I have written before about occupational tasks and props often seen in reel librarian films, including in this post, “Whaddya mean, you’re a librarian?” in which I stated:
Typically, the term “librarian” is rarely said out loud in movies — most likely because of time — and in most films, there is really no need to verbally identify the librarians. Standing behind the counter, shelving books, or pushing a cart is quite enough to establish a reel librarian.
In the invaluable book, The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999, by Ray and Brenda Tevis — which I reviewed here in this post — the two framed these occupational tasks and props in a similar way:
[O]ccupational tasks are utilized to sufficiently establish the character’s identity as a librarian. The occupational tasks used most frequently by actors are: standing or sitting behind a desk, stamping a book, standing on a ladder, holding or shelving a book, picking up a book from a table, pushing a booktruck, and turning out the lights. (p. 18)
For this post, I thought it would be interesting to delve deeper into how often the “library ladder” is used in reel librarian films — and how the cinematic use of a library ladder has progressed (or not!) over the years.
Below, I’ve arranged films in chronological order by year the films were released. Let’s take a trip down library ladder lane!
The Lost Romance (1921)
This film is notable for being the first film to feature a reel librarian atop a ladder in the library. Alas, this film appears lost. It stars Lois Wilson as public librarian Sylvia Hayes, seen atop the ladder in the pic below. In the film’s plot, she has to deal with 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.
When she is standing on the three-step ladder and supposed to be shelving books, Sylvia daydreams instead about her upcoming vacation. While daydreaming, she doesn’t notice the long line of patrons piling up at the Circulation desk. Her boss, played by Mayme Kelso, admonishes her (and Kelso, according to the Tevises, also is the first reel librarian to sport the stereotypical librarian props and hairstyle of eyeglasses and a bun!)
Only 38 (1923)
Actress Lois Wilson plays 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. In one scene, Mrs. Stanley uses the library ladder to fetch a book for a patron.
As the Tevises point out, “The film also introduces the tall library ladder as a climbing device for reel librarians to reach high shelves in stack areas while assisting patrons.” The library ladder prop in this scene serves a utilitarian purpose only. “Males leering at the ankles and calves of women librarians on library ladders — occurs for the first time nine years later in No Man of Her Own” (p. 13).
No Man of Her Own (1932)
A con artist and gambler, Babe (Clark Gable), goes to a small town to escape prosecution — and falls in love with the young librarian, Connie (Carole Lombard). A few scenes are set in the library, including one in which Babe looks up the librarian’s skirt while she shelves books!
As detailed in The Image of the Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999 book, this film “contained the first library ladder comedic scene in sound films, allowing Babe the opportunity to ogle Connie’s ankle and calf” (p. 26).
Obviously, we are supposed to believe that Gable’s sex appeal knocks Lombard off her library ladder. 😉 The two actors later married in real life.
Cain and Mabel (1936)
In this film, Clark Gable plays a prizefighter who falls in love with a struggling Broadway actress (Marion Davies). In one scene, they meet at the library to plan their elopement and startle a couple of librarians, played by Lillian Lawrence and Harry C. Bradley in uncredited roles.
As the Tevises sum up the library ladder in this scene, “As they [Clark Gable and Marion Davies] kiss in the aisle, another librarian… whom they fail to notice standing on the higher rungs of a tall library ladder, accidentally drops a book, almost hitting them” (p. 31).
This film highlights another use for the library ladder — it’s convenient for librarians to spy on patrons!
The library scene did make it onto one of the “lobby cards” used in the film’s marketing — but not the library ladder, alas!
Sea Devils (1937)
In this film, Preston Foster stars as Seaman Mike O’Shay, who sets his sights on young librarian Doris, played by Ida Lupino. There is also an older librarian colleague — in this case, actress Fern Emmett playing Miss McGonigle, sporting a severe bun and pince nez — to contrast with the younger female librarian.
The library scene in this film involves BOTH librarians! Doris starts to shelve books under the library ladder, and when Mike tries to kiss Doris, the other librarian comes down the library ladder and steps on his hand.
