It’s time for my analysis of the movie that readers chose in the latest reader poll, 1937’s Navy Blues. One reader shared that they voted for Navy Blues because the main star, Dick Purcell, portrayed Captain America in the 1943 serial film. As good a reason as any!
Purcell plays Russell J. ‘Rusty’ Gibbs, a sailor whose friends bet that he can’t get a woman of their choosing to go out on a date with him. The woman they choose is a librarian, Doris, played by Mary Brian. Here’s her opening screen credit(s), which provide a sneak peek at the plot to come:
*SPOILER ALERTS THROUGHOUT*
I first mentioned the film Navy Blues on this site in the 2012 post “Have you seen this movie?,” in which I highlighted movies with major librarian characters that I had not been able to locate copies of. I did locate a streaming copy of it available online via YouTube (but of course, the video quality is not the best).
In their book The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999, Ray and Brenda Tevis do not mince words about this film:
Navy Blues renders such a visual and verbal assault on librarians that the motion picture effectively released the film industry from continuing any semblance of decent and respectful cinematic depictions of librarians. […] More importantly, in this film the sailors continually lambaste its librarian, demonstrating outright disrespect for women librarians. (p. 33)
In addition to being a mediocre film, Navy Blues is an extremely insensitive assault on librarians. Not all cinematic depictions of librarians in preceding motion pictures are commendatory toward the occupation, but none is more outlandish in its derision of librarians. (p. 35-36)
It is indeed a mediocre film, one that starts off on a comedic, happy-go-lucky tone, and about two-thirds of the way in, elements of spy and action thrillers get added into the mix. It’s an odd combination. And due to its extremely negative portrayal of reel librarianship, I have to admit at having to stop the film at certain points to get my blood pressure down before continuing. And that’s before I reread the film’s entry in the Tevis book!
Less than five minutes into the 77-minute film, the librarian is referred to as a “bow-wow,” a slang term for “dog” — and in this context, also a slang term for “ugly.”
Here’s how that scene plays out, which takes place after Rusty’s sailor pals go ashore to start their shore leave.
Chips: I saw a dame in a public li-berry once.
Biff and Gateleg: Where?!
Chips: Now don’t get me wrong, boys, I just popped in there out of the rain. Well, I took one gander at this dame and ran right out again, rain or no rain.
Biff: That bad?
Chips: Yeah. A bow-wow.
A few minutes later, Rusty takes the bet, and they drop him off at the library. The sign says it’s the “Harbor Branch.”
Chip: In there, sailor.
Rusty: A library, eh? I’ve been in libraries before. They don’t scare me.
Chip: Don’t you think you’ll need an introduction?
Rusty: Say, how will I know her?
Chip: She’s got on a pair of glasses as thick as cookies. You know the type! [Laughs hysterically]
Rusty strides into the library and asks for the first book title he sees, Advanced Algebra by Hammersmith. This turns out to be an important plot point — as the book he picks out turns out to be used as a code book for a spy ring! As Rusty later laments, “Of all the books in the library, I had to take that one!”
He tries to butter up the librarian with cliché phrases like, “Old books, you know, are like old friends” and “When I get engrossed in a book, the hours just fly.” She isn’t having any of it and crisply hands the book over and informs him of closing time.
She also climbs a book ladder a few minutes later, and Rusty makes a face at the closeup of her ankle, encased in sturdy Oxfords. The reel librarian makes a face right back at him.
Rusty’s friends are waiting for him outside the library, wondering what is taking him so long. When the librarian — we learn her name is “Miss Kimbell” and later learn her first name, Doris — closes up the library, she walks out with another man named Julian. (By the way, Julian turns out to be a spy who was using the Advanced Algebra book to pass through codes and secret information! Because no one could actually be interested in a woman librarian!) Rusty manages to infiltrate himself into the situation and helps walk Mary home.
His friends are astounded, and we get these further insults in rapid-fire succession:
He must be a glutton for punishment.
It must be Thanksgiving or something. She’s all made up like a pilgrim.
It’ll take a brave man to wheel that museum piece into the Crow’s Nest.
So within the film’s first 10 minutes, the reel librarian is the subject of multiple insults, from “bow wow” to “museum piece.” And we still have 60 minutes to go!
