‘Boston Blackie’ and the shushing librarian

A typical reel library set, complete with stereotypical “spinster librarian” in residence.

In the 1946 film Boston Blackie and the Law, reformed thief Blackie performs a magic show in a women’s prison, and one of the inmates, Dinah, escapes during the “disappearing booth” trick. Turns out Dinah was a former magician’s assistant! D’oh!

First things first… who’s “Boston Blackie”? This film was one of the last in a series of films featuring “Boston Blackie,” a reformed crook who became an amateur detective. Jack Boyle started writing short stories about “Boston Blackie” in 1914, and the stories were published as a collection in 1919. There were a series of silent films as well as a series of popular talkies in the 1940s starring Chester Morris as Blackie. There was even a TV series in the 1950s! You can read all about it — and more! — here at the Boston Blackie website.

After Dinah’s disappearance at the prison, the police interrogate Blackie back at police headquarters, who manages to escape police custody. From a public phone booth, he then calls a friend and urges him to “drop everything and meet me at the Reading Room of the uptown public library. Right away.” The police find out and tail him there.

The library scene occurs 20 minutes into the film, and it looks like a typical reel library set. Complete with stereotypical “spinster librarian” in residence. (Sigh.)

Library setting in Boston Blackie and the Law
Library setting in Boston Blackie and the Law

In just a few seconds of screen time, we witness:

  • A female patron sneezing and incurring the immediate wrath of the librarian, who shushes her and points to the “Silence please” sign behind her
  • Blackie’s friend entering and shouting, “Hey, boss!” — and also receiving and immediate glare and shushing from the librarian
  • A close-up of the “Silence please” sign
  • A name placard for “Miss Burton,” the librarian
  • The librarian silently fussing at the friend to remove his hat
  • The librarian dropping a book off the high library counter and receiving a reciprocal shush and sign-pointing from Blackie’s friend, as comically illustrated below
Shushing the librarian in Boston Blackie and the Law
Shushing the librarian in Boston Blackie and the Law
Screenshot from Boston Blackie and the Law
A patron reminds the librarian of the rules
Miss Burton, the reel librarian in Boston Blackie and the Law
Miss Burton, the reel librarian in Boston Blackie and the Law

And wow, does this librarian check off all the boxes for what a stereotypical spinster librarian looks like. It’s almost like a Halloween costume checklist:

  • bun
  • pince nez glasses on a chain
  • high-collared blouse
  • cardigan
  • sour expression

So why is Blackie at the public library? To research background about Dinah, and he finds a series of newspaper articles in a bound volume of newspapers. Blackie then proceeds to read the articles OUT LOUD to his friend — but somehow manages to escape the shushing wrath of Miss Burton, the reel librarian. Amazing, that movie magic! 😉

Screenshot from Boston Blackie and the Law
Research is hard, y’all

After reading up on Dinah — who turns out to have been involved in a robbery that netted $100,000 that was never recovered! — Blackie and his friend escape out a side door when two police detectives enter the library.

The detectives are smoking cigars and talking loudly. And guess what happens? The librarian is LIVID at this spectacle — and even gets out of her chair to admonish the two detectives, up close and personal.

Screenshot from Boston Blackie and the Law
The reel librarian reinforces the rules

Miss Burton:  Young man, this is a library where people are trying to think.

Detective:  Lady, we ain’t here to think.

Miss Burton:  I can certainly believe that. Take off your hat and that thing in your mouth. [pointing to the cigar]

The two detectives do leave — but they also leave a trail of cigar smoke in their wake. This then makes the librarian sneeze — and she then causes a scene in the library! All of the patrons turn to stare at her, and she looks very embarrassed. She has tasted her own medicine — and it is bitter! 😉

Screenshot from Boston Blackie and the Law
The reel librarian breaks her own rules!

Maudie Prickett is uncredited as Miss Burton, the reel librarian.

It is amusing to note how the librarian and the chief detective both look each other up and down in mutual disgust. Two worlds — and two worlds with their own set of rules! — colliding, to be sure. The entire library scene is played for laughs, and the humor is quite crude.