I do NOT feel sorry for Mike in this scene. Sexual harassment 0, library ladder 1.
Navy Blues (1937)
The film stars Dick Purcell as 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. There are a couple of scenes set in the public library. I reviewed the film more fully here in this post.
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.
As the Tevises astutely point out, this library ladder scene contrasts with the library ladder scene in No Man of Her Own, in which the male lead character was excited by the reel librarian’s sight of ankles. (p. 34).
This Was Paris (1942)
In this comic spy thriller set in Paris in 1940, before the German invasion, a reporter suspects a man of being a German spy, so he looks at the newspaper archives—and he makes a mess by throwing pictures and files around. He also takes time to insult Watson, the newspaper librarian.
This scene involves a library ladder, as described by the Tevises, “The scene opens with Butch atop a tall ladder, tossing documents out of folders onto the floor. The newspaper’s librarian… complains that Butch is ‘undoing the work of years’” (p. 41).
The Human Comedy (1943)
This 1944 Best Picture nominee, set in the U.S. homefront during WWII, feature one touching scene at the local public library. Two young boys go to the public library to look at books even though they can’t read yet, and encounter a friendly female librarian (Adeline De Walt Reynolds). This older librarian is atop a tall ladder as she notices the young boys, and she comes down the ladder to ask them questions.
You can view the full library scene in the clip below:
“The Wonder of Books: Library Scene from The Human Comedy (1943),” uploaded by Lunamation, 2013, Standard YouTube license
The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)
In this film, a notorious criminal, Dimitrios, fascinates mystery writer Leyden (Peter Lorre). In one early scene, Leyden travels to the Bureau of Records in Athens to research Dimitrios’s past and gets help from an easily frustrated archives clerk. I analyzed the film more fully here in this post.
The set for the Bureau of Records is very spare, with its glass block window, stark walls, file cabinets, and desk. Its only extravagance is having TWO library ladders! The archives room is obviously a set — and to paraphrase the clerk — does its duty, no more, no less.
It is also interesting to note that the archives clerk has devised his own system of organization that he keeps touting. He first looks in drawer #13 because “M” for “Makropoulous” is the 13th letter of the alphabet. When looking up the alias, Talat, he then seeks out… you guessed it, drawer #20, as “T” is the 20th letter of the alphabet. (Odd that he has to cross the room and climb up a different library ladder to get to a drawer only 7 spaces away. Organization ≠ efficiency.)
Weird Woman (1944)
While on an expedition in the South Seas, college professor Norman Reed (Lon Chaney, Jr.) marries Paula (Anne Gwynne), a native woman who continues her superstitious beliefs upon their return to the U.S. His unexpected marriage angers his ex-girlfriend, college librarian Ilona (Evelyn Ankers, who starred in several horror films, including the classic The Wolf Man), who embarks on revenge. Hell hath no fury… like a librarian scorned! I delve more into this horror film here in this post.
Ilona is blonde, young, beautiful, and wears striking modern clothing. However, she does not seem like a dedicated librarian because she is never in the library; rather, she is always in her office, which appears as large as or even bigger than the actual library. Of the actual college library, we only get to see a glimpse of bookcases, a tall library ladder, and a dictionary stand.
As the Tevises put it, “the library, which is drastically inadequate for any college but, for cinematic purposes, establishes the illusion of a library” (p. 49).
Here is a trailer for the film:
Wonder Man (1945)
Nightclub singer Buster Dingle (Danny Kaye) gets killed by a mob boss, and his spirit enters his identical twin, Edwin (also played by Danny Kaye). Edwin, a bookworm writing a history book, gets involved with a young and attractive librarian (Virginia Mayo).
The library scene includes two rolling library ladders (and you can see a photographic still of the library ladder scene online here). While trying to woo the librarian, Edwin falls off one of the ladders, bringing down several shelves of books. We learn that this incident actually gets the librarian fired! NOT COOL.
This also goes to show how dangerous library ladders can be!
