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Librarian as a cinematic representation of an ethical and intellectual leader

I am still on the librarian-image-has-a-deeper-meaning kick (see last week’s post on theories behind — hee hee — the anal-retentiveness of reel librarian portrayals). Now let’s explore more about the librarian as a cinematic representation of an ethical and intellectual leader.

Today's Librarian Wordle by theunquietlibrarian is licensed under CC BY NC 2.0
Today’s Librarian Wordle by theunquietlibrarian is licensed under CC BY NC 2.0

Ann O’Brien & Martin Raish wrote in their article, “The Image of the Librarian in Commercial Motion Pictures,” that “[o]ften a figure of wisdom and benign authority, the librarian was the custodian of positive social and educative forces” (p. 63). Libraries are places where one can access information and all kinds of knowledge; transferring those qualities of wisdom and collected intelligence to the librarian(s) makes sense. Librarians in real life also tend to be master generalists — we know a little about a lot of things. Noah Wyle as Flynn Carsen in The Librarian TV movies is a great example of this, with his umpteenth degrees and vast array of esoteric knowledge that helps him get out of all sorts of tricky situations.

The librarian’s role in film has also periodically included being the moral center of the community. This “morality” does not necessarily take on conservative or overbearing overtones; rather, the librarian stands for what is right and good in a society, a highly positive image. Whew, a positive image for reel librarians! Well, we were due. 😉 In the article I referenced in last week’s post, “Power, Knowledge, and Fear:  Feminism, Foucault, and the Stereotype of the Female Librarian,” Marie and Gary Radford comment that “the library has long been taken […] as a metaphor for rationality” (p. 254) and “[l]ibraries are segregated places of intellectual activity” (p. 255).

Storm Center (1956) adheres to the notion that librarians represent rationality and ethical judgment, as Bette Davis plays a librarian in a small town who stands up against censorship. And passes out lollipops to kids (not kidding, see left, as well as my post on advertising the reel librarian). But I digress… the censorship issue also emerges in Rome Adventure (1962), and in a more heated environment in Pump Up the Volume (1990), as well. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) features a more benign librarian hero, played by Jason Robards, but he still stands up for what he perceives as right; he literally represents the “good” pitted against Mr. Dark’s “evil” (deliciously played by Jonathan Pryce).

In a more diluted form, the librarian can stand for good ol’ common sense, as exemplified by Katharine Hepburn in Desk Set (1957) or Greer Garson in Adventure (1945). And who doesn’t love a bit of common sense?

Sources used:

It’s an ‘adventure’!

“Suzanne is a librarian who breaks with her stuffy New England background to live this… ‘Rome Adventure’!”

In Rome Adventure (1962), Suzanne Pleshette plays Prudence Bell, an assistant librarian at the Briarcroft College for Women. The first scene sets the stage:  Prudence lands in trouble for letting a young girl read Lovers Must Learn, a book considered “too adult” for this school. The board has banned the book (this also serves as a clever advertisement for the real book, which the film was based on, and its author, Irving Fineman, who is name-dropped in the first five minutes) and reprimands Prudence in the process. Prudence, however, stands up to them and defies their rules. She delivers a speech about the importance of love — what’s hiding in every girl’s heart, that need to be loved — and quits the library to follow the book’s advice. She says, “This is Independence Day!” We are on her side for standing up to the board — and, in effect, standing up against censorship. [Plus, this week is the annual Banned Books Week, so this post is right on target!]

She is “going out to find love instead of waiting for it” (as apparently she has been doing as a librarian at a girls’ school?). Part of this scene is highlighted (albeit a little misleadingly) in the film’s trailer, below.

ROME ADVENTURE (1962) Troy Donahue Suzanne Pleshette Angie Dickinson bas movie trashy trailer” video uploaded by TheViewMonster is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

This was Suzanne Pleshette’s first leading role (although she gets 4th billing), and she was one of the loveliest actresses of her day. Her character is dressed in conservative but stylish suits, and her hairstyle and makeup are modern and fresh. Pleshette had a very direct kind of acting style — coupled with her trademark throaty voice — which works for this film, as it strengthens what might have otherwise been a very insipid role in lesser hands. Pleshette injects an intelligence and witty humor behind Prudence’s (forgive me!) slightly prudent demeanor.

Prudence is a prime example of the Liberated Librarian character type, a woman whose “liberation” often becomes the major plot. Liberated Librarians may even seem on the path to Spinster Librarians, but are spared from this oh-so-terrible fate (tongue firmly in cheek). This is the case for Rome Adventure, and Prudence even says early on: “I have absolutely no talent for being a spinster.”

So Prudence travels to Rome, to learn and to get a job — which the plot promptly serves up. Prudence begins work at The American Bookshop, befriending another American who fell in love with Italy (and Italian men).

This plot and setting is quite familiar, taking cues from the classic Roman Holiday (1953) and Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), both Best Picture nominees. The original title for both this film and the novel it’s based on was Lovers Must Learn, but they most likely changed the film’s name in an effort to capture a bit of borrowed glory from Roman Holiday. Even the packaging is similar. We get to see lots of iconic Roman sights, coupled with pretty girls in pretty dresses falling in love and learning “the ways of the world” along the way. Nothing wrong with that!

Prudence rapidly falls in love, saying those three little words on her first date with Don Porter, played by then-heartthrob Troy Donahue. Onscreen romance led to love off-screen, as well — Suzanne Pleshette and Troy Donahue were married, albeit briefly (8 months), after this film was released. In the film, Prudence goes on a trip with Don — just the two of them — but is concerned about what her mother might think of her affair. “I can’t run away from my conscience!” But she valiantly battles with her rival in love, an ex-girlfriend in the shape of sexy Angie Dickinson. Romantic complications ensue, and she seeks lessons in love from the master, Rossano Brazzi (who is totally more swoon-worthy than Troy Donahue, in my opinion), who helps change her image to a sexier one. But this sexier image is one that Prudence — proving her namesake to the end — ultimately rejects, saying “I think first I better change back into me.”

Prudence’s liberation comes full circle. She decides to go back home because the cost to her freedom and self-respect is too much — and even if her choices at the end of the film may seem conventional, the point is that she did learn, but only by making her own choices.

After rewatching this film, I can’t help thinking, WHY is Prudence a librarian? Her initial profession is certainly highlighted in the trailer — which was a surprise to me! — but why wasn’t she a teacher or even a flower shop assistant? Was “librarian” a profession chosen at random? I haven’t found a copy of the book yet to see if she’s a librarian on the page as well as on screen (that is now added to my to-do list). That might be the easy answer, but again, why a librarian? I think a young woman in that profession lends an air of intelligence and, let’s be honest, respectability — which she might need as support once she goes traipsing on long weekends in Italy! And, harkening back to my more cynical point-of-view, being a librarian provides a more solid contrast to the idea of “liberation” — that without this chance of a “Rome Adventure” to broaden her horizons, she will have to face a future of spinsterhood (and overbearing would-be censors, a sad fate indeed). There just isn’t the same kind of contrast if she had simply been a salesclerk or a young lady with no profession. So when Prudence does explore her sexuality in the film, the audience might even be relieved for her, instead of condemning her more liberated escapades (perhaps a more serious issue in 1962, when the film was released?). Ahhh, the specter of the Spinster Librarian!

Sources used:

  • Rome Adventure. Dir. Delmer Daves. Perf. Suzanne Pleshette, Troy Donahue, Angie Dickinson, Rossano Brazzi. Warner Bros., 1962.