As I sit watching this 1957 Tracy-Hepburn classic on HBO, I realize that “The Company Men” followed in its footsteps even though the downsizing in the early film was driven more by the need of a capitalist firm to achieve “efficiencies” through a very early mainframe computer rather than the whiplash of the 2008 economic collapse. Here’s my review of “Desk Set” from some years ago:
Made in 1957, “Desk Set” has the distinction of being the last comedy that Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy costarred in. It is also one of the first movies (and probably the last) that tackled the subject of computers and unemployment.
Tracy plays Richard Sumner, an MIT graduate and computer expert who is consulting with a huge media corporation in order to introduce Emilac into their research department. That department is run by Bunny Watson, played by Hepburn. She and her staff–all women–would seem to be resistant to any kind of drastic technological innovations. First of all, the questions that are put to them over the phone each day would seem resistant to automation: “What is the tonnage of the planet Earth?”; “Who are Santa’s reindeers?”, etc. Second of all, their office evoked a time in the American corporate world where expressions of individuality were tolerated, if not encouraged. For instance, there is a vine in Hepburn’s office that snakes wildly across the walls and ceilings, an obvious statement that its owner will not allow herself to be subjected to the right-angled efficiency of Sumner’s automation schemes.
Once the computer is finally introduced, Hepburn and her staff receive pink slips on the very first payday, courtesy of another Emilac that has been installed in the payroll department. In the climactic scene, when Sumner visits the research department to see how the new computer is working out, all hell is breaking loose. The research department is being deluged with phone calls that the new female and anal retentive operator of Emilac can not process accurately. When she feeds the machine a question as to whether the King of the Watusis drives a car, the machine can only spit out a movie review of “King Solomon’s Mines”, which included the keyword “Watusi.”
Sumner implores Hepburn to pitch in and help process the complex queries. Why should she, she asks, since she has just been fired. Fired? That’s not possible, he replies, for the research staff was not only meant to be kept on, there were going to be new hires to handle the expected increase in volume, in light of the company’s plans to merge with another corporate giant. Just as she shows him her pink slip, the CEO of the company storms into the research office and shows Sumner his own pink slip. It turns out that the payroll computer has screwed up and everybody in the company has been fired. This revelation is accompanied by the sight of Emilac spitting out punch cards across the room like confetti and the sound of agonized electronic burbling as the burden of the complex queries finally proves too much for its logic circuits.
The movie ends happily with everybody retaining their job and Tracy and Hepburn (rather elderly at this point in their career) smooching. For those who have not had the pleasure of seeing a Tracy-Hepburn comedy, this may not be the most rewarding of their films. Generally they are cast to type, with Tracy as a gruff, homespun, working class guy, while Hepburn is more refined, gifted with an ironically dry sense of humor. Their films also tend to be observations on society, such as the remarkable 1941 “Woman of the Year”. Written by Ring Lardner Jr., it is Hollywood’s ideological contribution to the Stalin-Hitler Nonaggression Pact. In this film, Tracy’s character believes that the United States should focus on its own problems, while Hepburn is a blueblood activist who is always running around to various meetings concerned with war in peace in some far-off hotspot.
Based on a Broadway play by William Marchant, “Desk Set” prefigures concerns that last with us until this day. Will computers throw people out of work? What kind of progress will that be? As I have mentioned previously, the first attempt to come to grips with these sorts of questions in a Marxist framework was found in the pages of The American Socialist, a magazine that lasted from 1954 to 1959 and whose impact and legacy are much greater than would be suggested by its brief life span.
In the December 1955 issue, we find a symposium on “What’s Ahead for Labor” that tries to assess the impact of automation and mechanization on jobs. Kermit Eby, a professor at the University of Chicago who had begun contributing to the magazine that year, notes that 1.6 million fewer people are engaged in industrial production than at the high point. “These displaced persons, of course, push into the services and displace others. All the time, each is working for lower wages.”
Anticipating the neo-Luddite protests against automation that surfaced in the 1990s from people like Jeremy Rifkin and Kirkpatrick Sale, Eby defends a socialist perspective. If we can forgive the male chauvinism contained in his observations, there is still much that makes sense:
It is not my thesis that the machine does not liberate, nor do I argue for return to the primitive, as Gandhi did. However, I do insist that man ends are not defined in the volume of goods and services his industrial machines produce. Instead, man’s ends lie in the quality of life that increased leisure makes possible. And today, at least in America, more and more of us are freed to live life in dimensions which transcend survival, as measured in bread-and-butter terms. Consequently, not only must we today examine our work-ethic, but also our attitude toward play and leisure-time activity.
For example, it has been emphasized that ours is a spectator culture. It is, of course, but there are other signs already mentioned: do-it-yourself, travel, and so on. All these things point to something more than the spectator view. To begin with, I would examine what life would be like when we no longer need to eat our bread by the sweat of our brow. And how would our lives be changed if we realized that work is not a punishment for past sins and that play is not evil, but rather a creative expression of man’s creative and artistic self?
As our industrial revolution advances, we come face to face with a world moving towards the 30-hour week, paid vacations, field, early retirement. How many workers dream of their chicken farm? For the skilled operator and the maintenance man, going to the factory will perhaps not be so bad. On many operations there will be little to do except watch the machine. There will be time for talk-fest with the boys. Under such circumstances the factory kind of club where the worker goes to meet the boys will be one of the few man-dominated worlds left.