The Trespasser (1947)
This late ’40s murder mystery stars Dale Evans in a rare non-Western film. And although Evans received top billing, she apparently has only a minor role. The real star of the film is Janet Martin, who plays Stephanie “Stevie” Carson, a recent college graduate who starts work at a newspaper’s research library. She teams up with her boss, Danny Butler (Warren Douglas), to investigate a rare book forgery and the frame-up of one of their newspaper editors.
The large newspaper library includes rolling ladders and floor-to-ceiling file cabinets. This scene also shows how dangerous rolling library ladders can be.
It appears that the library ladders play a role in multiple library scenes. Here’s how the scenes are summed up in the Tevis book: “When Stevie reports to work, Danny, standing on a ladder as he works in the films, informs Steve, ‘I expect people who work for me to be on their toes. I demand, well, I think you got what I demand'” (p. 60). He’s known as a womanizer. Stevie, an intelligent and independent woman, responds to him by grabbing the ladder and pushing it forcefully — “the abrupt stop causes Danny to go somersaulting off the ladder” (p. 61) and onto a desk. Later, Stevie has to climb the ladder to file folders, and Danny ogles her ankles. Stevie complains — way to go! — and says later to Danny that “from now on… I’ll keep my feet on the ground.”
The Web (1947)
In this film, a lawyer (Edmond O’Brien) and a detective (William Bendix) team up to trap a financier who has framed the lawyer for murder.
The film includes a 45-second scene in a newspaper’s “Index Department.” Robin Raymond plays the newspaper librarian, who is standing on a ladder at the beginning of the library scene, and she proceeds to retrieve a large volume from one of the top shelves.
Katie Did It (1951)
Ann Blyth stars as the title character, Katie, who works at the local public library in a rigidly Puritan New England town. In this kind of romantic comedy, she’s got to fall in love with someone, and in this case, she falls in love with Peter Van Arden (Mark Stevens), a “city slicker commercial artist.”
I have not been able to track down a copy of this film yet, but there’s a Meet Cute moment that involves a ladder — this time, outside the library — as well a funny scene that involves a ladder inside the library.
Here’s how the Tevises describe the significance of this scene, in which Katie, a librarian, is walking to the library when she stops and talks to an inn owner — and the painter (Stevens), atop a tall ladder while painting a new sign for the inn, drips paint on her hat: “In preceding films, librarians in their own bailiwicks, the library, are always on the ladder. In this film there is a touch of irony, a sarcastic twist of events, as the librarian, no longer within the safe confines of a library, is under the ladder, becoming the unintentional target of a falling object” (p. 71).
However, in a later library scene, Katie is the one on a library ladder when Peter the painter comes in, and he takes the opportunity to ogle and whistle at her calves and ankles.
As Young As You Feel (1951)
In this comedy, John R. Hodges (Monty Woolley) is enraged that he is being forced to retire at age 65, and in a very short scene, he goes to the library to find out the name of the president of his business’s parent company. Carol Savage plays the young librarian, who is standing on a ladder in the library and consulting a reference book. She gets very excited at finding the information Hodges asks for, scampering down the ladder and shouting, “Here it is! I found it!”
Gotta love an enthusiastic librarian! 😀
A Girl Named Tamiko (1962)
The title character of Tamiko (Frances Nuyen), who is from a wealthy Japanese family, works as a librarian for the Foreign Press Club in Tokyo. There are a couple of scenes set in the Foreign Press Club library.
Here’s how the Tevises describe the scene that includes the library ladder: “The film’s second library scene utilizes one occupational clue — standing on a ladder. Tamiko’s occupation, however, is not pertinent to the story line” (p. 118).
Below is a trailer for the film, which includes a glimpse of the library — and the library ladder! — at 2:07 minutes into the trailer:
Twisted Nerve (1968)
Martin (Hywel Bennett) is a troubled young man with an obsessive mother, a dismissive stepfather, and a brother with Down’s Syndrome who lives in an institution. Martin becomes fixated on Susan Harper (Hayley Mills), a young library assistant studying to be a teacher. There are a few scenes set in the public library with Susan and the head librarian, Mr. Groom. I analyzed this film more in-depth in this post.
