Desk Set


Desk Set with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy is classic American romantic comedy that simultaneously introduces a changing technology with the changing roles of women. The title of the movie was His Other Woman in Great Britain or in Spanish His Other Wife.

Either of those titles might have worked in the United States, but Desk Set is more mysterious with a deeper meaning. Think of Desk Set as opposed to the Jet Set of the same era. The terms are diametrically opposed. Desk Set impales upon the mind the image of the office workplace, imagined in the bustling downtown of the city, as in the opening scene and reemphasized with green drab, book cluttered office space of Federal Broadcastings reference. Jet Set implies the fantastic world of the elegantly dressed socialites at the airport, suitcases at the ready of adventure. In Bunny’s conversation with her boss, the up and coming executive, Mike Cutler, her declining of his request to go with him to the airport with the following “all the people flying away and me just sitting here” underscores the juxtaposition of the two classes. It is again illustrated as she drags her suitcases home, cramped into a coworker’s already brimming car because the pouring rain has left the city void of taxicabs, and she is only going home instead of to where her suitcases promised she would be, left out of the Jet Set once again.

It is easy to associate the character of Bunny Watson with the pinched prudish stereotype old maid librarian. The severe hairstyle complete with pencil and bobby pin skewered bun, tight high neck suits cinched at the waist to lock tight, and accentuate her naturally lean bony frame. Her razor sharp intellect, quick-tongued wit and encyclopedic memory for detailed information and its location further promote the stereotypical librarian.

Throughout the movie, detail after detail is punch carded information fed to the audience for digestion. Miss Watson, is older, the head of reference. She has been working at the Federal Broadcasting Company so long her philodendron has grown to an enormous length. Later is it revealed she has been working there for eleven years, seven of which she has been romantically involved with Mike. She has all but given up on marriage, although Mike teases her with his possessive sexually assuming actions and speech saying she has “sexy green eyes” and that they will have “lots of fun”. It is not certain if he was always her boss but he is now. It is by her intelligence that he later is promoted to the west coast Vice-President. He proposes, kind of, so he again assumes they will finally marry, with her transferring to the west coast so she can continue to take care of him professionally.

The supporting characters of Miss Peg Costello, Miss Sylvia Blair, and Miss Ruthy Saylor also support the librarian stereotype through its phases. Each lady is introduced with a phone call to reference. Miss Costello answers with her name establishing her spinsterhood. She is Miss Watson’s contemporary and has watched Bunny Watson deteriorate into the familiarity of an old coat. Her status as an older single woman is perpetuated throughout the movie “I don’t like cats. I like men and so do you”. After all librarians like cats and cats will keep spinster roommate librarians from being lonely in there old age.

The librarian as a decent woman is twice underscored when Peg remarks on the older gentleman’s automobile circling the block saying “if I’d been any other type of girl” and Bunny’s answer that her experience has led her to believe that person was probably only looking for a parking spot. Smithers’ wife circling the building six times later repeats this scenario. However at this time it is used to show the clandestine nature of the sexy femme fatal lurking beneath the cool closed reference librarian exterior.   Peg is what Miss Blair and Miss Saylor will become unless they happen to marry as Mildred Kittinger has succeeded in doing.   It is only through marriage that they will escape the reference department.

Dina Merril plays Miss Sylvia Blair. Her character is as elegant and refined as she actually was in real life being the daughter of E. F. Hutton. Her true socialite jet set status as opposed to the depiction of the desk set librarian is pure ironic genius.   She is younger than both Miss Watson and Miss Costello, but not so young as Miss Saylor.   She too is introduced to be a Miss at the beginning by answering the telephone for reference purposes. Throughout the movie she is portrayed as quiet and unassuming. But if you look for it there is an underlying tow of sexuality. As Richard Sumner lets down the tape measure from the balcony she flirts with him. His tape is floppy and loose. Later Mr. Sumner has her help him take measurements, she replies with her measurements and now the flexible steel is firm and upright as she hold the tip in her hand and they look into each others eyes.   The librarian as seductress is subtly introduced.

desk set tape measure


Miss Ruthy Saylor, young new hire with an eagerness to learn and thankfulness for the opportunity to do so. After all there is not much work out there that is available for the young single girl. She too is introduced as Miss as she answers the reference telephone in answer to a department store wanting to know her status on the strapless velvet dress. She is the young single woman starting out in the world, on the very beginning of her husband hunting.

Even such minor characters as Miss Warner and the elderly lady that wanders about, perpetuate the librarian image.  This t elderly lady although not directly related to reference, is model of the company logo and she has gone from being a young vivacious attractive goddess to a shuffling dusty remnant like the books on the reference shelves.

The movie integrates the cultural iconic librarian stereotypes so smartly, convincingly and consistently that this is what makes the movie as appealing as it is.

Desk Set Ending



4 responses to “FA14 LIBR200-19 BLOG #6 DESK SET MOVIE”

  1. S. Gorum says :

    Hi, this was a fun post for me because I’m a big fan of Katharine Hepburn and have seen this movie. I had a different perspective on Hepburn’s character though, mainly because Hepburn often played women with sharp tongues and quick wits. That may be why I didn’t see her as a stereotypical librarian, rather, a typical Hepburn character…perhaps it’s a bit of both. The movie definitely has stereotypes of women, which is skin crawling, but it’s nice to see smart women professionals of that era.

    The biggest takeaway I got from Desk Set was their fear that their jobs would become obsolete due to technology. I found this message very relevant to today even though the movie was released in 1957! I also found Ruthie Saylor’s character to be relatable because she is beginning her career in a field that is perceived to be disappearing. Despite all of the 1950s cultural notions, this movie still has relevance to the librarian profession.

  2. avemariahailmaryamen says :

    I find that it is the subtlety of the stereotype(s) that makes the movie so smart. We don’t have to think about it.

  3. abbyrhargreaves says :

    I’m also a big fan of Hepburn. I haven’t seen Desk Set, but I’m surprised to see her take on a role that is so stereotypical (though perhaps the ending twists it so we see the stereotype as an “incorrect” thing all along). Hepburn was a trailblazer and regularly subverted norms imposed on women during her career. When I saw in the lecture that Hepburn played a librarian at one point, I knew I had to check it out (even though I much prefer her with Cary Grant in the films to Spencer Tracy!). Your analysis makes me even more interested. Many thanks!

  4. Jon Andersen says :

    I have never seen this movie, but now I think it is worth a viewing! It is impressive the way so many stereotypes mentioned in the lecture come into play in this one film. As I continue down this librarian path, it is unfathomable that I would have no knowledge of one of popular culture’s most unassuming stereotypes of my profession. It would be like an archeologist not ever seeing Indiana Jones! As Plato says, ” nosce te ipsum”, or Know Thyself. I think you have to be cognizant of the tropes you are dealing in so that you can be sure to surpass them.

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