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

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 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! 🙂

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!).

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.

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 does thee wish?

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

Librarian:  What does 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.

The shushing librarian in The Philadelphia Story (1940)
The shushing librarian!

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.

Library scene in The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Jimmy Stewart’s facial expression here says it all

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, 1:00, and 1:13) are included in the video below.

Funny Library Clips,” uploaded by Greene County Public Library is licensed under a Standard YouTube license.

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

Sources used:

  • The Good Companions. Dir. Victor Saville. Perf. Jessie Matthews, Edmund Gwenn, John Gielgud, Mary Glynne. Gaumont British Picture Corporation, 1933.
  • The Philadelphia Story. Dir. George Cukor. Perf. Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey, John Howard, Roland Young. MGM, 1940.


The original title and dialogue in this post were inaccurate, as I had misheard the Quaker Librarian saying, “What is thee wish?” instead of the properly grammatical Quaker saying, “What does thee wish?” Please see the comment thread below for the reader comments that alerted me to the error.

Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

16 thoughts on “‘What does thee wish?’ To analyze the librarian in ‘The Philadelphia Story’”

    1. 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… 🙂

      1. 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.

      2. 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.

      3. 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!

  1. 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.

    1. 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? 🙂

  2. She asks, “What *does* thee wish,” not, “What *is* thee wish,” which is correct Quaker grammar. I worked for a Quaker woman of that same generation when I was in college. The phrase was common, and I have no doubt that’s what the Main Line librarian character said.

      1. Jen, I knew I should have read all of the other comments before posting, but I was kind of in a rush. I see now that Todd had pointed this out as well. Kudos for making the correction. How I do love someone who cares about the facts! I was curious about the shooting locations, but initially, like you, found nothing but the IMDB note that is was shot on the studio lot. I did later find an article from Philly magazine (http://www.phillymag.com/articles/feature-the-story-behind-the-philadelphia-story/?all=1) which says, “The exterior of the Wayne library was used as a model for the one where Tracy goes to search for Mike’s book.” In addition to that tidbit, I think it’s quite a good article about the film more generally. I found a couple of photos of the Radnor Library, apparently the only one in Wayne, PA, but I didn’t see much resemblance. See it here: http://radnorhistory.org/archive/articles/ytmt/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/43_image02-2.jpg from the story here: http://radnorhistory.org/archive/articles/ytmt/?m=195611 In my search, I also had a look at another Main Line library, which has some resemblance to the one in the film, but which is also substantially different. The link from the google search results is broken, but if you do a google image search on “Lower Merion/Narberth Buildings ardmore library” you’ll get a few photos of that building, the very first one (at least the first returned just now) being the clearest shot. (I submitted this as a comment, but it didn’t post, and I didn’t want to try aga

      2. Thanks for the feedback! I have set comments with more than one link in them to not post until I review them (it’s one way to lessen the chances of spam comments going through), so that’s why your comment did not post right away. And way to go for finding the article about the library that served as the inspiration for the library in the film! 🙂

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