A librarian ‘within the law’

Featuring the first female prison librarian I’ve seen onscreen

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!)

The prison library set in Within the Law
The prison library set in Within the Law
Ruth Hussy as Mary (left) and Claire Du Brey as the Prison Librarian (seated) in Within the Law
Ruth Hussy as Mary (left) and Claire Du Brey as the Prison Librarian (seated) in Within the Law

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.

Reel law librarian in Within the Law
“And if I’d read a 100 pages out of any of those law books, right now I’d be free as a bird.”
Reel law librarian exchange in Within the Law
“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.

Law books montage in Within the Law
Law books montage

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:

Sources used:


Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

3 thoughts on “A librarian ‘within the law’”

  1. Fascinating! And how funny that we were just talking about this the other day, and I mentioned that from what I’d seen of your research, prison librarians are ALWAYS men — turns out I was wrong! What good timing! Now I want to see this film!

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