Our first introduction to Susan in a library setting is a classically sexist and stereotypical one; while looking for a book atop a library ladder, two young lads enjoy the view up her (short) skirt.
Goodbye, Columbus (1969)
A poor Bronx librarian, Neil Klugman (Richard Benjamin), has a summer romance with a privileged “Jewish-American princess” (Ali MacGraw), and their affair highlights how different their worlds are. Neil works in a public library, and in one scene, he helps a black boy who is hanging out in the art room, climbing a ladder to talk to him. He shows genuine interest in the boy and real humanity in the art books the boy is interested in — in contrast to the other librarians, who are very suspicious (and frankly, racist) toward the boy.
My Side of the Mountain (1969)
A boy, Sam (Ted Eccles), leaves home to spend a year in nature, like Thoreau. He goes to the public library in one scene, and librarian Miss Turner (Tudi Wiggins) helps him find information about peregrine falcons. In the first library scene, Miss Turner climbs a library ladder to find some books for him.
In this film, a couple (Glenn Close & Mandy Patinkin) move into a new apartment, where the ghost of a 1920s starlet still resides. The ghost, Maxie, takes over Close’s body. Patinkin plays a librarian at the San Francisco Public Library.
In one scene, he is on a rolling metal ladder and gets sexually harassed by his supervisor, Ophelia Sheffer (Valerie Curtin as Miss Ophelia Sheffer), who fulfills the Naughty Librarian character type.
More sexual harassment atop a library ladder — but this time, a gender reversal! (That doesn’t make it any better.)
Below is a trailer for the film, and you can see the library scene — and the library ladder — at 1:37 minutes into the trailer:
Criminal Law (1988)
Hotshot lawyer Ben Chase (Gary Oldman) successfully defends a client (Kevin Bacon), realizing after that his client is guilty. In one scene about a half-hour into the film, Ben visits an old professor in the law library. Everyone seems to be on familiar and friendly terms with the librarian.
Rounding a corner, Ben finds his old professor, Clemens (Michael Sinelnikoff), sitting on a library ladder and decked out in a long, grey cardigan. An older lady (Irene Kessler) is handing him thick volumes and helping him shelve books. At first glance, it’s hard to tell which is the librarian!
I analyzed the film more in-depth here in this post.
Necronomicon: Book of the Dead (1993)
Comprised of three story segments based off of H. P. Lovecraft’s works, this film also includes a “wraparound” entitled The Library, which serves as a framing device for the other stories. H. P. Lovecraft goes to a monastery library and steals a librarian monk’s key in order to read the Necronomicon, the book of the dead — and in the process, he opens up more than he intended.
After signing in, we next spy the librarian on a library ladder. Obviously up to something, Lovecraft nervously directs the librarian to the alchemical encyclopedia on the top shelf (of course). While the librarian is busy reaching for the volume, Lovecraft manages to unhook the librarian’s keys from his waist sash without him noticing the sound of jangling keys or the sudden missing weight. Yeah. Right.
This scene not only features a reel librarian using a library ladder to help aid a patron — but the patron uses the ladder as a means to distract the librarian! I also think this library ladder gets the prize for the most ornate ladder design.
I delved headlong into this oddball of a film and analyzed it here in this post.
The Mummy (1999)
In this adventure, Egyptian priest Imhotep is accidentally brought back to life. Egyptology librarian Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), her brother (John Hannah), and an American soldier (Brendan Fraser) join forces to stop Imhotep.
The scene in which we meet Evie comes early in the film, after the introduction that sets up Imhotep’s backstory. The library scene takes place in the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, Egypt, and Evie is on a tall ladder and shelving books. While trying to take a shortcut to shelve a wayward title, she accidentally topples all the bookcases in the library. (One of the lessons learned in this film? Don’t take shortcuts while shelving books!) Also, during the commentary of this scene on the DVD, director Stephen Sommers reveals that they got this scene in one take!
