Hepburn, Tracy, and Phi Beta Kappa

By Steven Reynolds

The conception that the advent of technology and the problems that come with it are novel is put to the test in the 1957 movie Desk Set. The film stars Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and is one of the many films in which the real-life couple appeared together. Interestingly, Desk Set has the distinction of being the two stars’ first film in color—a reality taken for granted in today’s world of 3D movies and IMAX cinema theaters.

The film is based on William Marchant’s 1955 Broadway comedy sensation, The Desk Set, and tells the story of Bunny Watson (Hepburn), the head of the research department at the Federal Broadcasting Network, and Richard Sumner (Tracy), a computer engineer. Sumner is brought into the television network to upgrade the research department by “computerizing” the office. While initially instructed to keep his job hidden, the quick-witted Bunny easily unmasks Sumner. As a result, Watson and her team—all of whom are women—fear that the Sumner’s new technology will replace their jobs. 

Yet, the fear of losing a job isn’t the only thing troubling Bunny. Her current relationship with a network executive has become stagnant and void of passion after seven long years. The introduction of Sumner sparks her interest, and the battle between their two formidable personalities results in a budding, albeit predictable, relationship. Though Bunny initially despises the man she believes will eliminate her job, she eventually falls for his charm and intelligence.

As part of the contest between woman and computer and an expression of her growing personal interest in Sumner, Bunny at one point reveals that she has done some research on him. Bunny finds that Sumner obtained his PhD from MIT and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. “You’re Phi Beta Kappa, although you don’t wear your key, which means either you’re modest or you’ve lost it,” Bunny tells him. 

Perhaps he was neither; MIT did not actually have a Phi Beta Kappa chapter until 1971, more than 10 years after the film’s release. It is possible, however, that Sumner only attended MIT for graduate school, and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa at different university as an undergraduate. Who can say if Bunny’s (or the writer’s) research went that far? 

As the movie comes to a close, Bunny’s anxiety about the computer turns out to be unfounded. And true to form, the romantic comedy ends with Bunny and Sumner becoming a couple. 

While the film is known as a classic romantic comedy, it is also a humorous interpretation of technology from the early days of computers. But humor has its serious side, and Desk Set raises questions that still plague society today. How far should technology go? Should computers replace human labor? Although the technology in Desk Set is comical by today’s standards (Sumner’s computer is the size of a wall and makes “beeping” and “bopping” noises), the foresight that the film had is remarkable.

It may be dated, but the film is far from obsolete. Including an unexpected reference to Phi Beta Kappa, Desk Set offers an original perspective on how individuals dealt with the beginning of advanced technology.

Steven Reynolds is a junior at Case Western Reserve University majoring in political science and sociology. Case Western Reserve University is home to the Alpha of Ohio Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.