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.

The fastest librarian in the West, as seen in ‘The Changeling’

He personifies the concept of “efficiency” for all librarians ever after.

My vote for the quickest reel librarian EVER? The Microfilm Clerk in The Changeling (1980). Behold (and please excuse the grainy quality of my screenshots):

Microfilm librarian in The Changeling
The clerk takes the microfilm box… starting the timer…
Microfilm in The Changeling
… and 4 seconds later!

If this library clerk (played by David Peevers) had set up this microfilm in 4 minutes, I would have been impressed! But this scene demands suspension of disbelief, as the young clerk is able to take the microfilm box out of the drawer (top screenshot), roll the microfilm out of its box, thread it through the microfilm reader in the next room, AND spin it through to the requested article — all in 4 seconds (!!!!). WOW. He personifies the concept of “efficiency” for all librarians ever after.

Not sure what microfilm is? Read more about it here. The microfilm reader — kind of looks like a computer, right? — can be seen in the 2nd screenshot above.

Where were we? Oh yes, the fastest reel librarian ever. The library clerk is a young, white male with short brown hair and mustache, and he wears a fairly conservative brown sweater and dark collared shirt. He begins the reference interview with “1909? I’ll set it up for you” and leaves them with “It’s all ready to go, and the scanner’s on the right.” They thank him for his help (yay!).

Ok, a little context. In this atmospheric thriller, George C. Scott plays John Russell, whose wife and daughter are killed in a freak road accident. He rents a house with a mysterious — and murderous — past and goes about researching the tragedy he believes the house is trying to communicate to him. John first goes to the local Historical Preservation Society and meets Claire (played by then-wife in real life, Trish Van Devere), who joins him on his research quest. Their next step is the local library, to look up newspaper articles from 1909.

Note: This is in a time period before full-text articles become available through electronic library databases — but some newspaper archives are still only available through microfilm or microfiche. Not sure what an electronic library database is? Read all about ’em here.

The label on the microfilm box? It reads “Seattle Daily Times, Jan. 13, 1909 thru Feb. 22, 1909,” which fits John’s inquiry. However, this drawer of microfilm is not organized very well, as one box of the Seattle Daily Times sits next to Farm Electrical Studies in the Pacific Northwest. But hey, with the fastest librarian in the West on your staff, who needs organization?!

John gets more help when he goes to the Hall of Records. The Archives Clerk (Robert Monroe), an older white male with glasses, thinning hair, and white beard and mustache, is quite tall and wears a dark shirt and grey blazer. He shows John property atlases of Seattle and helps explain the system of maps and legends.

Although the two male librarians in this film combine for very little screen time, they are helpful and efficient Information Providers — supplying information vital to John’s discovery of the film’s central mystery. It is also refreshing how the film showcases an effective research strategy. Remember, ask a librarian!


Sources used:


  • The Changeling. Dir. Peter Medak. Perf. George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas. Image Entertainment, 1980.

‘Bon voyage’ to the ship’s librarian

Although only in a couple of scenes, the ship’s librarian definitely makes an impression, but not a very positive one.

The Disney comedy Bon Voyage! (1962) is about a typical all-American family who set sail on a “dream” vacation to Europe. Mishaps ensue. Side note: Isn’t ensue a fun word?

"1962 - Colonial Theater Ad- 10 Jul MC - Allentown PA" is in the public domain
“1962 – Colonial Theater Ad- 10 Jul MC – Allentown PA” is in the public domain

In an early scene on the cruise ship, the husband and head of the family, Harry Willard (Fred MacMurray), mentions the book State Fair, and the next morning, his wife (Jane Wyman) is reading it. That’s our (subtle?) first clue there’s a library on board the ship.

Harry then visits the ship’s library. Second (not-so-subtle) clue: Several bookshelves are arranged along the wall. We are introduced to the ship’s librarian by seeing his back first. First impressions? Extremely skinny with gelled hair. This is typical of a Comic Relief librarian, where exaggerated physical characteristics add to the visual humor. Character actor James Millhollin, seen below, plays the Ship’s Librarian, his official title in the fim’s credits — late 40’s (47 in real life), with dark, short hair oiled back, no glasses. He’s wearing a ship’s uniform — perhaps considered a member of the crew? or just posturing? — with a bow tie (!). The librarian extends a greeting and adjusts his cuffs while standing behind the Circulation desk. This extra clue is added by a file box full of cards, the standard movie prop for a Circulation desk.

"James Millhollin in trailer for "No Time for Sergeants" (1958)" via Wikipedia is in the public domain
“James Millhollin in trailer for “No Time for Sergeants” (1958)” via Wikipedia is in the public domain

The reference interview commences:

Ship’s librarian: “May I help you?”

Harry: “I’m looking for something in the way of a mystery. I guess I’d like to read about somebody else’s troubles for a change.”

Ship’s librarian: “Very good, sir. We have any number of stimulating items in that category. I rather learn toward the intellectual type of crime myself.”

He then leads Harry straight to another bookcase and takes down a book. Harry, perhaps turned off by the librarian’s manner and also caught up in his family woes, is quite dismissive and says he’ll find something but “thanks very much.”

Ship’s librarian: “Just as you say sir. Oh, and good hunting.”

Later, Harry sees his daughter researching architecture in the library, with books spread out all over the desk. She and her dad get into an argument about a boy, resulting in the daughter running off.

Ever-so-helpful, the librarian then comes over, straightening his coat. He is very fastidious about his dress, always straightening something — again, adding to the humor. Leaning over, he continues the reference interview with an oblivious smirk:

Ship’s librarian: “Did you find your mystery, sir?”

Harry: “Yes. It’s called The Case of the Puzzled Parent Who Can’t Understand Why His Children Keep Saying He Doesn’t Understand.” [Stalks off.]

Ship’s librarian: “Hmmm…. That’s an oddish title.” [talking to himself, obviously puzzled]

Not the most socially bright crayon in the bunch, is he?! He fits the Comic Relief character type perfectly, with his skinniness and mannerisms exaggerated so that we laugh AT him, not WITH him — but we wouldn’t have a chance anyway, as he doesn’t display any sense of humor. The Comic Relief librarian’s role is to serve as the butt of jokes, and this ship’s librarian fills that role to a super-straight T.

Although only in a couple of scenes, the ship’s librarian definitely makes an impression, but not a very positive one. On the plus side, he knows “his” collection — he does seem like the type to describe it like that, doesn’t he?

On the negative, he is consistently overly solicitous, oblivious to people’s needs or the concepts of sarcasm or humor. (The sarcasm in this post would most likely fly over his well-oiled hair.) He just doesn’t “get” people — but doesn’t get that! — and comes across as too formal or proper. The ship’s librarian is just not that great at customer service, which is comically at odds with the purpose of his job. Cruises are supposed to be fun — I’ve never been on one, but I’ll go out on a limb with that assumption — and this librarian most certainly is NOT fun. But he sure is fun to make fun of! Bless.


Sources used:


  • Bon Voyage! Dir. James Neilson. Perf. Fred MacMurray, Jane Wyman, Tommy Kirk, Deborah Walley. Buena Vista/Walt Disney, 1962.