In the drama Within the Law (1939), store clerk Mary Turner (Ruth Hussey) gets framed for theft, wrongly accused by her employer Edward Gilder (Samuel Hinds), and sentenced to three years in prison. All within the first 10 minutes of the film! After serving her sentence (which is 5 years in the play by Bayard Veiller), Mary gets revenge on her former employer by orchestrating schemes that “tak[e] advantage of every loophole in the law” — hence the title “Within the Law,” a phrase often repeated throughout the film.
Where did she get this idea? From the prison librarian! In an uncredited role, Claire Du Brey plays the Prison Librarian, in a short scene almost 15 minutes into the film. Although the scene lasts little more than a minute, it is a pivotal one. (By the way, there seems to be no prison librarian in the play. Kudos to screenwriters Charles Lederer and Edith Fitzgerald for adding one in!)
Here’s how the prison library scene plays out:
Mary: Good afternoon.
Prison librarian: Good afternoon. Well, what’s it going to be?
Mary: I want a book.
Prison librarian: Couldn’t you be a little more precise? Do you want a green book? A yellow book? A thin one? A thick one?
Mary: I think I’d like a thick one.
Prison librarian: How long you in for?
Mary: 3 years.
Prison librarian: All right. I’ll get you Gone With the Wind.
Mary: No. I’d like something to study.
Prison librarian: What is it you want to know, child?
Mary: I’d like to know how it could happen…
Prison librarian: How what could happen?
Mary: My being in jail for nothing!
Prison librarian: You don’t keep out of jail by being innocent, kid. You keep off by being smart. You can’t do anything against the law. You can do everything within the law. Yes, kid, you’re talking to somebody who found that out… a little too late. I’m in from now on. And if I’d read a 100 pages out of any of those law books, right now I’d be free as a bird. Happy, rich, and guilty.
Mary: I’ll take one.
One minute long, and uncredited, but this librarian’s role is quite important. She sets up the premise of the film — getting revenge WITHIN the law — as well as the title! Most definitely an Information Provider, this prison librarian delivers her lines in a matter-of-fact manner, showcasing her character as smart, incisive, and thoughtful. The prison librarian also exhibits a cool, detached persona that Mary adopts after her prison release.
A montage follows, including shots of Mary studying and shelving law books.
This film was really interesting to me as it’s the first female prison librarian I’ve seen — all the others I’ve seen are male. Often, prison librarians work in the prison library because of good behavior. This prison librarian is obviously in for life, readily admitting her own guilt, but is willing to help others out when provided the opportunity.
Other prison librarians, all male, include:
- Sam Jaffe in The Asphalt Jungle (19650
- Arthur Riordan in Borstal Boy (2000)
- Paul Benjamin in Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
- Dolph Sweet in Gideon’s Trumpet (TV, 1980)
- Don Perry in Ricochet (1991)
- James Whitmore in The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
- Criminal law librarian (reel-librarians.com)
- To Do (futilitycloset.com)
- Wandsworth jail reading group: ‘Here, they don’t have to be prisoners’ (guardian.co.uk)