Even her aunt and uncle get in on the insults:
Aunt Beulah: How do I know where he’s luring Doris to?
Uncle Andrew: She’s probably luring him, to some roundtable discussion. And that’ll end it.
I will highlight just two more scenes.
First, the romantic scene that includes a makeover, or at least the description of a makeover. (At this point, my husband — who was only half paying attention — looked up and said, “This plot sounds just like the movie She’s All That!” He’s not wrong about that, at least until the spy ring and naval intelligence get involved.)
Here’s a clip of that scene, coming in at 20 minutes into the film and lasting about 3 minutes.
This scene has Rusty assuring that Doris doesn’t need to wear glasses — “But you can see without them?” — and that she should make more of an effort to look feminine — “I don’t know how long you’ve been wearing this disguise, but I’m gonna be around to see the unveiling.” (More jabs at the “museum piece” analogy.)
Rusty also “accidentally” drops her glasses while they kiss on the beach at sunset, and her glasses break on the rocks. Grrrrrrrrr… this necessitated me pausing the film. Because RAGE. Laser beams coming out of my own pair of glasses, which I will keep right on wearing, thank you very much.
Rusty — never offering to pay for her broken eyeglasses, no surprise there — has an ulterior motive for her makeover, as he wants to bring her to the Crow’s Nest bar to show her off to his friends and collect his cash for the bet. But his plan backfires, as his pals don’t believe it’s the “li-berrian” they saw before. They refuse to pay, because “That girl’s a ringer.”
To convince them, he makes up a story — it involves him lying about being an undercover naval intelligence agent, which had me seriously doubting Doris’s intelligence — and forcing her to put on another pair of glasses while he hand-mimics “four eyes” in the background. Now they recognize her!
This scene is like the flip side of Superman’s “disguise” as Clark Kent, with no one recognizing him whenever he wears glasses. In this movie, no one recognizes the librarian unless she’s wearing glasses!
At the end of this scene, Doris finds out about Rusty’s bet and storms off, and he goes after her. Fair warning, this is the most rage-inducing scene in the entire film:
Rusty: Sure I made that bet. Why else would I have bothered with a freak like you?
Doris: A freak?!
Rusty: Well, that’s what you were. I changed you over from a crow, a bookworm. Made you into a girl that could take her pick of anything.
The actress’s facial expression matched my own:
She rightly slams the door in his face. Attagirl! (Too bad she later forgives him.)
I have to admit, this film was exhausting to watch and to weather all the insults hurled at reel librarians — and insults hurled at women in general. I cannot divorce my analysis of this film apart from my being a librarian and a woman librarian at that. I am biased. So is this film. (Written by two men, I might add.)
The librarian profession is central to the plot, making it a Class I film, but the profession is there to be mocked at! I mean, isn’t it funny that a man was TRICKED to court a librarian?! HILARIOUS.
The character seems destined for early spinsterhood and is rules-obsessed (in the opening library scene, she says, “[I]f it’s so important to you, I might waive a rule”), but as the film continues, it’s obvious that Doris Kimbell fulfills the Liberated Librarian character type. I mean that in a tongue-in-cheek, rolling-my-eyes kind of way, as she doesn’t need to be liberated from anything. But this is the kind of film in which stereotypes will be stereotypes, and the star always gets the girl, even if the star plays a character who is arrogant, rude, and a pathological liar.
I will end this post with a tidbit about the book at the center of this film, Hammersmith’s Advanced Algebra. Y’all knew I would look that up, right? Well, you were right — I used both a basic Google search plus a search in WorldCat, the “world’s library catalog.” I could not find any book with that exact title and author, and from the closeup above, it does look like the title on the spine could be pasted on. However, I did find a book in WorldCat titled Advanced Algebra (Vol. 2), published in 1937 (the same year as this film) and written by Clement Vavasor Durell and Alan Robson — and here’s the kicker — with a copy in the Hammersmith & Fulham Libraries in Hammersmith, UK.
Coincidence? You be the judge! Discuss and share your thoughts about the film in the comments.
- Navy Blues. Dir. Ralph Staub. Perf. Dick Purcell, Mary Brian, Warren Hymer. Republic Studios, 1937.
- Tevis, Ray, and Brenda Tevis. The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999. McFarland, 2005.