I believe that “Conan the Librarian” and “Chainsaw Sally” would be a match made in heaven… or hell?!
It’s October, which means it’s scary movie time! I am commencing on my annual tradition of scary movie-themed posts during the month of Halloween. (Want to revisit past October posts? Just click on the Archives drop-down menu on the right navigation menu.)
A few years ago, I mused in my post about Chainsaw Sally (2004) that the title character, Sally, and “Conan the Librarian” in UHF (1989) would probably have a lot to talk about. Upon closer inspection, I believe that “Conan the Librarian” and “Chainsaw Sally” would be a match made in heaven… or hell?! 😉
Let’s explore the love and gore, shall we?
Conan the Librarian:
“Conan the Librarian” is a brief — but memorable — character featured in a brief sketch in the Weird Al Yankovic film, UHF(1989). The character is introduced in the form of a television ad for a show on an almost-bankrupt public TV station. “Conan the Librarian” is a parody of the famous “Conan the Barbarian” character created by R. E. Howard, and the clip lasts only 40 seconds. But it’s enough time for two scenes featuring “Conan the Librarian’s” wrath.
Conan’s first scene shows a balding, middle-aged man with thick glasses, cable-knit sweater, and tweedy jacket who, with a tremor in his voice, asks Conan the Librarian, “Can you tell me where I can find a book on astronomy?”
Conan heaves the man up by his shirt collar and shouts, “Don’t you know the Dewey Decimal System?!”
Conan then goes on to slice a young man in two because his books were overdue.
“Chainsaw Sally,” the title character in the indie 2004 film, wreaks havoc on library patrons all throughout her film.
What counts as a killable offense in Sally’s library?
A man who talks loudly in the library, spouting off curse words and heckling his girlfriend for needing to finish a school report. He also ignores Miss Sally’s warning that he be quiet in the library. (See his fate in the YouTube video below)
A woman who never returns a book she checked out.
A woman who works at the local ice cream truck misspells “malt” on an order form and also makes fun of Sally when Sally tries to correct her misspelling.
Both films are cult classics, and both characters are quite memorable. Both films are also comedies, although on different points on the comedy scale. (UHF often feels like a long series of comedy bits and sketches, while Chainsaw Sally is more of a dried-blood “dark comedy.”) Conan also serves as Comic Relief while Sally is the ultimate Naughty Librarian.
What is the secret to a successful relationship? One often-read tip is to share common experiences and/or similar values. In a twisted way, that would ring true for Conan and Chainsaw Sally. To wit:
They both make fun of patrons for not understanding or appreciating rules or organization (Conan berates a patron for not knowing the Dewey Decimal system while Sally chastises a woman for misspelling a word)
They retaliate through violence (hacking, slicing, etc.)
They enjoy weapons to aid in violence, like swords and chainsaws
They believe in over-the-top and deadly punitive punishments for overdue books
So much to bond over!
Chainsaw Sally. Dir. Jimmyo Burril. Perf. April Monique Burril, Mark Redfield, Alec Joseph. Shock-O-Rama Cinema, 2004.
UHF. Dir. Jay Levey. Perf. Weird Al Yankovic, Victoria Jackson, Kevin McCarthy, Michael Richards. Orion, 1989.
However, when I recently rewatched Ghostbusters, I realized there was an opportunity for a closer, more comprehensive look at the librarians and library scene that opens the film. After all, the film features not one, but three, librarian characters in the opening scenes filmed at the iconic central branch of the New York Public Library.
Opening scenes in the library:
The film opens on the steps of the New York Public Library, with a close-up gaze upon one of the iconic “Library Lion” statues guarding the central branch.
The film then immediately cuts to a close-up of a reel librarian, who is also as stone-faced as the statue outside. Character actress Alice Drummond, 56 years old at the time of filming, plays a public librarian named Alice, and her librarian props are out in full force, with a cart and books. Her clothing, consisting of a ruffled tie blouse and a cardigan sweater, is also conservative and buttoned-up. The only thing missing to complete the picture of a stereotypical librarian is a pair of glasses on a chain!
We follow Alice as she goes downstairs to shelve a few books. The DVD commentary revealed that while the upstairs scenes were filmed in the actual New York Public Library — the library allowed the film crew to film until 10 a.m., so they had to work quickly! — the downstairs scenes were filmed at the Los Angeles Public Library.
