Sunday, December 13, 2015

Tracy & Hepburn Watch: Desk Set (1957)

I admit to not having watched too many/ any of the classic Spencer Tracy/ Katherine Hepburn pairings.  It's not that I don't like either Tracy or Hepburn.  Look, I'm busy, okay?

I'm not.  There's no excuse.

But I have wanted to watch Desk Set (1957) for some time.  Neither Hepburn nor Tracy were kids anymore by the time this movie shot - Hepburn at 50, Tracy at 57.  And the movie dealt with the era when computers were first making their way into companies as a sign of progress as much as for the practical considerations.  What I didn't know was that the movie would actually touch the area I work in, tangentially, but certainly in recognizable ways.

Hepburn plays Bunny Watson, the head of the reference department for a TV network.  They do fact checking and provide information for story departments.  Need to know the words to The Song of Hiawatha?  Call reference.  This is actually more or less the job of librarians, by the way.  They don't go to school just to learn to shush people and wear sweater sets.

Tracy plays Richard Sumner, the independent contractor coming in to evaluate Hepburn's area for how computation could improve reference.  He's a movie-typical engineer, married to his work, failing to pay much attention to human nuance.  He'd make fine faculty at some research university.

Bunny has been seeing an executive with the network for some time, but marriage just seems out of reach somehow.  Of course it's a romantic comedy, so the remainder of the movie is about how Hepburn and Tracy will wind up together even as his computer seems to mean the end of Bunny's world.

So, I work in what they call "digital libraries", which does not really refer to the card catalog system being replaced with a searchable online database.  It has a lot more to do with getting the material produced at universities up and online and available to the public.  If you want to see a dissertation from UT Austin or any of several other Texas institutions from the past few years, the work my team does makes that happen.  If you want to see research papers or data associated with that research, same story.  But all we do is manage the cloud-based applications and write some code to make it all work auto-magically.  The librarians are more than necessary for actually managing the materials within those systems.  So, in a really weird way, I knew where the movie was headed from when the problem was put on the table.

It changes the job, it doesn't take it away.

But let's not get hung up too much on 1950's-era fear mongering portrayal of punch-card computing.

What's fun about the movie is really the ease of Tracy and Hepburn.  These two are veterans, comfortable in their own skins and with each other.  The scenes between the two are terrifically fun to watch, and as the movie progresses, despite the logical differences and even lack of motivating factors seemingly in the script, you do get the bond between the pair and it's hard to believe everything that occurs on screen was in the script.

While the reference team worries about the walls closing in, Sumner continues to circle - winding up in Bunny's apartment where the two get to know each other.  And while nothing is said outright, the movie is a bit progressive for its era, Bunny not just a career woman taking pride in her work, but in ignoring propriety as her own woman who can live as she wants.  It all feels terribly modern in comparison to what the general rules were for movies and television of the time.

The movie also has Joan Blondell, who I am just beginning to realize had a career that was far greater than I'd originally realized.

It's not, technically, a Christmas movie, but a good bit of the action takes place around the holiday, so expect a 1950's-style Manhattan office Christmas party to break out, and maybe make the movie fit viewing for your winter break.

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