Last week, I highlighted films I have not been able to locate yet. This week, I’m showcasing librarian films that have been presumed lost; not surprisingly, these are films from the early decades of filmmaking. Most of these titles, and description details, come from the invaluable reference book The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999 by Ray & Brenda Tevis.
You might be wondering, if these films are presumed lost, how do we know anything about them? Research, of course! From primary sources such as movie reviews, screenplays, publicity stills, film library archives, etc. I have arranged the following titles below by order of release year.
The Librarian (1912):
A dramatic short film, starring Mary Fuller as Betty Gibbs, who I’m assuming plays the title character.
This short film is not mentioned in The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999 book, but I unearthed it via IMDb.com.
I haven’t been able to find out much at all about the film itself, and Mary Fuller herself (1888-1973) is also an enigma. Born and raised in Washington, DC, she began as a stage actress and signed with the Edison Film Company in 1910. However, after starring in the first movie serial, What Happened to Mary (1912), and making it to Hollywood and signing with Universal Pictures, she left the movie industry behind in 1917, essentially disappearing from any kind of public life. That movie serial’s title turned out true to life, eh?
She also was a screenwriter, and 8 of her screenplays were made into short films between 1913 and 1915. You can see a complete list of her films here.
A Wife on Trial (1917):
Sounds scandalous, no? This is the first silent film included in The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999, and is based off the 1915 bestselling novel The Rose-Garden Husband by Margaret Widdemer. The leading female role, Phyllis Narcissa Braithwaite (Mignon Anderson), is a children’s librarian who dreams of a rose garden. She ends up leaving her position to marry and care for a young man, Allan, who has been paralyzed. As the Tevises write:
A Wife on Trial portrays Phyllis as a poorly paid, hardworking librarian with a work ethic that continues in marriage; she showers her attention upon Allan instead of the children who enjoyed her stories. (p. 5)
It seems odd to me that the film title was changed, especially since it was based on a bestseller! The film’s title sounds more like a courtroom drama than an inspirational love story. And bonus, the original novel is available as a Kindle e-book download.
The Wishing Ring Man (1919):
A sequel to A Wife on Trial and based on Widdemer’s bestselling novel of the same name. This film follows the romantic adventures of Allan’s friend, Dr. John Hewitt.
Allan and Phyllis — this go-around played by a different actress, Dorothy Hagan — as well as their two children, play supporting roles in this sequel. I agree with the Tevises, it is highly unlikely that Phyllis’s prior occupation as children’s librarian gets a mention in this film (p. 5)
However, this film is significant as the first sequel to feature a reel librarian. Yay? 😉
A Very Good Young Man (1919):
Bryant Washburn plays LeRoy Sylvester, a public librarian and the title role. 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! LeRoy’s fiancee, Ruth, refuses to marry him because he is TOO good, his moral character TOO spotless. So he is too good of a librarian, eh?
It is interesting to note that this first male reel librarian demonstrates ineptitude in social situations outside the library. Also, his ultimate goal is marriage. Does he ultimately get the girl? Of course! Ruth finally agrees to marry him even though he fails at being a thief, gambler, and flirt. (What an odd sentence to write.)
And as the Tevises point out, this seems to be the first film to feature a male librarian (p. 5-6).
The Broken Gate (1920 & 1927 versions):
This film — made twice! — was based on Emerson Hough’s 1917 novel of the same name, which you can read online at Project Gutenberg. I’m not sure why it was remade, as the Tevises share snippets of reviews ranging from tepid (“lacking in real dramatic strength” for the 1920 version) to pretty harsh (“It will have to be a pretty dumb fan clientele that will take the picture seriously” for the 1927 remake, p. 6).
The storyline is pure soap opera, involving an illegitimate child, self-sacrifice, and false accusations of murder. In both movie versions, the librarian, Julia, is a supporting role, played as a spinsterish, poorly paid, physically handicapped, and self-sacrificing town librarian. The character of reel librarian Julia was played by Evelyn Selbie in the 1920 version, and by Florence Turner in the 1927 version. Julia poses as the illegitimate son’s aunt (her friend, Aurora, is the boy’s real mother), and sends her salary, such as it is, to help pay for the son’s education. Apparently, she is “treated as contemptuously by Aurora as by the residents” of the town (Tevis & Tevis, p. 7). Sigh.
This cinematic depiction, however, seems to be quite different from how Julia is described in the book:
These many years “Miss Julia,” as she was known to all, had held her place as ‘city librarian,’ in which quasi-public capacity she was known of all, and loved of all as well.
The Freeze Out (1921):
This one’s interesting… a Western (!) directed by legendary director John Ford. And the librarian is also the town drunk (!!).
Let’s break it down. Harry Carey plays “The Stranger,” breezes into a Western town called “Broken Buckle” and establishes a school and library (rather than yet another gambling house). He also recruits the town drunk (Bobtail McGuire as played by J. Farrell MacDonald) to be the librarian. Wow! That’s ballsy.
And this is only the 2nd male librarian onscreen — and such a completely different kind of role than LeRoy in A Very Good Young Man (1919)! And so interesting that to combat the “criminal element” in this rough town, The Stranger elevates the social standing of the town drunk. While reading out this plot, I thought it sounded familiar to films like Destry Rides Again (the town drunk becoming deputy sheriff), and indeed, this comedic device was often used in the Western film genre (Tevis & Tevis, p. 7).
