‘What is thee wish?’ To analyze the librarian in ‘The Philadelphia Story’

The classic 1940 film, The Philadelphia Story, includes a classic reel librarian scene featuring a shushing Quaker librarian. I’ve mentioned the film in several posts, including here, here, here, and here, and it was one of the films in my original thesis. However, I hadn’t yet dedicated an entire post to analyzing the library scene… until now! 🙂

Poster for 'The Philadelphia Story' (1940)

Poster for ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)

The film was based on the play by Philip Barry, who wrote the play for Katharine Hepburn, who starred in both the play and the subsequent film adaptation. (She owned the film rights to the play — smart gal!) The plot is a classic love triangle (or rectangle?):  A rich socialite, Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn), is about to remarry, and her ex-husband, C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), and reporter, Macaulay “Mike” Connor (James Stewart), show up right before her planned wedding. Romantic complications ensue.

The Philadelphia Story is one of the few pictures featuring reel librarians to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The film was also nominated for five other Academy Awards, winning for Best Screenplay and Best Actor for James Stewart. Cary Grant got the girl — SPOILER — but Jimmy Stewart wound up with the Oscar!

In one comedic scene 37 minutes into the film, Mike visits the public library, to do some research on the Lord family history. The public library is in a traditional building with ivy crawling up the brick walls and a hanging sign announcing its hours (open daily from 9 to 5, with additional hours on Wednesday evenings!).

Reel Librarians | Library sign in 'The Philadelphia Story' (1940)

Library sign in ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)

He wanders over to a bookcase, near where a woman is shelving books. There are no verbal clues about her being a librarian (or her qualifications), but the books she is organizing are effective props to immediately and visually identify her occupation.

Reel Librarians | Library scene in 'The Philadelphia Story' (1940)

Library scene in ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)

Here’s how their “reference interview” unfolds. Note that the librarian initiates the conversation!

Librarian:  What is thee wish?

Mike:  I’m looking for some local books… what’d you say?

Librarian:  What is thee wish?

Mike:  Local biography or history.

Librarian:  If thee will consult with my colleague in there. [points]

Mike:  Dost thou have a washroom? [Librarian points.] Thank thee.

Mike then discovers Tracy Lord in the library’s reading room, poring over a book he had written years ago. As Connor challenges, “Are you sure you’re doing the right thing? You know what happens to girls like you when they read books like mine. They begin to think. That’s bad.

They continue discussing his book, but their conversation in the library ends when the same librarian walks by and shushes them.

Reel Librarians | The shushing librarian in 'The Philadelphia Story' (1940)

The shushing librarian in ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)

NOTE:  As far as I have been able to discover so far, this scene is a first for reel librarians — the first American film to feature a librarian saying, “Shush!” on screen. The 1933 British film, The Good Companions, was the first film to do so (again, that I’ve been able to uncover), and I wrote about “The shush heard ’round the world” here. You can also learn about other “reel librarian firsts” here.

The Quaker librarian is seen on screen for only about 30 seconds in total, with Hilda Plowright playing the uncredited role. The female librarian, middle-aged with no glasses, is conservatively dressed in a plain dress with long sleeves and a high collar, with her dark hair pulled back into a bun at the neck. She seems severe (e.g. the shushing) yet also helpful at the same time (initiating the reference interview with Connor). She also seems (rightly) suspicious of Jimmy Stewart as he mocks her “thees” and “thous,” both verbally and visually.

Reel Librarians | Library scene in 'The Philadelphia Story' (1940)

Library scene in ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)

It’s a short but memorable scene, so The Philadephia Story ends up in the Class III category, in which librarian(s) plays a secondary role in a memorable or significant scene. And what role does the librarian fulfill in this film? From my observations, the shushing Quaker librarian blends two character types:

  • Spinster Librarian:  Her plain hair and clothes immediately identify her visually as a Spinster Librarian, as well as her shushing and enforcing the rule of quiet within her library domain.
  • Comic Relief:  Of course, her use of “thees” and “thous” open her up to ridicule, as Jimmy Stewart pokes (gentle) fun by mocking her speech — and thus making it ok for the audience to laugh at her and the situation.

A few seconds of this scene (at :22 and 1:00) are included in the “Funny Library Clips” video below, compiled by Greene County Library.

Funny Library Clips,” uploaded by Greene County Public Library on Dec. 9, 2011. Standard YouTube license.

What is thee wish? To rewatch this classic film, of course! 😉

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11 comments on “‘What is thee wish?’ To analyze the librarian in ‘The Philadelphia Story’

  1. popegrutch says:

    Shouldn’t it be “what is thy wish?” Probably not. The Quaker version of the 2nd person familiar has always confused me (and my mother was a Quaker!).

    • You’re probably right about “thy” being the proper usage, but the Quaker librarian in the movie clearly says “thee” when she asks the question. Perhaps a mistake of the playwright or screenwriters? Or perhaps a subtle clue that the librarian isn’t all that proper after all… ? An interesting thing to think about. Perhaps requesting a copy of the play would prove illuminating? I sense an upcoming post… 🙂

      • popegrutch says:

        Well, it’s complicated, because Quakers didn’t preserve the correct usage of the 2nd-person familiar, but rather their own idiosyncratic one. Wikipedia comments that “the stereotype has them saying thee for both nominative and accusative cases” and that might be the joke here – adding the possessive to that list.

      • Todd Leone says:

        Of course, what the librarian actually said was “What does thee wish?”, the Quaker version of “What do you wish?” “What is thee wish?” is totally off base here. Review the footage and you’ll hear “What DOES thee wish?”

        Quakers don’t use “Thou” even though that’s gramatically correct for the second person singular nominative case — “What dost thou wish?” would be grammatically correct. Quakers use “thee” for both the nominative and objective cases and when they use it as the subject of a sentence, they use the third-person singular verb form, as in “Thee does” or “Thee is” or “Thee has”. Invert it to make it interrogative and you come up with “What does thee wish?” which is what was actually said by the librarian.

      • Thanks for your comment, Todd, and correction, much appreciated! I have watched this movie many times, and it’s amazing to me that I have always heard that line as “What is thee wish.” It does make sense, after you’ve explained it, for it to be “What does thee wish.” I’ve also put in an InterLibrary Loan request for a copy of the movie screenplay, just to doublecheck what the line was scripted for. (I do like to be thorough.) Thanks again!

  2. […] ‘What is thee wish?’ To analyze the librarian in ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (reel-librarians.com) […]

  3. […] I published my analysis post this past December, “‘What is thee wish?’ To analyze the librarian in ‘The Philadelphia Story’” about the “shushing Quaker librarian” character in that classic 1940 film, I […]

  4. Tony says:

    There’s another 4 second clip, beginning at 1:13.

  5. BarbaraFlanigan says:

    Do you happen to know which library in Philadelphia was used for the front door scene. It looks very much like the Chestnut Hill branch of the Philadelphia Library.

    • It’s an interesting thought, but the window panes look different after I compared the screenshot I took of the outside of the library versus the photo I see here of the Chestnut Hill branch at https://libwww.freelibrary.org/locations/chestnut-hill-library . The filming locations on IMDb.com list the MGM studios as the only filming location, and this was a time when there was almost no shooting done on location — it was all done on the studio lot. But perhaps this branch served as the inspiration for the set? 🙂

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