My husband’s reaction to this scene? “Are you pained by the portrayal? This just keeps getting harder, doesn’t it?” (Yes, it does at times. Sigh.)

I’ve categorized this film in the Class III category. The scene is quite short, only lasting about three minutes, but the portrayal of the reel librarian is quite memorable (if for all the wrong reasons).

The reel librarian in Boston Blackie and the Law doesn’t actually help in any way — Blackie does that himself — and her only function seems to be stamping books and shushing people. She is most definitely a Spinster Librarian character type, a minor character who is an uptight “old maid” and rule-monger who hoards information. She is all about the rules — and woe unto anyone who breaks those rules — even if it’s herself!

And finally, as I was taking screenshots, I (accidentally) managed to capture a great shot! The picture below is transitioning from the reel librarian pointing at the “Silence Please” sign in the library into a closeup of that sign. And the result perfectly sums up this reel librarian portrayal — as well as the Spinster Librarian character type in general:

Screenshot from Boston Blackie and the Law
Silence, please!

Silence, please, as you enjoy that photo. 😉

Sources used:

  • Boston Blackie and the Law. Dir. D. Ross Lederman. Perf. Chester Morris, Trudy Marshall, Constance Dowling. Columbia Pictures, 1946.

Librarian by ‘chance’

“You beat the system.”

The movie Chances Are (1989) is a romantic comedy about reincarnation. A woman’s (Cybill Shepherd) husband is killed in the 1960s, and in a brief heaven scene — complete with fluffy clouds and angels with clear tablets shaped like the Ten Commandments — we see the husband head off to get reincarnated. The only problem is, he doesn’t get the all-important forgetfulness inoculation. Through the rest of the film, Corinne (Shepherd) believes her husband’s soul has come back in the body of her daughter’s boyfriend, Alex (Robert Downey, Jr.).

As you can imagine, the creep factor is quite high in this film. If Alex is Corinne’s reincarnated husband, then he’s dating his own daughter. If he’s not her reincarnated husband, then Corinne is stealing her daughter’s boyfriend. Oh, and she’s been cooking her dead husband dinners for over 20 years. And her husband’s best friend (Ryan O’Neal) has been in love with Corinne all this time, and has basically helped raised Corinne’s daughter. Like I said, the creep factor is high.

It’s a strange premise for a romantic comedy, and it requires a good half-hour or so of set-up and character introductions. The first time we meet Alex is about fifteen minutes into the film, as he coasts along on a book cart in the Yale University Library. This introduces his personality as boyish and fun-loving — traits at odds in a serious setting like the library.

Screenshot from Chances Are
Coming through!

He then coasts into a scene in which Miranda (Masterson) — whom is later revealed to be Corinne’s daughter — is getting schooled by a librarian called Mrs. Handy (Kathleen Freeman). The librarian is middle-aged, dressed in conservative layers and has short hair — but no glasses!

Let’s listen in as Alex does:

Mrs. Handy:  So you just assumed that nobody at Yale University or Yale Law School had any interest in checking out these 6 books in the last 3 months? You are going to make some lawyer. You owe $87.25.

Miranda:  Can I put that on a credit card?

Mrs. Handy:  This isn’t a boutique. Cash only, or we’re have to hold up your grades.

Screenshot from Chances Are
Look at that old computer!

Alex then swoops into action, coming to the rescue of the damsel in distress.

Alex:  Mrs. Handy. The rare books room. The Shakespeare folios.

Mrs. Handy:  Fooling with the folios?

Alex:  Yes and they’re fiddling, too. Go!

Screenshot collage from Chances Are
Fiddling with the folios? Horrors!

Miranda’s reaction as the librarian rushes off?

God. Is she always that awful?

Screenshot from Chances Are
Judging the librarian

Interesting to realize that the librarian replaces Miranda as the “damsel in distress.” And she is so worried about people “fiddling” with the folios — and her character name is Mrs. Handy. Such clever screenwriters. 😉

This “meet cute” scene continues as Alex jokes that the librarian is his mother — we are rewarded with a priceless reaction on Miranda’s face! — and then he magically wipes away the fines in the computer:

Uh-oh. This is bad. Worse than I thought. According to this, these books were never legally checked out. So that means I can’t charge you for them. You beat the system.

