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.


Setting & structure:


  • 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


  • 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:


  • 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)


  • 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?


  • Shirley Booth originated the role on Broadway


  • 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.


  • 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)


  • 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.


  • 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)


  • 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”


  • 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)


  • 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).


  • 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…


  • 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.


  • 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)


  • 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.


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


  • 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.

The Liberated Librarian (ladies, you’re up)

Exploring the female Liberated Librarian character type

The Liberated Librarian female character type is really an extension of the Spinster Librarian — if the spinster had met the right love interest. This type usually focuses on a trapped, naive woman who discovers herself (that is, her sexuality and her potential as a lover/mother/sex symbol) with the help of a good man in the face of an adventure or disaster that forces her to come out of her shell. Some movies in this category combine these to further insure the liberation of the reel librarian.

In The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999 by Ray and Brenda Tevis, characteristics of this type are apparent in what they call the “only 38” stereotype. The moniker comes from the 1923 film, Only 38, starring Lois Wilson as Mrs. Stanley. That film is “about Mrs. Stanley’s attempt to recapture at least part of her missed youth, achieve her independence, and realize her potential as an individual.” Yep, that’s our typical Liberated Librarian storyline, all right. As the Tevises astutely observe, “‘only 38’ is an age at which [the female librarian] could be vibrant, full of fun and giddiness, intoxicated with love, and looking forward to many years of happiness and love with… a new husband” (p. 13).

Only 38 (1923) lobby card is in the public domain
Only 38 (1923) lobby card is in the public domain

Hallmarks of the type include undergoing a change of appearance. The woman usually becomes more attractive and wears more flattering clothes, either throws away her glasses or gets contacts, and is young enough to attract the right man and live a long and fulfilling life after he has “set her free.” ALERT: Tongue-firmly-in-cheek. Liberated Librarians are portrayed as intelligent but not necessarily that committed to the profession; they usually leave the library after their “liberation.”

For formula-by-number examples of the type, see romantic melodramas Adventure (1945) and No Man of Her Own (1932). In Adventure, public librarian Emily Sears (Greer Garson) proclaims that she “worked in a morgue” until bad boy Clark Gable came along. (Sigh.) And in No Man of Her Own — that title! — Clark Gable’s sex appeal knocks Connie (Carole Lombard) off her library ladder. Connie elopes with him to escape the dull town she works in and later drapes herself in low-necked gowns, satin and sequins.

Movies feature this character type more than any other; as the Tevises observed, “[t]hroughout the twentieth century, the majority of reel librarians… will be afflicted with this ‘only 38’ characteristic” (p. 13). It makes sense to feature Liberated Librarians in leading roles, as character growth and development often make for compelling plots. There are many, many examples, so I’ll try to pick out some noteworthy ones.

The Liberated Librarian most often finds herself in romances — the reasons for which seem obvious. Examples include the aforementioned Adventure (1945) and No Man of Her Own (1932), as well as Rome Adventure (1962) and Forbidden (1932), both of which I have mentioned several times already on this blog (here, here, here and here).

The comedy genre also has ample examples, including a hilarious, but brief, scene in That Touch of Mink (1962) and the delightful character of Sylvia Marpole, as voiced by Bebe Neuwirth in An Extremely Goofy Movie (2000). Barbara Eden as Angela Benedict in 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) also serves as a textbook example of the Liberated Librarian.

Shirley Jones stars as Marian Paroo — inspiring the song “Marian the Librarian” — in The Music Man (1962), decked out in a tight bun, buttoned-up clothing, and a reserved manner. One of her piano students even calls her an “old maid.” In the latter half of the film, after attracting the attention of con man Robert Preston, she dances in a gauzy dress that shows off her cleavage before meeting him down by the bridge for a session of heartfelt love and confession.

The adventure-movie formula has also donated several films to the Liberated Librarian character type, notably in The Mummy (1999), The War of the Worlds (1953), and The Substitute (1996). Rachel Weisz, who plays Evie Carnahan in The Mummy, has the showiest role of all three, as she works not only as a librarian but also as an Egyptologist (she can read and write ancient Egyptian). In one hilarious but touching scene, she proclaims — while inebriated — that she is “proud of what I am. I …. am a librarian!” before promptly falling over in a stupor. She does wear sexier clothes in the latter half of the film, attracting the attention of heroic Brendan Fraser. But it is SHE — not Fraser — who cracks the code at the end that saves them from the mummy’s curse.

