An Ode to "Desk Set," the Christmas Classic You Never Heard Of

Certainly, every old movie is its own little time capsule, a relic of antiquated clothes or currency or vernacular. But maybe no classic movie so perfectly epitomizes how very far we've come than 1957's Desk Set. (Available for streaming on Netflix!) It's a Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn romp of the highest order, their eighth pairing in a long line of screwball rom-coms. It wasn't critically acclaimed like Adam's Rib or Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and it has its issues*, but it's a uniquely-situated window into the not-so-far past.

You see, Desk Set is more than just an homage to big-fendered cars and broad-brimmed fedoras and mid-century-modern décor the likes of which West Elm has never seen. It's a reflection of a changing era, the century's big trend of transitioning from human to technology. Because our generation is so subsumed by technology, so embedded in it and attached to it, the movie can feel particularly old and foreign. But its also set at Christmastime, that magical condition that makes everyone especially, vulnerably nostalgic.

The plot is this: so, obviously, the internet doesn't exist in 1957. In its place? A one-room reference library filled with half a dozen spinsters who know the answer to every question in the world. And if they don't know it, they laboriously undertake to find it, combing Farmers Almanacs and calling Eskimos to ask about their kisses. In Desk Set, the universe of knowledge is accessed by placing a rotary phone call to Katherine Hepburn and asking her what the names of all the reindeer are. It's like prying open a massive, humming, complex machine and finding that its insides are just a couple of mice on a wheel.

The drama, though, is that Spencer Tracy arrives on the scene tasked with installing gasp, shock a giant computer, or a gesture at a computer anyway, the hulkingly-named "Electronic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator." You see, even in old 1957, the task of searching a book for the answer was already obsolete.

I have a distinct memory of recalling this movie when I was in law school. For the first six months, they didn't let us use any of the internet aggregators of legal sources. Instead, we had to solve problems like Atticus Finch or something by looking at real books actual, hard copy books in the library (of which there was just one book of each kind to the two hundred students searching for the same answer).  It was slow and laborious and terrible and if I'd been a lawyer 50 years ago I would've instead just not been a lawyer. Or, I would've been responsible for disseminating some wildly inaccurate information, and making some really bad law.

This isn't the problem in Desk Set, though. It's not inaccuracy indeed, Hepburn is a savant of all things reference. (Maybe this is why I love this movie? Her Rainman-style recall for dates and events reminds me of my own, a skill I use for no quantifiable good but for much torturing of my husband...) Rather, it's efficiency that drives the introduction of the new machine. And it makes sense, culturally, that the late 1950s were a time of rapid innovation, deference to science, and an all-around NASA-style smoothing and streamlining of all moving objects.

It's hard, sometimes, to think of the 1950s like this, what with how quaint and simple and wide-eyed the decade seems in the pop-culture haze of our retrospection. But the 50's reputation for suburbia and housewifery was, of course, borne of technology: appliances pummeled household chores and created previously-unknown leisure time, birthing a whole new middle-class. The naive little 50s were all about innovation and forward momentum and spending less time to do more. But, as with all advancement, there were growing pains, like Hepburn's wickedly-smart, perfectly-employed librarian who loses her niche to a room-sized computer.

And yet! This tale is not a dark one, nor even a particularly misogynist one. And I think the reason is that whole tale is set at Christmastime, a time when all of us dream of childhood and comfort and families and a snow-covered past. It's part of what pulls Desk Set out of science fiction, out of disappointment, out of irrelevance. Time marches unrelentingly, and progress runs over humanity, and technology inevitably eclipses people. But every year, it's Christmas again. And Christmas just feels like Christmas, irrevocably, unchangingly. It's still Christmas, from one to 92.

Oh man, and also, Hepburn and Tracy just get real drunk at their office Christmas party.  So, yeah, some Christmas traditions are here to stay:





*Problems with Desk Set: First, it has a terrible name. "Desk Set," really? Try to convince someone to go see "Desk Set" at the theater with you in 1957 instead of "12 Angry Men" or "An Affair to Remember." Also, as Karina Longworth aptly noted, Hepburn and Tracy are probably miscast they're both uncomfortably old to be playing their characters. (It was, after all, 15 years after their first team-up, a Hollywood eternity to still be playing the unwed bachelor and ingenue.) But its script is delightful patter (written by Phoebe Ephron and Henry Ephron, parents of Nora). And it's managed to stake out an illustrious 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Follow up listening: the great You Must Remember This podcast on Spencer Tracy, or on Katherine Hepburn.
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