The end of the year, and it’s time for every web site and blog to send up some “best of” lists. This blog is no exception. Plus, I’m a listmaker. It just feels natural.
So here are my top choices — for right now, at least — for best librarian films per decade. My criteria is two-fold: quality of the films themselves (differing from my Hall of Fame list, although there are some overlaps) and the prominence and depiction of the librarians in those films. The reel librarian depictions aren’t necessarily flattering in my following choices, but they are noteworthy and/or influential. As you’ll see, I haven’t necessarily limited my choices to just one per decade (it’s too hard!).
This is Part I, through the 1950s. Enjoy!
The first librarian film is the aptly titled The Librarian in 1912. However, it appears that the major librarian films of this decade are all presumed lost. From the thorough write-ups in The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999 (culled from primary source docs and reviews), I would say the following films are the most noteworthy:
A Wife on Trial (1917) and its sequel (!) The Wishing Ring Man (1919), feature a librarian in the leading female role. Phyllis is a children’s librarian who dreams of a rose garden. The film is based off The Rose-Garden Husband, a bestseller in 1915.
Bryant Washburn plays LeRoy Sylvester, a public librarian and the title role in A Very Good Young Man (1919, see above). In fact, in a decidedly rare occurrence, the leading man’s occupation was changed from a brass bed factory worker in the original stage play to a librarian in the film!
The Blot (1921) boasts one of the best female directors of that time period, Lois Weber (also one of the highest-paid directors of the era, male or female). The tone of this silent film is both sensitive and intelligent, with an touching story — about poverty and societal disregard for intellectual professions — and effective acting, including Claire Windsor as public librarian Amelia Griggs. The film was generally well-received upon its release, earning good reviews in Variety and Motion Picture News. It’s an important film to showcase early independent film (and good works by early female directors), as well as highlighting librarians as efficient, pleasant, and well-liked — even though lowly paid — members of the community.
Forbidden (1932) features a spirited performance by Barbara Stanwyck as public librarian Lulu Smith, who quits her library job and sets sail for Havana, en route for romantic adventure. Check out her fiery opening scene, below. Deliciously melodramatic!
I have a soft spot for Fast and Loose (1939), a comedic mystery in the Thin Man style, this time with the dynamic duo of Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell. It includes two male librarians as supporting characters — and fellow murder suspects! — and the rarely featured world of archival manuscripts and private libraries. Although not on the same level as the Thin Man series, the film is still witty and fun. Keep an eye out on TCM for this one.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Of course. Was there any doubt this would make the list? It’s a great film, one of the best ever on ANY list. Sure, I sigh and roll my eyes at its Spinster Librarian fate alternative for Mary, but I still love the film. A noteworthy, if not flattering, entry for the reel librarian.
And for those of you who like a bit of music, the 1940s had a surprising number of noteworthy musicals featuring reel librarians in leading roles, including Good News (1947), Wonder Man (1945), and Strike Up the Band (1940). The latter is one of the best of the Mickey-and-Judy “let’s put on a show!” series and includes one musical number, “Nobody,” in the public library (see clip below).
Desk Set (1957) is one of the finest efforts pairing Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Hepburn plays the best reel librarian EVER — sassy, funny, smart as hell — a woman who isn’t afraid to downplay her professional skills or love of pretty dresses. The film crackles with wit, style, chemistry, and an enduring central issue of how technology affects libraries and librarians.
Sam Jeffe earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal as an ex-convict and former prison librarian in The Asphalt Jungle (1950). A gritty film noir classic.
Stay tuned for Part II!