The thriller-mystery also fills up a substantial portion of the Liberated Librarian category. Examples include Julia Roberts as Sara in Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), Penelope Ann Miller as the title character in The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag (1992), and Claire Bloom as Nan Perry in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965). In Sleeping with the Enemy, Sara, an attractive young redhead, lies to her abusive husband about her job at the library, fakes her own death, and runs away to Iowa. Her neighbor — who just happens to be an attractive bachelor — helps her find a real job in the local public library. In a rare instance of reversal, the library helps to save her from a man, if only temporarily. There is also a twist in The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag, as Betty Lou also already has a husband in the beginning of the film. She is liberated in the end not by her husband but by the excitement of finding a gun and confessing to a murder she did not commit. BTW, that’s an odd sentence to write.

In Foul Play (1978) — one of my personal favorites — Goldie Hawn plays Gloria Mundy, who is young, attractive, and blonde. Although she dresses nicely and even shows some cleavage in her opening scenes, her friend calls her an “old maid.” We also learn that Gloria used to be a cheerleader, but gets chided that “you lock yourself in that library and hide behind those glasses.” Gloria ditches her glasses when she helps solve an assassination attempt plot with Chevy Chase.

Next week, we’ll explore the male side of the Liberated Librarian… stay tuned! 😉

Sources used:

  • Tevis, Ray, and Brenda Tevis. The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999. McFarland, 2005.

Typical or stereotypical?

Exploring the typical characteristics of a librarian — inside and outside the library

What are the typical characteristics of a librarian? In 1876, Melvil Dewey described the typical librarian — mostly men at that time — as “a mouser in dusty books” (qtd. in Schmidt, p. 2).

"The Librarian" by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, circa 1570 (public domain)
“The Librarian” by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, circa 1570 (public domain)

Over a hundred years later, on a Family Feud episode in the 1980s, the top five characteristics of a librarian (qtd. in Walker and Lawson) — mostly women by this time — were listed as:

  1. Quiet
  2. Mean/stern
  3. Single/unmarried
  4. Stuffy
  5. In glasses

Side note: I chuckle at Schmidt’s reaction to this:  “At the time, this [Family Feud] program irritated a number of librarians, but whether their irritation was based on the question, the answer or the fact that the contestant guessed all [the] ‘correct answers’ is still to be determined.” SNAP!

In 2010, the Socialite Librarian listed some typical librarian stereotypes, including:

  • boring
  • shushing
  • quiet
  • middle aged
  • “pinch-faced woman”
  • frumpy dresser
  • bun and glasses
  • judgmental
  • sensible shoes

I find it interesting that almost all of these stereotypical characteristics — many of which are physical characteristics — describe the reel librarian character types of the Spinster Librarian, as well as her male counterpart, the Anti-Social Librarian.

The above characteristics are all connected to perceptions of librarians — by those mostly outside the profession itself. But a 1990 study of librarians using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (in which librarians themselves completed the self-scorable survey) revealed dominant personality types of librarians (Lang). The original study, which included 48 librarians, contrasted results from a previous study of 267 librarians (Johns).

The dominant personalities? ISTJ and INTJ.

  • Characteristics of ISTJ (Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging) include: orderly, responsible, logical, practical, quiet, and thorough. That sounds familiar…
  • Characteristics of INTJ (Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging) include: originality, skepticism, critical, independent, and driven.

Sources used:

A tale of seven shushes in ‘City Slickers II’

Subtlety is not its strong suit, as we will also see in the library scene.

The 1994 film City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold includes a brief scene filmed in the beautiful Doheny Library Reference Room, University of Southern California. This library has starred in several films. Opened in 1932, the library has an elegant yet cozy feeling, with tall windows, light woods, tile floors, and stunning light fixtures.

That’s the good stuff.

Now for the rest…

In this vastly inferior sequel, the main plot is pretty obvious by the film’s subtitle. Subtlety is not its strong suit, as we will also see in the library scene.

The MacGuffin? Mitch (Billy Crystal) has discovered a treasure map in Curly’s hat. His excitable friend Phil (Daniel Stern) has been researching the Western Pacific Railroad because he suspects the money traces back to a train robbery. A trip to the library — a logical next step, no? — basically serves to legitimize the plot, such as it is.

The library scene takes place a little over 30 minutes into the film. The camera pans down from the gorgeously ornate library ceiling to a closer shot of Billy Crystal rifling through bound newspaper volumes. Blink, and you might miss a male reel librarian cruise by. Although unidentified in the film’s credits, how do you know he’a reel librarian? Because he’s pushing a shelving cart, of course! This unidentified African-American male is quite young (maybe in his 30s?), dressed in typically conservative outfit of grey slacks and a red button-down shirt.

Librarian with library cart in City Slickers II
Library cart alert!

I counted 7 shushes in this 3 1/2 minute scene — or a one-shush average per 30 seconds. Let’s count ’em down:

Phil is looking up old newspaper clippings on a microfiche machine, his eyes wide. He shouts out “I got it!” as he reads an article from the Carson City News.

He and Mitch talk loudly, and Phil excitedly shouts out again: “This is fate!”


