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. 😉

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.

Of libraries and G-Men

J. Edgar Hoover’s connection to libraries

I have been slowly reading my way through Kathleen Low’s book Casanova Was a Librarian: A Light-Hearted Look at the Profession, published by McFarland in 2007. (By the way, Casanova was only a librarian the final four years of his life, a job he took out of desperate need for money.) While reading about famous librarians throughout history, my husband had to endure lots of “I didn’t know that!” shout-outs. For example, I never knew that J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous iron fist behind the FBI, was at all associated with libraries. In fact, he worked for five years at the Library of Congress. (By the way, I got to visit our nation’s premier library at an American Library Association Annual Conference, on a special behind-the-scenes tour for librarians. It was fabulous!)

Born in Washington D.C., Hoover got a job as a messenger at the Library of Congress in order to qualify for the federal work-study program, to help fund his way through George Washington University. He rose to the position of library cataloger and finally, clerk — but never to the level of librarian. After graduating with a master’s in law, he quit to pursue a position at the Department of Justice, and the rest, as they say, is history.

J. Edgar Hoover, FBI Photos, is in the public domain
J. Edgar Hoover, FBI Photos, is in the public domain

Several biographers, including Curt Gentry in J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and His Secrets, speculate that had Hoover stayed at the Library of Congress, he would have eventually become the head librarian. And the absence of a library science degree wouldn’t have been an issue. Of the 13 individuals — all men — who have held the Librarian of Congress title, only 3 have had prior experience and/or library education. (Sigh.)

But, of course, most librarian films do not mention library training or job qualifications (click here for a previous related post on that topic), and I personally include any library worker as reel librarians, as well.

So it looks like I’ll be putting the latest Clint Eastwood film, J. Edgar, on my list to watch. It has earned middling-to-respectable reviews, and lead star Leonardo DiCaprio has garnered Best Actor nominations for the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild awards. Will he get an Oscar nomination?

The Library of Congress can be glimpsed in the trailer below. And a review in the Seattle Times mentions a scene from the film set in the library, in which Hoover is “thrilled by the organization of the card catalog.” And who wouldn’t be? 😉

J. Edgar Movie Trailer” video uploaded by Kellvin Chavez is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Also, you might be interested in The F.B.I. Story (1959), cinematically illustrating (or embellishing?) the history of the FBI. Jimmy Stewart plays G-Man John Michael “Chip” Hardesty, who marries public librarian Lucy Ann (Vera Miles).


Sources used:


  • Gentry, Curt. J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. W. W. Norton, 2001.
  • Low, Kathleen. Casanova Was a Librarian: A Light-Hearted Look at the Profession. McFarland, 2007.
  • Macdonald, Moira. “Confusing ‘J. Edgar’ More Sketch than Portrait.” Seattle Times, 10 November 2011.

Whaddya mean, you’re a librarian?

Few films mention the education required for librarians.

In the film history of librarians, anyone who works in a library is deemed a librarian. I confess to doing the same for the purposes of this web site, even when the characters are not technically — or the audience has no way of knowing if they are — librarians. Sometimes, a character will make a distinction between librarians and library workers, as in Party Girl (one of my favorite librarian movies!), but that is the exception, not the rule.

Partygirl.WMV” video uploaded by deanxavier is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Above is a clip, with transcript below, from a library scene between Mary (Parker Posey) and her godmother, Judy (Sasha von Scherler), a public librarian:

Judy: I lost two dedicated clerks last month because I couldn’t afford to pay them a competitive wage. They make more money at McDonald’s. You… no, a girl like you couldn’t —

Mary: What do you mean, a girl like me? … You think I couldn’t be a librarian?

Judy: Darling, a librarian is a professional with a master’s degree in library science. Even a clerk, who merely shelves and stamps —

Mary: You think I couldn’t be a library clerk? …

Judy: A library clerk is smart, responsible —

Mary: You don’t think I’m smart enough to work in your fucking library?

Judy: I think nothing of the sort.  … Fine, you can start right now!

Mary:  Fine! I will. Great.

Typically, the term “librarian” is rarely said out loud in movies — most likely because of time — and in most films, there is really no need to verbally identify the librarians. Standing or sitting behind a counter or desk, shelving books, or pushing a cart is quite enough to establish a reel librarian.

Few films mention the education required for librarians. Again, Party Girl (1995) is an exception! There is a wonderful scene toward the end where Mary and her co-workers discuss the value of different library science degree programs. There is also a scene in the film, shown below, that highlights the 19th century qualifications for a “lady librarian”:

Party Girl: Mary Gets Fired” video uploaded by HackerX5 is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Major League (1989) includes a subplot about veteran ballplayer Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) trying to woo back his ex-wife, athlete-turned-librarian Lynn Wells (Rene Russo). This scrap of info about her education comes in the scene where he runs into her at a restaurant:

Lynn:  Jake? How’d you know I was here?

Jake:  Oh, just a hunch. I took you there when you got your master’s degree, remember?

A few other films also mention education specific to librarians. In The War of the Worlds (1953), Sylvia Van Buren (played by Ann Robinson) teaches library science courses, and the main character in Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941) almost quits her teaching position to take a college librarian course in New York. In Desk Set (1957), head librarian Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn) mentions taking a few college courses in her interview with efficiency expert Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy). Miss Watson more than earns Mr. Sumner’s respect — and ours! [The battle-between-the-sexes witticisms begin flying about a minute into the clip below].

Desk Set 1957 Part 4” video uploaded by angeloflove is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Sources used:


  • Cheers for Miss Bishop. Dir. Tay Garnett. Perf. Martha Scott, William Gargan, Edmund Gwenn. United Artists, 1941.
  • Desk Set. Dir. Walter Lang. Perf. Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Gig Young, Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill. 20th Century Fox, 1957.
  • Major League. Dir. David S. Ward. Perf. Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen, Rene Russo. Paramount, 1989.
  • Party Girl. Dir. Daisy von Scherler Mayer. Perf. Parker Posey, Sasha von Scherler, Guillermo Diaz, Liev Schreiber. First Look, 1995.
  • The War of the Worlds. Dir. Bryon Haskin. Perf. Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite. Paramount, 1953.
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