And apparently, MacDonald earned the only bit of praise in movie reviews — mostly for his comedic chops playing a drunk — one of which deemed the movie as having “no excuse in a picture theatre accustomed to program features of merit.” Ouch.
The Lost Romance (1921):
This lost film, starring Lois Wilson as public librarian Sylvia Hayes, also sounds pretty soapy. It involves Sylvia deciding between two proposals, a child’s disappearance, a meddling aunt, and rekindled love. And of course, Sylvia promptly ends her librarian career at the prospect of marriage.
As the Tevises describe, the film opens with a library scene with Sylvia dreaming of a vacation — which, as a side note, reminded me of the opening scene in 1932’s Forbidden. While listening to the children’s storytime hour (daydreaming of her own future?), Sylvia gets reprimanded by the library supervisor, who also reminds her that her vacation doesn’t start until the next day (p. 7-8).
This also appears to the first film to feature a ladder in the library, a prop to establish librarian roles and library settings that will become a familiar sight in future films. Mayme Kelso plays the elder librarian-in-charge, following another frequently used device of pairing, and contrasting, a younger librarian with an older (and presumably single) librarian.
It’s interesting to note that the film’s director, William C. deMille, was the elder brother of director Cecil B. DeMille and father of choreographer Agnes de Mille. William C. deMille also co-hosted the 1st Academy Awards in 1929!
Only 38 (1923):
Out of all the lost films on this list, this one intrigues me the most.
Again, director William C. deMille chooses actress Lois Wilson (a former schoolteacher before turning to stage and screen) to play the lead role, Mrs. Stanley, an “aging” housewife at 38 (!) who wants to assert her independence after sending her 18-year-old twins off to college. The route of this independence? Employment at the college library, of course. This leads to a more youthful appearance (the time-honored cinematic makeover), romance (of course) with an English professor, and confrontations with her outraged children. Sounds very much like a Liberated Librarian story arc.
Apparently, the film follows the original 1921 stage play by A. E. Thomas pretty closely — even adding library scenes! — and earned good reviews. Interesting, in a film ostensibly all about a woman’s independence, she is known only by her married name. Hmmm…. Also interesting that Lois Wilson, herself only 29 at the time, plays a role almost a decade older.
The Tevises also use the film’s title to describe a common reel librarian role, which they refer to throughout the rest of their book. Here’s how they describe it (p. 11):
Throughout the twentieth century, the majority of reel librarians, especially those in supporting roles, will be afflicted with this “only 38” characteristic. These reel librarians are portrayed as middle-aged or older, a stigmatization of librarians that begins the first time individuals, when as children, enter a library and encounter a librarian, an “only 38” person.
And more stills from this lost film, please visit the Silent Film Still Archive.
Lily of the Dust (1924):
For some reason, this film title makes me think of silent film star Lillian Gish (probably because of her 1919 film Broken Blossoms), but the film actually stars Pola Negri, a Polish film star who also made a big name for herself in Hollywood.
In this film, she plays Lily, a beautiful young librarian — those eyes! — working in German village where an army garrison is also stationed. Local interest in reading sure goes up after Lily joins the library! She marries an army colonel (Noah Beery), who becomes jealous of the attention Lily receives from other male admirers. The girl can’t help it, eh? 😉
This is another example, as the Tevises point out, of a young reel librarian who “is not hesitant about marriage as a means to improve her social and economic position” (p. 14).
The source of this film has an interesting timeline. It’s based on a 1914 stage play, The Song of Songs, by Edward Sheldon from a 1908 novel by Hermann Sudermann, Das Hohe Lied (you can read the 1909 English translation here on Google eBooks). An original film version was released in 1918, under the original English title and starring Elsie Ferguson, and remade once more in 1933, the only sound version and again titled as The Song of Songs, starring Marlene Dietrich. Hmmm… I wonder if they kept the librarian angle in the original and subsequent screen adaptations? Methinks I need to add these possibilities to the Master List. 🙂
The Spirit of Youth (1929):
This film, based on a screenplay and story by Elmer Harris and Eve Unsell and directed by Walter Lang, features a small-town librarian, Betty Grant (played by Dorothy Sebastian) who falls for Jim, a roustabout sailor and boxer (played by Larry Kent). Through various dramatic scenarios, do you think Jim finally recognizes the true heart and love of the local librarian? No points for correct guesses. 😉
Elements of this time-worn plot have been recycled through the years, like in 1945’s Adventure (featuring a sailor and long-suffering librarian love) and in 1978’s Movie Movie (a 1930s spoof featuring a boxer and, again, his long-suffering librarian love).
The actress, Dorothy Sebastian, playing the reel librarian has a colorful past of her own. A former Ziegfeld girl and stage actress, Sebastian had a romance with legendary silent star Buster Keaton, and later married (and divorced) Hopalong Cassidy star William Boyd.
This lost film, as mentioned by the Tevises in their book The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999 (p. 14), also merits a mention as the final silent film to feature a reel librarian.
- “Mary Fuller.” Silent Hollywood.com, n.d.
- “Only 38 (1923).” The Silent Film Still Archive, 21 May 2008.
- Tevis, Ray, and Brenda Tevis. The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999. McFarland, 2005.