Brought to us by an older man — billed in the credits as Annoyed Man in Library. There’s no indication that he’s a librarian, only that he’s following library rules. Phil shoots back an “Up yours” to Annoyed Man.

They get excited again (of course).

Annoyed Man in Library
Annoyed Man in Library


Again, by the Annoyed Man in Library. This time, Mitch whispers back, “Sorry, sorry.”

The Annoyed Man throws some more exasperated looks their way. Finally, he stands up, slams his book closed, and walks away.


These shushes come from other library users.

Mitch pushes Phil across the aisle and into the stacks — still arguing loudly.


Time to bring out the big guns! This time, a white, middle-aged female librarian gives them the shush, contributing her bit to Comic Relief. The reel librarian (Helen Sigh) whizzes by, pushing a shelving cart (of course). She wears conservative jewelry (gold button earrings and brooch) and clothing (a long-sleeved and high-necked green blouse), with glasses hanging off a lanyard.

Note:  She’s billed as Shushing Lady. Subtle.

Shushing Lady in City Slickers II
Shushing Lady in City Slickers II


Still more arguing. As Mitch turns away, Phil cries out after him, earning SHUSHES SIX and SEVEN from Mitch himself. Phil’s reaction? “Don’t shush me!”

A few seconds later, after spying a picture of the train robber who looks just like the deceased Curly, Mitch then lets rip a shush-curdling scream. The film cuts away immediately, so we can only imagine the reaction in the library!

Sources used:

  • City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold. Dir. Paul Weiland. Perf. Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, Jon Lovitz, Jack Palance. Castle Rock Entertainment/Warner Home Video, 1994.

The Spinster Librarian

Exploring the Spinster Librarian character type

In spirit of the new year, I will spend some time delving into each of the librarian character types I’ve identified on this site (found under the Role Call section). So for each Friday for the next couple of months, I’ll highlight a different librarian character type.

I have already mentioned the Spinster Librarian character type quite a few times already. It felt fitting to put this character type at the beginning of this series (or would it be more appropriate to call it a mini-series? hah!), as it is often the first image that comes to mind when one mentions librarian. And such a visually stereotypical image at that. For my undergraduate thesis, “A Glimpse Through the Glasses: Portrayals of Librarians in Films,” I originally referred to the Spinster Librarian type as “The Meek Spinster.”

This is perhaps the most recognizable image of a librarian, one that conjures up an image of a bespectacled older woman, unattractively thin or even gaunt, with her hair scraped back into a severe bun. Lanyards are the Spinster Librarian‘s accessory of choice. Fussy bows, long skirts, hats, and shirts buttoned all the way up complete the typical uniform. Of all the stereotypical roles, the Spinster Librarian is most identifiable by physical characteristics and appearance. Personality wise, the adjectives uptight, meek, or unsociable spring to mind.

Google image search for "Spinster Librarian"
Google image search for “Spinster Librarian”

These women usually have small roles, ones not integral the plot. Indeed, the Spinster Librarian is best portrayed in a small amount of screen time! As stated in the article “The Librarian Stereotype and the Movies” (see Resources), “the longer a stereotype remains on screen, the less credible it becomes” (p. 17). And it makes sense that almost all of the Spinster Librarian characters I’ve identified so far are found under Class III, a listing of films in which the librarians are secondary characters, usually with only a few lines in one memorable or significant scene.

The silent film The Lost Romance (1921) seems to be the first film featuring a Spinster Librarian, as identified by Ray & Brenda Tevis in The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999 (p. 9). A not-so-noble tradition was born! A film still from this film (at left) reveals the glasses, bun, dowdy clothes, and forbidding expression prevalent of the Spinster Librarian. The Tevises also make an interesting observation that this film also established this type as a primarily supporting player, a role used to contrast with younger, more attractive female characters in leading roles, who are usually Liberated Librarian or Spirited Young Girl character types. I’ll get to those roles soon, no worries.

The first Spinster Librarian, as seen in A Lost Romance
The first Spinster Librarian, as seen in A Lost Romance

The most (in)famous example of the Spinster Librarian should come as no surprise… Mary in It’s a Wonderful Life. Or rather, Mary as she’s portrayed in the second half of the film, when George experiences life as if he’d never been born. This cartoon (click image to see the original, larger version) sends up this stereotypical portrayal.

Citizen Kane (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Cain and Mabel (1936), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), The Caveman’s Valentine (2001), and Christine (1983) all boast middle-aged/older, no-nonsense Spinster Librarians. And TWO spinsters — one living, one a ghost — make for a memorable opening scene in Ghostbusters (1984).

Next week, a deeper look at the Liberated Librarian… stay tuned!

Sources used:

  • Tevis, Ray, and Brenda Tevis. The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999. McFarland, 2005.
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