the creation of a heterosexual relationship based on the social/sexual/professional ‘equality’ of the partners” (179). Sumner is allowed to enter the female sphere because “he’s with her” – Tracy’s persona is automatically allied with the Hepburn persona, which is the head of the group. Therefore, he is permitted entrance by default. By the end of the film, Sumner is answering phones and in the very last scene, he even answers the phone as Bunny, thus symbolically completing their unity. Such a union does not remove Bunny from the community of women as much as it adds Sumner to it. The audience gets the feeling of Sumner having been accepted by the community of women as he becomes less of a threat to its solidarity. Mike, by contrast, is never accepted by the group because he segregates himself from it.

The combined star text of the Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn alliance mediates the complications of the 1950s film about a community of women. Ruthie’s desires for a successful career are mediated by her buying a dress and by her close association to the familiar Hepburn character. Peg’s prodigiousness as a baseball expert is mediated by the insistence that she does like men, not cats, and that she would get married if it were possible. And Hepburn’s inevitable union with Spencer Tracy’s character mitigates her presence as the “tempestuous red-haired genius.”

DESK SET proves that communities of autonomous women have a place in society if the text of the central character makes them acceptable to that society by way of being exceptions. Hepburn’s popularity as an exception supports the acceptance of these groups in a way that necessitates their existence. The presence of the familiar Hepburn persona prevents the audience from registering horror at the possibility of a group of autonomous women as the focus for a popular film. George Cukor, who directed Katharine Hepburn in ten films and was her dearest friend in Hollywood, once said, “Kate is the most eccentric person I know. And the most eccentric thing about her is she thinks she’s regular” (Chandler 11). Perhaps this is the reason for her energetic spirit and perhaps this is what all twentieth century women aspired to – the regularity of Hepburn’s eccentricity as an autonomous female.


  1. Kate is so lovable in this movie. I figured out a while ago that this is the best word to describe her in Desk Set: Lovable. And the Tracy-Hepburn chemistry is, as always, sharp as a razor. I love this one.

  2. Excellent! You have given me new ways to look at one of my favorite films! Thank you.

    I had never thought of Ruthie as a Mini Me of Bunny, but now that you mention it, she definitely is!

    I had never thought of this as a battle of the sexes as much as a battle of executives and employees, making Sumner - the independent contractor/consultant- not really a part of the on-going fray, despite, as you point out, bringing an imminent threat to our protagonists. I can see now that it is both kinds of battles because the genders are separated thus with the men in superior positions.

    However, when you add in those men who are technically on the same level as the ladies in the Reference Department -the men in the legal department and the page boy/gopher who, if I recall correctly, accidentally gets a pink slip- and who are subject to the whims of the executives just as the ladies are, the gender battle isn't as clear cut. Anyway, you make good arguments.

    And Mike constantly closing that door= self-alienation from the women is a wonderful observation!

    Thanks again!

  3. Absolutely stunning!! I have bookmarked your page and would love to recommend it to few of my friends!! Thanks

  4. Can't enter my responses. Last try. Your assessments excellent. I add to discourse the rogue-ish scenes between Hepburn and Tracy in which we know theirs will be, in future, a marriage of equals. Hepburn's 'eccentricity' is some people's genius. Her recitations in scenes as Head of Research show her range, her original rendering of old saws from Hiawatha to Clement Moore. Glorious. There will never be another Hepburn. And neither Garbo nor Dietrich had the range. I'd love to hear comments.


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