July 2018 . . . .

“Movie Review”

Watched The Desk Set recently. Sat in front of the “other TV” in our house — a 19-incher we keep upstairs for the poor sap who was outvoted that evening. Often that’s me, but OK. The truth is, a small screen is perfect for the playful banter between Kate Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. He, caught in the rain in his Tracy-fedora, so she invites him in to dry off. Earlier, she, freezing on the roof of a Manhattan office building because he thinks a picnic in, what . . . October? is a good idea? A ham & cheese sammy and plenty of hot coffee, kid. Hang in there.

Here’s where my brain took me: how fun was this, actually? It’s good-old 1957, the year of my creation, and people still take scheduled coffee-breaks and rotary-dial their telephones down to a department of sweater-gals with “freshly scrubbed faces” who answer fun questions about astrology and the proper temperature for cooling Jello and the lyric poetry of The Love Song of Hiawatha and J. Alfred Prufrock. I don’t remember these sort of antics exactly, but there was just a little bit of it, the butt-end of the old-school loaf, say, when I was starting out. Suit and tie. Typewriters. Erasable bond paper! Inter-office memoranda. Company cafeterias.

Just in case you’re not familiar with the plot, Tracy is trying to install a “mechanical brain” in this office. That’s what they called computers (in Hollywood, because not everyone with a quarter for a movie ticket knew what a computer was, much less what the skyline of New York looked like). An oh-my-gosh, they’re taking over our jobs, plot. Very tongue-in-cheek, see, with Hepburn’s “Bunny” trying to land a man (Gig Young, whom I cannot disconnect from his deep-into-the-disappointed-1970s role as the head of the CIA-like organization that shot James Caan in The Killer Elite). And the post-depression and War world is innocent — I mean we’re still three years from Jack Lemmon renting out his apartment so that married boss Fred MacMurray (heaven forfend, it’s My Three Sons’ Dad!) can boink sweet-drunk Shirley MacLaine someplace other than the back of a Yellow Cab or the Drake Hotel.

Why wasn’t that as deeply troubling as it ought to have been? Oh, yeah. Because like the Hepburn/Tracy film, we’re still coming to grips with certain beliefs: that women are smart but not quite as . . . important in the workplace as men. They get jobs, but those jobs are replaceable — by technology! Women need coffee breaks. They can do pretty good work (the men do annual reports, proofread by women). And, anyhow, doesn’t plucky Shirley MacLaine pick herself up, dust herself off and start all over again? Win the guy in the end? And even if we reject this point out of hand, how quickly do we forgive the corporate world? Sure! By the following year, J. Pierpont Finch is already succeeding in business without really trying. Hey, it’s OK, kids, in movies, using gender as a weapon is Fun! Right?


But here’s where my thinking really wants to go. Fifty-odd years forward. New movie. Similar subject. In this particular flick, it’s still the somewhat distant past, IBM is still trying to install a piece of big iron — and the workplace is still having “girl trouble. ”

The chief characters are the so-called “computers” — the highly skilled and reliable African-American women who work on an assignment basis like contract employees — receiving those very inter-office memorandae to report to this or that department and do the NASA heavy-lifting of mathematics. Like secretaries keeping the drunken boss from falling out of his chair and hurting himself on the concrete floor, the computers are human mechanical brains who tote up the columns, double-check the measurements or even do the extraordinary trigonometry to ensure that these manned-missiles don’t make, to quote a different space-race film, spam in a can out of anyone. Then the computers are placed back in the pool to await their next assignment. Career? No. Job security? Ha! (Remember that mainframe that IBM is installing?) That they are women, and deeply underappreciated for, well, a lifetime — my lifetime — is one point of the movie. That they are black women is . . . unexpected. And that this truth is unexpected is shameful. The additional nonsense they must endure at work is inexcusable. And that’s not at all funny.

So we’re here now, and some things have changed, and other things seem new, but they’re not. I can easily imagine Katharine Hepburn’s Bunny as the head of marketing, working for a successful internet firm founded by Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy. A good place to work, with sensible child-care policies and flexible work-scheduling.

On the other hand, I’m kind of glad I got to work in a big company during a time when they thought equal opportunity was not just a memo. That I had good managers who were women, or black, or black women. And that I got the hell out before I became disposable, and lived to tell the tale.