Desk Set- More Power to You!

It’s the office Christmas party at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and anything goes. On every floor of the building, in every department, people drink before lunch and for lunch after lunch. Peg and Bunny from the reference department drink champagne and scotch and four roses and martinis and lord knows what else (“they’re all the same base–alcohol!”) They become giddy, and you feel giddy watching them, but it’s a silvery, witty light-headedness. At one point, they’re reminiscing about New Year’s Eves through the years, about being lonely, and Peg tells a story about a missed opportunity with a well-dressed man. Bunny raises her paper cup of champagne in the air and says “More power to you! You may be lonely, but more power to you!” And this is sort of the theme of the film Desk Set: One friend comforting another (comfort in the “with power” sense of the word) in the face of loneliness. Ostensibly Desk Set is about the fear of a new world in which machines will replace human connection and take human jobs. But there’s really something more elementally beautiful about the friendships in this film, something that staves off the fundamental loneliness of being alive, being human.

Desk Set is one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s so well-written. It’s witty all of the time, and downright funny in flashes. It’s incredibly generous to the characters–the writers love all of them, even the extra-quirky ones. And the characters love each other. Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, obviously, glow in each other’s presence. And though this is a romance, it’s their growing friendship that is so enduringly appealing (“I bet you write wonderful letters”). One of my favorite aspects of the film, something that seems unusual for films of that era or maybe any era, is the friendship between Katherine Hepburn’s Bunny, and her co-worker Peg Costello, played by Joan Blondell. They have a history and shared stories and memories. They look after each other, they make each other laugh. They borrow fives and tens from each other, they give each other relationship advice. In a beautiful exchange, Bunny says that they can live together and keep cats. And Peg, Joan Blondell channeling some of her pre-code sass, says, “I don’t like cats, I like men. And so do you.”

The friendship of Peg and Bunny is based on affection, companionable loneliness, a shared wry amusement at human foibles, and a fierce intelligence. They know a lot about a lot. Their minds teem with facts and quotes and information about every branch of knowledge. The other women in the office recognize this and admire them for it, and we sense that their ambition is not just to keep their job, but to attain this level of knowledge and this depth of friendship. All of the women in the office are already part of a network of friendship and protection that extends beyond the reference department to women all over the building. The secretaries of “powerful” men are busy behind the scenes, running everything, and keeping each other abreast of anything and everything they might need to know. It’s not hard to imagine a system of warnings for when those powerful men abused their power.

The underlying anxiety in Desk Set is that the new computer invented by Spencer Tracy’s character will relieve all the women in the reference department of their jobs and of the bonds of friendship and community that support and sustain them. It seems a bit quaint now–the clunky massiveness of the computer and the scale of their worry. They couldn’t have anticipated how much technology has come to impact every aspect of our lives. How it has connected us at the same time that it has indelibly deepened our loneliness, our aloneness. We live in a world full of petty criticisms, mean anonymous comments, articles that rate people and compare people and criticize their every move. In the face of this division let us remember Katherine Hepburn, paper cup of champagne in the air, declaring, “More power to you!” If every single cruel and acidic comment on the old internet could be replaced with “More power to you!” Well, that wouldn’t be so bad. More power to you! More power to each and every one of you!

Categories: featured, film

Tagged as: , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s