Comparing two ‘Desk Sets’ (and I don’t mean furniture)

Comparing the 1955 play and 1957 film version

Yes, it’s obvious by now that Desk Set (1957) ranks as one of my favorite librarian films (see here, here, here and here), with some of my favorite reel librarian characters ever. Of course, I would say my bias is justified by the excellence of the film itself, but that’s up for you to decide.

I’ve seen the film many times, but until now, I had never read the play it’s based on, The Desk Set, written by William Marchant. It premiered on Broadway in October 1955 and ran for 297 performances, through July 1956. So I found out our library consortium had a copy of the play — because I looked it up. šŸ˜‰

The Desk Set - title page
The Desk Set – title page

It’s a delightful play! It’s significant to note how many lines and scenes from the play were directly transferred onscreen — including all of the reference questions. Perhaps because the screenwriters didn’t want to do any extra research?!

Intrigued, I set out to compare the play and film. Below are my (totally unscientific) findings.

*SPOILER ALERTS*


Setting & structure:


Play:

  • 3 acts: Introduction to characters and interview of Miss Watson (Act I); the Christmas party (Act II); and the installation of Emmarac (Act III)
  • 1 locale: The reference department library of a large broadcasting company

Film:

  • Most of this color film takes place in the library, but it adds locales (and resulting scenes), including Mr. Azae’s office, the roof of the building, and Bunny’s apartment. See this website for a rundown of the different sets.
  • Side note: The UK title for this film was His Other Woman. Decidedly odd — and misleading — title.

Main characters:


Play:

  • Librarians: Bunny Watson (head librarian and office manager); Peg Costello; Ruthie Saylor; Sadel Meyer
  • Richard Sumner, efficiency expert (and nephew of Mr. Azae, the head of the station); Abe Cutler, executive at company, referred to as Bunny’s boss (Act I, p. 17)

Film:

  • The same basic cast of characters, but Sadel Meyer is changed to Sylvia Blair, and Abe Cutler becomes Mike Cutler
  • There is no mention of Richard Sumner being related to the company president (because Spencer Tracy was older in real life?)

Bunny Watson:


Fun fact: Bunny’s full name, Bonita, is mentioned in the play (Act III, p. 77). Is it strange that I breathed a sigh of relief that “Bunny” is a nickname?

Play:

  • Shirley Booth originated the role on Broadway

Film:

  • Katharine Hepburn

Librarian qualifications:


The discussion of her education and training comes at the beginning of the personal interview (see below) —  a rare inclusion, however brief, of librarian education. Both versions mention a library course at Columbia University.

Play:

  • Richard: And what was your training for this kind of work?
    Bunny: Just a library course at Columbia University. (Act I, p. 30)
  • In Act III, Bunny mentions, “Oh, my diploma–good old Columbia” as she’s clearing up her office (p. 67)

Film:

  • Richard: Tell me, Miss Watson, what training have you had for your job?
    Bunny:  Well, a college education, and after that, a library course at Columbia. I was going to take a PhD but I ran out of money.
  • There are several framed documents visible in Bunny’s office, but no specific mention of a diploma — but a master’s degree or certification is implied through her earlier statement of wanting to go on to a PhD

Personal interview:


This is an important scene, a battles of the sexes in miniature, in which Richard Sumner asks Bunny Watson a series of questions. He’s basically sizing her up and gauging her intelligence. The scene ends very differently in the play, which surprised me.

Play:

  • This scene occurs at the end of Act I and takes place in Bunny’s office.
  • At the end of the interview, this is Richard’s not-so-complimentary reaction: “I never had anybody quite like you before. We have an extreme classification I’ve never used, but it has to be applied to you. … FREAK!” (p. 34)

Film:

  • About a half hour in, this scene takes place atop the rooftop of the building, in the cold (adding to the humor)
  • Said with admiration and genuine warmth, Richard compares her to a “rare tropical fish”

The electronic brain:


The room-sized computer in the play and film was based on the real-life ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), the first general-purpose electronic computer. It was described as a “giant brain” with a slogan of “Making machines do more, so that man can do less”

Play:

  • Spelled as Emmarac (Electro-Magnetic Memory And Research Arithmetical Calculator)
  • Richard proudly states, “We figure it will save us in this department alone 6,240 man hours a year” (End of Act II, p. 55, repeated in Act III, p. 61)
  • Richard gives the machine a nickname, “Emmy”
  • Bunny stops the noise from Emmarac with a hairpin, annoying Richard (Act III, p. 72-73)

Film:

  • Everything I’ve found referring to the machine in the film spells it EMARAC (also capitalizing it to make it clear it’s an acronym), eliminating one of the M’s
  • The same line, “We figure it will save us… 6,240 man hours a year,” is used but spoken by Miss Warriner (see below)
  • Several nicknames spoken by multiple characters: “Emily EMARAC” (Bunny); “Miss M” and “Miss Emmy” (Miss Warriner); and “Emmy” (Richard Sumner and Bunny)
  • Richard fixes the machine with Bunny’s hairpin

Miss Warriner:


The computer’s dutiful servant shows up at the end of the Christmas party in both versions, introduced as an electronics expert (but she’s portrayed as a fairly ridiculous and histrionic character).

Play:

  • In the beginning of Act III, she’s described as “not yet thirty… but a certain demeanor suggests that permanent spinsterhood is most certainly to be hers” (p. 60). So the spinster in this work is the techie, NOT the librarian! Interesting…

Film:

  • Pretty much as described in the play

Librarians vs. computers:


Even though the “electronic brain” takes up a huge space in both the play and the film (visually dating both works), the essential conflict in the film — pitting humans against technology — remains. And it seems an endless debate in the library world: are libraries and librarians so easily replaced by computers and online sources? One of the (many) things I love about Desk Set is that the conclusion (you need both!) is STILL relevant today, and just as true.

Play:

  • Richard sums up Emmarac’s purpose: “It was not meant to replace you. It was never intended to take over. It was installed to free your time for research” (Act III, p. 75)

Film:

  • Richard adds a bit more: “EMARAC is not going to take over. It was never intended to take over. It was never intended to replace you. It’s here merely to free your time for research. It’s just here to help you.”

Happy ending:


I was quite surprised that the endings are different! I personally find the film’s ending much more satisfying — a romance between acknowledged equals.

Play:

  • Ends with Abe proposing over a dictaphone message and Bunny smiling as she replays the message

Film:

  • Abe headed to West Coast, and Bunny and Richard headed for romance. It IS a Hepburn & Tracy film, after all.

Sources used:


  • Desk Set. Dir. Walter Lang. Perf. Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Gig Young, Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill. 20th Century Fox, 1957.
  • Marchant, William. The Desk Set: A Comedy in Three Acts. 1955.

Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

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