Alex then introduces himself, and we learn that he’s about to graduate. Miranda rushes off — she’s got a ride waiting, because she just had NO IDEA that it would take very long to return books that were 3 months overdue — but doublechecks that the “awful” librarian isn’t his mother.

This is definitely a scene played for laughs, and the university librarian fulfills the Comic Librarian character type. We laugh at her distress over the folios, which OF COURSE is what she gets for being mean to the pretty young girl with a credit card in one hand and overdue library books in the other. Oh, wait … am I showing my real librarian bias at this reel librarian portrayal? 😉

Another side note:  After rewinding this scene to make sure I had gotten the quotes right, my husband piped up with the information that the library fines turned out to be 15 cents a day. Doesn’t it sound like one of those word problems you had in school:

Your library fines total $87.25. You checked out 6 books, which are 3 months overdue. What then is the daily rate for library fines?

This “meet cute” introductory scene also recalls the “meet cute” scene in the 1970 film Love Story, co-starring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, one of the four leads in Chances Are. In Love Story, Ali MacGraw plays a library assistant and is the one who schools Ryan O’Neal.

Library scenes in Chances Are and Love Story
Comparing Meet Cute moments in the library

And in yet another coincidence, Robert Downey, Jr. starred in another reincarnation comedy a few years later, in the 1993 comedy Heart and Souls. That film also included a reel librarian character, a supporting character named Harrison Winslow, played by Charles Grodin. Harrison in  Heart and Souls turns out to be a Liberated Librarian — as does Alex in Chances Are. The librarian, Mrs. Handy, definitely fulfills the Comic Relief role in this Class II film.

For more examples of Comic Relief portrayals, click here.

And for more about Liberated Librarians, click here and here.

Sources used:

  • Chances Are. Dir. Emile Ardolino. Perf. Cybill Shepherd, Robert Downey, Jr., Ryan O’Neal, Mary Stuart Masterson, Christopher McDonald. TriStar, 1989.
  • Heart and Souls. Dir. Ron Underwood. Perf. Robert Downey, Jr., Charles Grodin, Alfre Woodard, Kyra Sedgwick, Tom Sizemore, Elisabeth Shue. Universal, 1993.
  • Love Story. Dir. Arthur Hiller. Perf. Ali MacGraw, Ryan O’Neal, John Marley, Ray Milland. Paramount, 1970.

Breakin’ the rules

Sometimes, librarians on film fulfill the role of rule-breakers, and are all the more memorable for it

Reel librarians almost always seem synonymous with rules. Librarians = rule-mongers. But sometimes, librarians on film fulfill the role of rule-breakers, and are all the more memorable for it. 😉

Breakin' the rules collage

Archangel (TV, 2005):

There are two library/archives scenes in this TV film, and both scenes involve two Information Providers:  one restrictive and focused on rules (the rule-monger) and the other obliging and helpful (the rule-breaker, or rather, rule-bender). In the first scene early in the film, the rule-monger is the Older Librarian; in the second scene, the younger Clerk tries to crack that whip. And in both cases, the rule-benders prevail. Hmmm….

Both scenes are also pivotal in propelling the plot forward, as the rule-bending librarian/archivist provides a crucial bit of info. One scene is set in a massive state library in Russia, while the other takes place in a humble, small-town archives room.

Flight of the Intruder (1991):

Set during the Vietnam War, a young pilot questions bombing missions after his partner is killed. In one short scene, a young officer in the ship’s library allows the pilot to check out a non-circulating issue of National Geographic (rule-breaker!) that contains maps of North Vietnam.

The Seventh Victim (1943):

The reel librarian in this film, Miss Gottschalk (Sarah Shelby in an uncredited role), is in only one scene that lasts under a minute. But in that minute, she sells her soul for a few cheap compliments and half-hearted flirting, breaking the rules to provide a random male patron with restricted book culled from the private records of library patrons. This portrayal also has the distinction of being in the first horror film to feature a reel librarians.

And, of course, there are the reel librarians who are determined to punish rule-breakers, such as our resident serial killer, Miss Sally, the title character in the horror film Chainsaw Sally (2004).

