Time for a small confession: through no fault of my own (okay, and in order to pay the rent), I’m part of the evil machine that helps push e-books out into the world. I know, I’m horrible; don’t even look at me!
Before I moved over to the publishing side of the book industry, I started off working at the Barnes and Noble in Berkeley, where I created displays, organized shelves, and actually spoke to human beings about books that were printed on paper. One of life’s special deliveries arrived via Barnes and Noble in the form of (now) one of my dearest, closet, and funniest friends. The personal interactions unique to the bookstore environment — be it a corporate chain or a snug neighborhood store — brought this wonderful person into my life, as we bonded over shared love of, well, everything. Today, as my current job begins to revolve more and more around e-books, the more I begin wonder . . . would all the laughter and memories and Indian food and quoting Bringing Up Baby with my friend have come about without that shared experience in Barnes and Noble? Now, every time I have to make sure an e-book is included in a data feed to Amazon or link e-book information to its physical book sibling, the more I feel like I was just born into the wrong generation.
On the other hand with which I click the mouse, here I sit sending my writing out into the world due to technological advances of the last decade, so appreciation of the scientific know-how is not beyond me; I can leave the high horse in its stable for now and understand some of the upsides to e-books. But when I sat down to re-watch one of my favorite Hepburn and Tracy movies, I began to understand the fears and frustration towards technology in the workplace on a new level; the footsteps I hear behind me are those of the computer that will eventually replace me, and they’re creeping closer.
Adapted from a play as so many of my favorites are, Desk Set was the first time the world saw the dynamite Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy together in color. Obviously that in itself was a step towards technological advancement, as we’re informed in the beginning with the banner, “Color by De Luxe.” When it comes to Hepburn and Tracy, color versus black-and-white film makes little difference to me; they need no assistance in either direction when it comes to dazzling their audiences. Tracy plays Richard Sumner, an efficiency expert who comes in to inspect a large company’s research department, headed up by Hepburn’s Bunny Watson. Her department is a wonderful set of two floors, filled with bookcases, filing cabinets, and actual, you know, people. The three other women who work under Bunny (including Joan Blondell in that supporting role of which I’m always so fond due to its one-liners) provide callers with trivia-like information, usually off the top of their heads. Should the ladies need to put a caller on hold, they know exactly which bookshelf to scan or which filing cabinet to rake through.
There’s no need for me to affirm once again my love for Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy — there are a million other places in my previous posts where I tip my Fedora to both. I have a special love this one because it drives home a number of good points (perhaps one even more relevant today) about computers versus people in the workforce without necessarily taking a side. Since audiences shared my love of these two actors together onscreen, they are again pulled in both directions with lines such as “I don’t smoke, I only drink champagne when I’m lucky enough to get it, my hair is naturally natural, I live alone, and so do you.” Naturally I’m rooting for her, but I can’t help but love him . . . (See Adam’s Rib for another fantastic example).
Along with the dazzling Fedora that accompanied Spencer Tracy on every movie set, I must say the other classic items of clothing I noticed throughout Desk Set were the coats and sweaters. One of the few times I didn’t see Edith Head’s name in the opening credits (Charles Le Maire gets credit for this one), this film is decorated with some of the most stunning coats I’ve ever noticed. More often than not, the sweaters and coats were draped around the cast, and it’s always baffling to me how they got those coats to stay on without putting their arms through the sleeves. I guess I’m just lucky; to be so tickled by something as minor as a coat in an old movie is a blessing far greater than those I had to memorize as a kid in Torah school.
So if civilization is a limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities (good old Mark Twain), I feel caught in a time when I’m simply confused about what is deemed “necessary.” Thankfully I have Hepburn, Tracy, and many more to whom I turn in my times of manageable confusion . . . I’ll understand my generation eventually, but sometimes “Color by De Luxe” is as advanced as I like to get.