I am following up on another reader question from my call for reader questions and ideas, a question posed by longtime reader Michael of the Century Film Project site. He left a short comment that contained several very intriguing post ideas, including this one:
I would ask about some of the earliest things you’ve found… first “liberated” librarian, first instance of each character type…
I cross-referenced my reel substance lists with my character types section to answer this reader query.
The “Spinster Librarian” is arguably the most stereotypical female librarian image. This character type includes “old maid” librarians who are uptight and sexually undesirable (or at least, seen as asexual).
The earliest example of this character type I’ve come across is in 1936’s Cain and Mabel. 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 — one of whom is Lillian Lawrence in an uncredited role!
Interesting that, although her role was uncredited, Lawrence made it onto one of the “lobby cards” use in the film’s marketing:
Lobby card for ‘Cain and Mabel’ (1936) showcasing the library scene
The “Anti-Social Librarian” character type serves as essentially the male equivalent of the “Spinster Librarian.” This character type hoards knowledge and is a supporting or minor character rarely seen outside the library.
The earliest example of this character type I’ve come across thus far is Ian Wolfe as Mr. Wilkes in 1939’s Fast and Loose, a comedic mystery involving a stolen manuscript, rare books, and a collector’s private library. Ian Wolfe’s role fulfills both the “Anti-Social Librarian” and “Male Librarian as Failure” character types. But Wolfe’s role is so small that it doesn’t even make the film’s trailer!
Spirited Young Girl
The “Spirited Young Girl” character type describes a young girl who works in the library — only a temporary job — and usually meets the leading man while working. These tend to be more substantial roles.
Claire Windsor as Amelia Briggs in ‘The Blot’ (1921)
The earliest example of this character type I’ve come across thus far is Claire Windsor as Amelia Griggs in 1921’s The Blot. In this silent film, Amelia is courted by both a wealthy young man and a poor minister. Her family is poor, but her librarian’s salary makes no difference in her family’s finances.
See here for an analysis post of The Blot I wrote a few years ago.
Male Librarian as Failure
The “Male Librarian as Failure” character type is suggestive of flaws in library: only “failures” would choose to—or resort to—work in a library. Sometimes, this failure is used as a pretense or social construct (e.g. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold).
The earliest example of this character type I’ve come across thus far is Ian Wolfe as Mr. Wilkes in 1939’s Fast and Loose, a comedic mystery involving a stolen manuscript, rare books, and a collector’s private library. Ian Wolfe’s role fulfills both the “Anti-Social Librarian” and “Male Librarian as Failure” character types. (See above for the film’s original theatrical trailer.)
The “Liberated Librarian” female character type denotes a trapped and/or naïve woman who discovers herself—and what she’s capable of—with the help of a man or in face of an adventure/disaster.
The earliest example of this character type I’ve come across thus far is Barbara Stanwyck as Lulu Smith in 1932’s Forbidden: Lulu quits her librarian job in the film’s first five minutes, setting off to Havana and adventure.
You can view the opening library scene here on the TCM site.
Barbara Stanwyck as Lulu in ‘Forbidden’ (1932)
The “Liberated Librarian” male character type seems initially similar to the “Male Librarian as Failure” type — but eventually breaks free (often at the very end of the film). They usually need outside force or action to instigate the “liberation.”
The earliest example of this character type I’ve come across thus far is Anthony Allan as Phil Sergeant in 1939’s Fast and Loose: Sergeant is a rare book dealer who became a private librarian — and finds himself involved in a mystery and reunited with his former mentor!
For each “Liberated Librarian,” the liberation can be positive or negative, and they are usually substantial roles, with the librarian’s “liberation” often serving as the film’s major plot.
The “Naughty Librarian” female character type describes a flirtatious or sexually charged librarian who often engages in violent (or otherwise criminal behavior) when her love or sexual desires go unfulfilled or are repressed. Sometimes, these characters are quiet when working in the library and then “let their hair down” after work.
The earliest example of this character type I’ve come across thus far is Sarah Selby as Miss Gottschalk in 1943’s The Seventh Victim. She gives away confidential patron records in exchange for a flirtatious interlude with Jason Hoag (Erford Gage), a book clerk by day and poet by night. Naughty Librarians tend to be major characters; however, Miss Gottschalk’s character is a minor character in only one (but pivotal) scene. She is also a mild-mannered “Naughty Librarian” compared with later portrayals (e.g. the serial killer librarian in 1990’s Personal Ads), but she does engage in unethical behavior for the sake of her desires.
Read my analysis post of The Seventh Victim here in this post — the film also serves as the first horror film featuring a reel librarian!
Miss Gottschalk as Sarah Shelby in ‘The Seventh Victim’ (1943)
The “Naughty Librarian” male character type is a sexually charged male librarian — focused on sex rather than a diluted vision of love — who is usually unsuccessful professionally.
The earliest example of this character type I’ve come across thus far is Laurence Payne as Edgar Marsh in 1960’s The Tell-Tale Heart. He also engages in violent behavior when his sexual desires go unfulfilled!
Read more about this adaptation in my analysis post of The Tell-Tale Heart.
Screenshot from ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ (1960)
The “Information Provider” character type, male or female, provides information — or sometimes, misinformation — to a character, or to the audience. This includes establishing the library setting, highlighting rules, and occupational tasks, like shelving, stamping, pushing book carts, checking out books, answering a reference question, closing up, etc. These characters tend to be supporting or minor characters.
The earliest example of this character type I’ve come across thus far are:
- An uncredited female in 1921’s The Blot, who works with one of the film’s leads, Claire Windsor. In the screenshot below, you can see a glimpse of her answering the telephone. Read more about her role and the film here in my analysis post of the film.
An uncredited librarian in ‘The Blot’ (1921)
Opening library scene in ‘Forbidden’ (1932)
The “Comic Relief” characters are usually the target of jokes. These are the crudest portrayal of librarians and usually supporting or minor characters.
The earliest example of this character type I’ve come across thus far are:
- Harry C. Bradley in an uncredited role in 1936’s Cain and Mabel.
- Hilda Plowright as the Quaker Librarian in 1940’s The Philadelphia Story (1940). The audience is invited, along with Jimmy Stewart, to make fun of the Quaker Librarian’s “thee’s” and “thou’s.” Read my analysis post of The Philadelphia Story here.
The shushing librarian in ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)
Thanks again, Michael, and I’ll be back next week with one more follow-up post inspired by your comments and ideas! 😀