But that’s another story … 😉

Sources used:

  • Archangel (TV movie). Dir. Jon Jones. Perf. Daniel Craig, Ekaterina Rednikova, Gabriel Macht. BBC, 2005.
  • Flight of the Intruder. Dir. John Milius. Perf. Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe, Brad Johnson, Rosanna Arquette. Paramount, 1991.
  • The Seventh Victim. Dir. Mark Robson. Perf. Kim Hunter, Jean Brooks, Tom Conway, Isabel Jewell, Erford Gage. RKO, 1943.

Smelling a rat in ‘Homicide’

Oooh, I smell research!

I have tried, I really have, but oh, David Mamet, I just am not one of your fans. But if you do happen to be a fan of Mamet’s patented staccato speech patterns and twisty-turny plots and self-important awareness, that’s cool with me. We’ll just agree to disagree and not talk about Mamet when we meet up at dinner parties, ok? 🙂

The Mamet in question is the 1991 film Homicide, starring Joe Mantegna as conflicted Jewish cop Bobby Gold, and the other usual suspects of a Mamet film. Yeah, I’m probably going to get all kinds of cranky and all-capsy with this one. Fair warning. But bear with me, because there is an interesting library scene in this one.


So I won’t get too much into the plot, because really, what’s the point? It’s all a mirage, anyway. It’s a David Mamet film. The puzzle-within-the-puzzle-within-the-other-puzzle-you-didn’t-see-coming IS the point. Suffice to say, Detective Gold is investigating a minor case and gets involved with a secretive Jewish group, which makes him question his faith and self-worth, yada yada yada. Along the way, Gold finds a piece of paper with the word Grofaz scrawled across it, and later, about an hour in, some random Jewish shopkeeper tells him the word was another name for Hitler. Oooh, I smell research!

Librarian in Homicide
What? I’m a librarian. Sweater vests are awesome.

The camera immediately cuts to a man, a young white male, all buttoned-up, writing out what Grofaz means on a chalkboard (see above). At first, I was thinking, “Teacher?” But it turns out he’s the head librarian at a special library for Jewish studies, listed in the credits simply as Librarian (Steven Goldstein). The librarian reveals that Grofaz is an acronym for Größter Feldherr aller Zeiten, translating roughly to “the greatest strategist of all time.” I was intrigued.

But then the camera revealed a cigarette in the librarian’s hands. A cigarette! A smoldering flame around archival posters and propaganda ephemera. Dude, I know this is a Mamet film and all that, but seriously?! A cigarette in a modern library full of priceless archives? Nuh-uh. Not buying it. SMELLING A RAT #1.

So the reel librarian continues to puff on that cigarette, telling us all about the Grofaz strategy, which apparently was “an interesting attempt” by a special division of the Propaganda Ministry that “didn’t particularly take.” This mini-lecture takes us through most of the special library, where we get vistas of dark wood paneling, rows of tall bookcases, study tables, books piled up, etc. Plus, we get a split-second glimpse of another assistant in a white coat back in the maps room, listed as Library Technician (Andrew Potok).

Looking at archival posters in Homicide
Looking at archival posters

Finally, head librarian stubs out the cigarette before reading from a “very rare” poster that highlights the Grofaz (see above).

Bobby Gold:  What do you have on the use of this word? Currently. Particularly in conjunction with anti-Semitic acts.

Librarian:  As I said, it’s an arcane usage, but we’ll look. We’ll take a look.

The librarian calls out to a colleague in the stacks. An older, grey-haired lady dressed all in grey (Charlotte Potok as Assistant Librarian) comes out of the stacks, carrying a clipboard and looking very serious (see below). The head librarian rattles off some directions, finally instructing her to “Bring it all,” and also instructs Gold to wait.

Assistant librarian in Homicide
Assistant librarian in Homicide

So while Gold is waiting (impatiently, I might add), he encounters some additional attitude from a Hasidic Jewish scholar, who basically ridicules him for not being able to read Hebrew. As he gets up, the scholar asks Gold to replace a book for him on the shelf. WTF?! Nuh-uh. (Side note:  We librarians generally prefer it if you don’t reshelve materials on your own. We are better able to make sure that items are placed back in the right locations, no offense, plus we also get to collect browsing stats. It’s a win-win for us, trust me. And don’t ask other patrons to shelve stuff for you. That’s just rude.)

