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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

Reliving the glamour of Christmas parties in the movies

Nov 22, 2023 03:23PM ● By Jacqueline T. Lynch

No one ever sings, “Oh, there’s no place like the office for the holidays...” but that is precisely where we find characters in the two movies: “The Desk Set” (1957) and “The Apartment” (1960).

These movies, made in the era of America’s booming economy, 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 the coveted corner office. Men benefitted more than women in this old boys’ environment, but independent women, too, made careers in this fast-paced if regimented world. 

Some, like Bunny Watson—Katharine Hepburn’s character in “The Desk Set”—rose to positions of authority. Others, such as Fran Kubelik in “The Apartment,” portrayed by Shirley MacLaine, faced setbacks like failing a typing test and not meeting the requirements of a clerical worker. Both women became involved in office romances and both were ill used by them.

For both men and women, in an era when suburbia was the ultimate goal and haven, ironically, the office remained the focus of their social contacts.

The Christmas party scenes in these movies were all-out bacchanalias, where unleashed Yuletide revelry revealed the wanton excesses of the most regimented office worker.

In “The Apartment,” Bud Baxter, portrayed by Jack Lemmon, works in a New York City insurance office with over 31,000 employees. His desk on the 19th floor is among rows of others in a seemingly endless pattern that illustrates the orderliness, discipline and drudgery of their work. 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, dancing on desks to a tribal chant of “Jingle Bells” and couples kissing in semi-private corners, and the alcohol flows freely into paper cups from the break room.

In “The Desk Set,” Bunny Watson oversees a research room of a television network, which has its own Christmas tree with presents exchanged by her staff, played by Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill and Sue Randall. 

Similar to Bud’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. 

Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy), a visiting efficiency expert who is slated to bring a large computer to Bunny’s (Hepburn) research department, notes the obvious: “Nothing very much gets done around here today, does it?”

The corks pop, the champagne flows 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 Bud (Lennon) discovers that Fran (MacLaine), whom he loves, is having trysts with their boss in Bud’s own apartment. He drowns his sorrows in a bar on Christmas Eve and returns home to discover her there, unconscious from a suicide attempt. He saves her life with the help of the doctor next door, and spends a quiet Christmas Day as her caregiver.

In “The Desk Set,” their gaiety is a little forced because they know that when they return to work after the Christmas holiday, the new computer will be installed. The enormous blinking, buzzing, punch card-spitting EMERAC represents a threat to their careers.

While the introduction of the computer foreshadows the future of the American workplace, Bunny is also concerned about her seemingly stagnant romance with exec Mike Cutler (Gig Young).

In the end, Richard (Tracy) will shake up her world in more ways than one; and Lemmon and Mac Laine have also, in a crazy way, been brought together by the office.

Most holiday parties are a far cry from the wild abandon depicted in movies. In today’s “gig economy,” millions will spend the last work day before Christmas alone at their computers in a home office, library or coffee shop, on an iPad or a laptop at a mall food court, wistfully thinking about the line, “There’s a swingin’ party on the 19th floor!” 

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