The Tevises call this library ladder scene “one of the funniest library ladder scenes in twentieth century cinema” (p. 180).
The Age of Adaline (2015)
Adaline (Blake Lively), a young woman and a recent widow, gets into a car accident in the 1930s and stops aging as a result of the accident. After decades of living alone, she meets a man, Ellis (Michel Huisman) who makes her question her life choices. Adaline works in the archives at the San Francisco Heritage Society library, and there are several scenes set in the library.
A half-hour into the film, Ellis returns to the library to donate a lot of rare first editions. (It turns out he has made a lot of money in the tech industry and is now giving back and doing good works.) Just the way to capture a reel librarian’s heart!
Ellis then proceeds with his real mission: to flirt with Adaline. Cue the obligatory library ladder scene!
You can read many more details and library scenes in this film analysis post.
Films that include library ladders but do not include reel librarians:
- Slightly Dangerous (1943): Although no librarian in sight, a library ladder does get featured! In a scene set in a newspaper archives, room, Peggy (Lana Turner) finds a bound volume of newspapers atop a conveniently placed library ladder. Read more about the film in this post.
- Anatomy of a Murder (1959): Lawyer Paul Biegler (Jimmy Stewart) defends Lt. Manion (Ben Gazzara), who is charged with murder of a local man. Biegler argues temporary insanity and pulls an all-nighter in a law library to find a case to use as a precedent. No library ladder — but there IS a chair on which Stewart climbs to reach a book on a high shelf. Read more about the film in this post.
- What’s New Pussycat? (1965): In one scene, Carole (Romy Schneider) and Victor (Woody Allen) argue in a library, and another man takes a book that Carole wanted. To prove his love for her, Victor “fights” with the man. No librarian in sight, although there is a quiet, bespectacled man (uncredited in the film cast) reading in the corner who doesn’t stir throughout the entire fight scene. Victor and Carole also kiss atop library ladders.
- The Lickerish Quartet (1970) has a scene that involves “The Visitor” (Silvana Venturelli) who gets invited into the castle owner’s private library through a secret doorway and ladder.
- From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1973): Two siblings, Claudia and her brother, Jamie, run away from home to stay at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They try to solve the mystery of the new angel statue, rumored to be the work of Michelangelo, which leads them to the statue’s donor and famous recluse, Mrs. Basil E. Frankerweiler. Her private library and filing cabinets also includes a library ladder, which you can see here in this post.
- Homicide (1991): Joe Mantegna stars as conflicted Jewish cop Bobby Gold. While investigating a minor case, he gets involved with a secretive Jewish group, which makes him question his faith and self-worth. He investigates the word Grofaz at a special archives library for Jewish studies in one pivotal scene. And OF COURSE, while Gold is placing the book high on a shelf, he just happens to overhear a suspicious conversation between the head librarian and the grey lady assistant. In earlier films, library ladders served as convenient spots for librarians to spy on patrons — here’s a scene in which a patron uses a library ladder to spy on librarians! Read more about the film here in this post.
- My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006): Uma Thurman plays Jenny Johnson as well as her superhero alter ego G-Girl. She starts dating Matt (Luke Wilson), but goes crazy when he breaks up with her. Although initially described as “an uptight librarian on the outside,” we find out Jenny’s an art curator. There is a scene at Matt’s workplace, a design firm, that includes a library ladder. Read more about the film here in this post.
- Atonement (2007): In this drama, there is a sexual tryst LITERALLY ON A LIBRARY LADDER — very memorable!
In the 1994 animated classic and Oscar-nominated film, Beauty and the Beast, features a rolling library ladder — but in a bookstore, not a library. But the scene is SO memorable that I had to include it as an Honorable Mention entry!
Have you enjoyed this trip down library ladder lane? Did I miss any? Please leave a comment and let me know!
Tevis, Ray, and Brenda Tevis. The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999. McFarland, 2005.