No one ever sings, “Oh, there’s no place like the office for the holidays…” but that is where we visit this Christmas, the office parties in two movies: The Desk Set (1957) and The Apartment (1960).
These movies, made a few years apart in the “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” (another movie) era of America’s booming economy on the shoulders of big business, reflect an age where large companies truly had a paternalistic hand in the lives of their employees. It was the era of pensions, medical coverage, and moving up the ladder to covet the corner office. Men benefited more than women in this old boys’ environment; they created the glass ceiling, but independent women, too, made careers in this fast-paced if regimented world. Some, like Katharine Hepburn in The Desk Set rose to positions of responsibility and authority; some, like Shirley MacLaine, who failed her typing test and could not meet the requirements of a clerical worker, were relegated to the bottom rung as elevator operators. Both women became involved in office romances and both ill-used by them.
For both men and women, in an era when suburbia was the ultimate goal and haven, the office remained the focus of their social contacts.
Jack Lemmon’s corporate insurance office houses over 31,000 employees in New York City. His desk on the 19th floor is among rows of others in a seemingly endless pattern that illustrates the orderliness, the discipline, and the drudgery of their work. Though the theme of The Desk Set, made three years earlier, is the introduction of a computer to replace office workers, the only reference made to computers in The Apartment is Lemmon’s joke at the Christmas party that drunken office workers are being ritually sacrificed and punched full of holes like the computer punch cards of the day.
On his desk is a phone, in-basket, and a large electric adding machine that makes a racket like a machine gun while performing calculations. The transformation of his office from quiet soulless cavern to party central begins when we see a group of telephone operators abandon their switchboards when one of them yells, “There’s a swingin’ party on the 19th floor!”
Suddenly, we are on the 19th floor where riotous dancing on desks to a tribal chant of “Jingle Bells” and couples kiss in semi-private corners and the alcohol flows freely into paper cups from the break room.
In The Desk Set, Katharine Hepburn’s department, the research room of a television network in what was really the RCA building has its own Christmas tree with presents exchanged by her staff: Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, and Sue Randall. Just as at Jack Lemmon’s office, the daily grind is called off this last working day before Christmas. Each department has its fling, and the workers wander from one office to another like night club table hoppers. Spencer Tracy, a visiting efficiency expert who is slated to bring a large computer to Hepburn’s research department, notes the obvious, “Nothing very much gets done around here today, does it?”
They present him with a long scarf of his old school colors, and their party is interrupted by phone calls asking for the names of Santa’s reindeer and Christmas trivia. A piano is hauled up from one of the studios and Kate sings a verse of “Night and Day” while Spencer accompanies her on bongo drums. I love her snorting laugh. The corks pop, the champagne flows into paper cups, and the office is the place to celebrate Christmas in a way no one does at home.
But in both movies, the celebration is rocked by sadness. In the middle of his party, a slightly tipsy Jack Lemmon discovers that Shirley MacLaine, whom he loves, is romantically involved with his boss and having trysts in Lemmon’s own apartment. He drowns his sorrows in a bar that Christmas Eve, and returns home to discover Shirley there, unconscious from a suicide attempt. He saves her life, with the help of the doctor next door, and spends a quiet Christmas Day tending to her and worrying about her.
In The Desk Set, their gaiety is a little forced, because when they return to work after the Christmas holiday, they know that Spencer Tracy will have his computer system installed by then, and they fear for their jobs. “I understand thousands of people are losing their jobs because of these electronic brains.”
The enormous blinking, buzzing, punch card spitting EMERAC may mean the death knell for their careers and a cozy office life of doing work by hand, being able to work at their own pace, eating, drinking, and smoking in their office as if it were their living room at home, and the loss of a sense of ownership of their office. EMERAC will rule the roost when they return.
It predicts the future in the American workplace in that respect, but from her worries about her career, Kate drifts to another worrisome topic, the romance with exec Gig Young that seems to go nowhere after years. In the end, Spencer Tracy will shake up her world in more ways than one; and Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine have also, in a crazy way, been brought together by the office.
Holiday office parties tend not to be carried on with such wild abandon these days, most are likely nothing more than pizza in the break room during lunch hour. In what has been termed our “gig economy,” millions will spend the Friday before Christmas alone at their computers in a home office, a library or coffee shop, on an iPad or a phone at a mall food court, wistfully thinking about the line, “There’s a swingin’ party on the 19th floor!”
From my home office to yours, Merry Christmas!