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. SMELLING A RAT #2. 

Assistant Librarian:  The material on anti-Semitic acts.

Librarian:  Yes. I thought we had quite a file of current —

Assistant Librarian:  It was requested by 212.

Librarian:  212 wants it? [looks at envelope on clipboard]

Assistant Librarian:  Yes.

Librarian:  Loaned to 212 now? Fine. Then just pull the file.

Gold steps out as the grey lady steps away, and the librarian tells him, nope, they got nothing on the anti-Semitic acts in relation to Grofaz

Gold:  Nothing?

Librarian:  No.

Gold:  This is official police business.

Librarian:  Officer, you know I’d help you if I could, but as I said, it was rather arcane material. I’m sorry.

Gold:  Well, if there’s nothing you can do, there’s nothing you can do. Thank you.

Librarian:  Not at all. If there’s anything else I can help you with, let me know.

The librarian — after lighting up yet ANOTHER cigarette — walks down some stairs, leaving the clipboard and file out in the open. Yeah. Sure. SMELLING A RAT #3.

Librarian smokes in the library in Homicide
You know what you can do for me? You can take that cigarette out of your mouth.

So, OF COURSE, Gold leafs through the oh-so-conveniently-placed clipboard (see above), and spots an address with “212” in it. The next shot cuts to him at that location, and the plot continues to twist from there.

I’m sure you can tell by now how much this brief scene in this Class III film irritated me. The smug and dismissive attitude of this (mis)Information Provider librarian. The way he waved off his assistant. The clunky scene where the scholar tells him to shelve the book. Leaving the clipboard out. The cigarettes. The way the library is portrayed as yet another establishment — like the boys in blue? — insulated by its own rules and reasons and secrets, too easily influenced by outside pressures.

At the very end of the film, where Gold has lost everything, he gets handed a file. The final close-up reveals a newspaper advertisement for Grofazt, a type of pigeon feed. Was it all a set-up? That gotcha! moment so typical of Mamet. But what’s the point?

Looking for clues on how to answer that question, I did watch the other special features on this Criterion Collection disc, and I also rewatched the library scene with commentary by Mamet himself and co-star William H. Macy. The writer/director highlights Goldstein as the “go to Jew” in the Mamet acting company, and he calls out the “great Charlotte” who played the Assistant Librarian. Although Mamet states that the library scene is pivotal in the transition of Gold’s character (where does the hero belong? etc.), he also refers to the reel librarian as “head of the Jewish whatever-it-is.” Sigh.

And he addresses the smoking, too, in this commentary:  “That’s why I used to do a lot of writing in law libraries around the country, because they let you smoke in them. And also they didn’t ask you for any identification, because you know, who would pretend to be a lawyer?” How long ago did Mamet write in law libraries? The 1960s? The 1970s? Surely that has changed by now. And by the way, law libraries are NOT the same thing as special archives libraries. No smoking allowed!

William H. Macy’s reaction to the smoking? “It is an odd choice. Took poor Stevie about 10 years to quit smoking.” Because of this film?! Poor guy. And thank you, William H. Macy, for also thinking all that smoking in the library was weird. Also, you’re the best thing in this movie. Bless. ♥

Misspelling in the Homicide gag reel
Spelling matters, y’all

One last side note: In the gag reel in the Criterion Collection dvd, Goldstein initially misspelled Grofaz as Grozaz (see above). Woopsie. 😉

Sources used:

  • Homicide. Dir. David Mamet. Perf. Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy and Vincent Guastaferro. Triumph Releasing Corp., 1991.

Closing time in ‘Shadow of a Doubt’

Charlie’s whole world falls to pieces in that library … but order struggles to win in the end.

The 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt, reportedly one of Hitchcock’s personal favorites of his own films, is a clever suspense story. He smartly cast Teresa Wright as Charlotte “Young Charlie” Newton, the moral center of the story, who begins to wonder if her beloved Uncle Charlie is the notorious “Merry Widow Murderer.” And Joseph Cotten, as her namesake uncle, gets to show off some of his best acting skills in this film, in a role that requires him to be quite charming in a way that lets you know there’s more beneath the surface.

