Breaking the bad news. Image: Style of Resistance

If the movies are to be believed, there was a time when (A) television networks had Reference Departments, and (B) you could call said department with a question and someone there would find the answer.

Population of Timbuktu?1 Average yearly precipitation in the Amazon rain forest?2 Estimated weight of the earth?3

In the dark age before Google, no question was too tricky for these human encyclopaedias, as evidenced by the comedy Desk Set (1957).

The film is about four women who work in the Reference Department of the Federal Broadcasting Corporation, namely: Joan Blondell, Dina Merrell, Sue Randall, and their supervisor, Katharine Hepburn. These women are capable and well connected when it comes to office gossip, as any office worker ought.

But their livelihood may be threatened by Spencer Tracy, Methods Engineer, an unassuming-looking man who has built an “electronic brain” that processes facts and numbers in seconds. Never mind the machine itself is the size of a small convenience store, it has the power to throw these women out of work.

Added to this is the attraction between Tracy and Hepburn, which has the potential to get rather messy because Hepburn is dating her commitment-phobe boss (Gig Young).

Love by the light of the EMMARAC. Image: The Movie Projector

Desk Set is based on a successful Broadway play by William Marchant (297 performances!), and was adapted for the screen by Phoebe and Henry Ephron (parents of Nora). Because it’s based on a play, the film can feel a smidge “stage bound” at times. However, the cast is so strong, you hardly notice it.

Our favourite character here is Blondell, who is the kind of co-worker you can’t help but adore: her character is smart, loyal, and caring. The rest of the cast is no less stellar; even Hepburn is amusing, but, admittedly, we have an aversion to her when she has too many lines, and there’s a bit of that in this film.

There are a few plot holes to ignore, such as the impossibly fast installation of the giant EMMARAC machine, and Tracy’s refusal to tell anyone what he’s planning because there’s too much gossip. (Silly boy, everyone knows gossip intensifies when people sense Something’s Up but aren’t told what it is.)

The film is dated, yes, but when it comes to office culture, it feels surprisingly modern. During the course of a business day, the women share details of their professional and personal lives, and they choose to support each other as a Team.

For example, one scene takes place on Christmas Eve and the booze is flowing, which is highly irresponsible and has never happened at any company yours truly has ever worked at, no siree. But look at the way the women toast each other and their successes over the past year. Their friendship is something decidedly worth celebrating.

No drinking going on here. Image: The Belcourt

Our pal, Sarah, of the fab movie blog Mrs. Charles, recommended this movie to us, and if you haven’t been to the Mrs. Charles site, we hope you’ll treat yourself. (You can thank us later.)

We had never seen this film all the way through, due to our aversion to excessive Hepburn-isms, but Sarah convinced us to give it another Go.

We’re glad we did. The sets are über stylish in a late 1950s kind of way, and the wardrobes are truly gorgeous. Plus, there are some very funny lines.

If you haven’t seen Desk Set – or if you haven’t seen it all the way through – we hope you’ll give it a chance, especially if you’ve ever worked in an office.

Desk Set: starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Gig Young. Directed by Walter Lang. Written by Phoebe Ephron & Henry Ephron. Twentieth Century Fox, 1957, Colour, 103 mins.


280 inches per year.
313,170,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 pounds.
Answers courtesy of Google, since we couldn’t find a reference department to help us.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

41 Comment on “The Women who Preceded Google

  1. Pingback: January 2021 in Summary: Has the Decade Started Yet? | Extra Life

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