Life Imitates Art: Katharine Hepburn in Desk Set
A recent Hollywood Reporter article about “Desk Set” reminded me of a movie I haven’t seen for a long time. Made in 1957 and directed by Walter Lang, the film starred Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn and an “electronic brain” known as EMERAC (“Electromagnetic MEmory and Research Arithmetical Calculator”). Tracy plays the role of the machine’s inventor and Hepburn a librarian at the Federal Broadcasting Network, which has acquired two of the computers to facilitate FBN’s secret merger with another company. Called “Emmy” by its detractors, the machine is an enormous, noisy, light-flashing, paper-spewing monster that tries to fire four librarians and is incapable of handling a simple question, such as, “Does the king of the Watusis drive an automobile?”
While, at the time, this was not lauded–by the public or the actors–as one of Tracy and Hepburn’s finest efforts, it predates by a decade other films in which computers play a significant role. In 1967, Ken Russell directed “Billion Dollar Brain,” starring Michael Caine and Karl Malden along with some Honeywell 200 mainframe consoles in the role of the even larger, noisier, flashier brain. Of course “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) introduced Hal, and the rest is history.
But “Desk Set” got there first, and whatever its faults, it anticipates the ubiquitous presence of computers in our lives and touches on workplace issues that continue to be sensitive today. (By the way, the Rotten Tomatoes TOMATOMETER gives “Desk Set” a 100% rating, so you may want to put it on your movie queue.)