Hitchcock shot most of the film on location in Santa Rosa, California, and there is a brief library scene. The old library — a Carnegie library built in 1904 — was torn down in 1964. The library, in quintessential Carnegie style, is made of brick and covered with ivy, with a large sign proclaiming it a “Free Public Library.”

Santa Rosa Carnegie Library, as seen in 1905 (public domain)
Ivy-covered exterior of the Santa Rose Carnegie library, 1943, as seen in 'Shadow of a Doubt'
Ivy-covered exterior of the Santa Rose Carnegie library, 1943, as seen in ‘Shadow of a Doubt’

Charlie hurries out to the library to look up a newspaper clipping — a vital  clue to the mystery of the “Merry Widow” murders. We see her hurry through town, spliced with quick shots of the town hall clock, almost colliding with a car while trying to cross a busy street. The lights in the library switch off (helping to set the tone of suspense and shadows) and the bells begin to ring just as Charlie scrambles up the front steps. Finding the doors already locked — this is one efficient librarian! —  Charlie doesn’t give up; she  knocks several times on the front glass door (which prominently displays the opening and closing times) until the librarian, Mrs. Cochran, reluctantly lets her in.

Screenshot from 'Shadow of a Doubt'
Closing time

Played by Eily Malyon in an uncredited role, the reel librarian is an older woman with her white and grey hair pulled back in a bun. She does not wear glasses but is dressed quite sensibly with a long-sleeved dark shirtdress that hits below her knees. Her makeup, if any, is minimal, but she does wear a classic pair of pearl earrings. Of course, she is also wearing a watch!

Mrs. Cochran loses no time in reprimanding Charlotte:

Really, you know as well as I do the library closes at 9. If I make one exception, I’ll have to make a thousand. I’m surprised at you, Charlie, no consideration. You’ve got all day to come here…  I’ll give you just 3 minutes!

Charlie apologizes quite profusely but wastes no time herself in bee-lining it to the (quite impressively large) newspaper section. She quickly locates a back issue and finds the article she’s looking for about the Merry Widow murders.

Shocked and disoriented, Charlie stands up; visually reflecting her emotions, the camera then reels up to a bird’s-eye view of the library’s main floor. We then get to see a more expansive view of the library (thank you Hitchcock!), with its large, wooden Circulation desk, multiple tables and chairs, classical columns, and glimpses of adjoining rooms. The camera work is impressive; as Jim McDevitt and Eric San Juan write in their interesting work, A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks with the Master of Suspense, “The dramatic pullback shot in the library, when realization first dawns on her, punctuates the isolation she must feel at that moment” (p. 158).

Charlie’s whole world falls to pieces in that library, based on the info she finds in that newspaper — but order struggles to win in the end. As Hitchcock visually demonstrates, the columns stand tall, the wooden doors and panels seem solid — but they’re half-obscured in shadow. Despite Charlie’s internal confusion, the walls of her outside world are still standing. But is it all just surface, a mirage, a public room almost empty? (I totally get symbolism. ;))

So what is the point of the reel librarian in this short, but important, library scene? Mrs. Cochran serves to intensify the tension and suspense, an obstacle Charlie must overcome in a race against time to find out if her uncle is a serial killer or not.  The librarian provides another layer to the tension caused by the conflict between order and chaos. Mrs. Cochran is also the gatekeeper — in a literal sense — of information vital to the mystery. In this way, Mrs. Cochran fulfills the Information Provider role.

She also exhibits some characteristics of the Spinster Librarian, albeit a less severe one. Uptight, no-nonsense personality? Check. Focused more on rules than people? Check. Hair in a bun? Check. Sensible, nondescript clothing? Check.

Sources used:

  • McDevitt, Jim, and Eric San Juan. A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks with the Master of Suspense. Scarecrow Press, 2011.
  • Shadow of a Doubt. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotton, Henry Travers, Hume Cronyn, Patricia Collinge. Universal, 1943.