Monday, February 23, 2015

Walter Lang | The Desk Set

free association
by Douglas Messerli

Phoebe and Henry Ephron (writers, based on a play by William Marchant), Walter Lang (director) /  1957

I have never been able to understand why the 1957 Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy vehicle The Desk Set has been treated so unkindly by numerous critics. As the Time Out critic observes: “Most reviewers agreed at the time that Hepburn got far more out of this mere bauble of a sex comedy…than it deserved.”

The Kanins, who wrote Hepburn’s and Tracy’s Adam’s Rib, were generally wittier writers than the Ephrons, but their shrill version of feminism in their 1949 film, where Hepburn (as Amanda Bonner) takes sexual equality to ridiculous heights by demanding an athletically-gifted woman lift her opposing-lawyer husband over her head. Similarly absurd is Ring Lardner’s and Michael Kanin’s presentation of Hepburn (as Tess Harding) in Woman of the Year of 1942 as a brilliantly multi-lingual internationalist who adopts a Greek boy more as a symbolic gesture than as a someone who she might actually wish to love and nurture. In both of these National Film Registry movies, the errant Hepburn is forced to retreat to the position of a housewife, particularly in Woman of the Year, where she slinks back into the kitchen in an attempt to make waffles (disastrously) to appease her ignored husband.

     In The Desk Set, on the other hand, Hepburn (as Bunny Watson) is beloved by Richard Sumner (Tracy) primarily because she is brilliant and capable of witty conversation. The only retreat she is asked to make in the Ephrons’ script (based on the 1955 Broadway play by William Marchant) is from her apparent fear and disdain of his EMARAC* computer, which Sumner utilizes to propose to her and which, accordingly, Watson quickly comes to embrace, while recognizing it, nonetheless, as an equal suitor for her fiancée’s future love. And surely the straight-speaking Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, and the other working women of the network reference department do far more for women’s rights than does the confused and abused housewife, Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday); Mike (Gig Young) is a far superior foil for Sumner’s attention than the evidently gay song-writer, Kip, played by David Wayne in the 1949 comedy. If Stevens and Cukor are simply better directors than The Desk Set’s Walter Lang (and I’m not certain I might effectively argue that position), he makes up for it in the wonderful late evening pajama-party-dinner scene and the homey sequence in the up-stairs stacks of the reference library, wherein, for some of the few moments of any Hepburn-Tracy film, the couple actually do seem to be radiantly happy in each other’s presence. 
      Although both Woman of the Year and Adam’s Rib tackle important topical subjects—the equality of the sexes and World War II internationalism—The Desk Set takes on an equally vital topic concerning the future of human workers in an age of increasing dependence upon computers—a topic, in fact, slightly ahead of its time. Seldom has a film more specifically honed in on the issues of “the age of anxiety” than in The Desk Set, where even the mention of an Electromagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator sends employees rushing off to their union offices and the legal department’s Smithers into a near nervous-breakdown. Even the commonsensical Watson (a kind of would-be detective in her attempts to track down Sumner’s reason for having turned up in their “little iron lung”) expresses her fears that such computers might ultimately make the human race obsolete.

     Fortunately the computer’s vaguely Turing-like mathematician-creator (he is after all, a man who adds things up, a “sumner”) is a fairly bumbling and loveable fool who, apparently disinterested in opposite sex—at least early on in this tale—wears different colored socks, confuses the days of the week, and generally doesn’t give a fig for the accoutrements of power and wealth. In short, is he a lot like the absent-minded “prof” as friends described Turing. His gradually growing attraction to the Head of the network reference department is also a bit like Turing’s attraction to Joan Clarke: her intelligence makes her easy to talk to, and the domesticity she offers is appealing. His real love—again a bit like Turing’s hand-built home computer, named after his beloved childhood friend, Christopher—is, as Watson describes Sumner’s machine, Emily EMARAC! After all, this relationship has to, at least, pretend it is exclusively heterosexual—although that fact doesn’t stop Bunny from wondering whether Sumner might not be the marrying kind (“Don’t you like women?” she queries him in her intimate conversation with him in the library stacks).
     I doubt whether, in fact, the original playwright or the Ephrons knew anything about Alan Turing, but it can’t be simply coincidental, surely, that when a telephone caller Sumner answers, asks him to name Santa’s reindeer, the computer creator answers first with the names of five of the seven dwarfs (Dopey, Sneezy, Grouchy, Happy, and Sleepy) before finishing up with Rudolph and Blitzen. Given what I’ve noted above about Turing’s own reactions to Snow White, it does indeed seem difficult not to suspect the reference here is to the British mathematician. 
     Similarly, Watson’s discovery that Sumner spent the war in Greenland (a far bigger, and less green island than England, but still suggestive of Turing’s isolated existence at Bletchley) doing something so secret that even she couldn’t track it down, again hints at the possibility of the author’s knowledge of Turing.  
    The film takes the relationship no further, and it is doubtful that, except for a few individuals, the audiences of the day would ever have made any connection with the British genius. Indeed, it doesn’t matter whatsoever in the story—except that the Turing machine of this tale is just what the mathematician predicted it might become: a machine with an intelligence that makes it, at first, very difficult to distinguish from a human being. Emily EMARAC, at least as presented in The Desk Set, appears, in “her” “fits” of bad behavior, likely to continue to win Sumner’s heart, even if Watson has fully captured his admiration and affection. As Watson, herself, expresses the situation: her experience has been that most of the elderly men she has seen who appear to be cruising as they circle the block, are simply looking for a parking space. I suppose those who read The Desk Set primarily as a sex comedy, might find it somewhat disappointing. But as a statement of the future of human species interactions with machines it is quite fascinating and truly forward looking, particularly when recall that Turing committed suicide only a year before the production of the play. Better to have a computer in a world where, as Bunny Watson recognizes, it is necessary to “associate many things with many things.”

*The running titles of this film spell the computer’s name as EMMARAC, but have consistently referred to it as EMARAC in connection with the words the initials refer to, choosing to also write electromagnetic as one word.

Oscar Sunday, 2015

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