As Alice walks deeper into the stacks, spooky things happen behind her back (literally), as books float past shelves, and card catalog drawer fly open and start spewing cards into the air. (I learned through the commentary that this was a practical effects shot of pushing drawers from behind a fake wall and blowing air through tubes to make the cards fly up.)
It’s interesting to note that Alice is almost completely silent through this opening scene. The first time we hear her voice is when she screams. It’s also very clever that we don’t see the ghost ourselves in this opening scene. In fact, with the screaming and up-lit visage of the scared librarian, she looks kind of like a ghost herself!
You can see a clip from the opening scene here:
A quick scene in-between the two library scenes takes place at a local university, at the Paranormal Studies department, and helps establish the characters of the scientists and soon-to-be-Ghostbusters.
Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) is conducting an experiment when Ray Stantz (Dan Ackroyd) bursts in, excitedly shouting, “This is it. This is definitely it!” He goes on to explain:
“At 1:40 p.m. at the main branch of the New York Public Library on 5th avenue, 10 people witnessed a free-floating, full-torso vaporous apparition. It blew books off shelves from 20 feet away and scared the socks off some poor librarian.”
This bit of dialogue bridges to the library scenes, as Venkman and Stantz meet up with Egon Spengler in the library itself. Venkman makes noise slamming a book on the table, which alerts the library administrator. This is our first glance at Roger Delacourt (John Rothman), who is dressed conservatively in a dark blazer and tie:
Delacourt — notice that he gets a last name, plus a pair of glasses! — approaches the three scientists. After brief introductions, he immediately gets down to business and reveals his real concern:
“Thank you for coming. Hopefully we can clear this up quickly, and quietly.“
Next, everyone is clustered around a table, with “some poor librarian” on her back and murmuring. This scene is also when we first hear her character’s name, Alice (but we only get her first name). Delacourt, the library manager, hovers around as if he’s fighting the urge to all shush them for causing a scene in the library.
Remember, up to this point, all we’ve heard from Alice is her screaming. This next scene, we get to hear her actual speaking voice as Venkman asks her a series of questions, in order to gauge her competency.
Alice: I don’t remember seeing any legs but it definitely had arms, because it reached out for me.
Peter Venkman:Alice, I’m gonna ask you a couple of standard questions, okay? Have you or any member of your family ever been diagnosed schizophrenic, mentally incompetent…?
Alice:My uncle thought he was St. Jerome.
Peter Venkman:I’d call that a big yes. [Pause] Are you habitually using drugs, stimulants, alcohol?
Alice: No. [horrified]
By this point in the interview, Roger begins to look even more nervy and agitated.
Peter Venkman: No, no, just asking. Are you, Alice, menstruating right now?
Roger can no longer stand it and butts in.
Roger Delacourt: What has THAT got to do with it?
Peter Venkman: Back off, man. I’m a scientist.
The three paranormal scientists then go down to the library basement themselves. The first spooky thing is… symmetrical book-stacking! The horror! As Venkman assesses, “You’re right, no human being would stack books like this.“
We learn on the DVD commentary that it was Ivan Reitman’s idea on the day to do the symmetrical book-stacking!
They then come across the card catalog drawers and ectoplasmic residue — “Look at this mess!” — and as they round a corner, a bookcase topples. Turns out, this bit was not planned!
The part where the bookcase falls over and Venkman asks Ray “Has this ever happened to you before?” was not part of the original script. The bookcase actually fell over of its own accord (possibly from being disturbed by various crew members) and the subsequent lines were ad-libbed. It was decided to leave this material in as it added an extra element of mystery to the atmosphere as to whether it was a natural occurrence, or a malicious act on the part of the ghost for which the soon-to-be Ghostbusters were looking. (from IMDB.com Trivia page)
The scientists then come across the Librarian Ghost — excuse me, the “full torso vaporous apparition” — who is reading a book and floating in her Victorian-style dress.
When Venkman tries to speak to her, the ghost shushes him. (That’s how we know it’s a librarian!)
When they try to corner the Librarian Ghost, she morphs into a monstrous form and scares the socks off them, “some poor scientists.”
The DVD commentary revealed that this scene was one of the first ones they finished the special effects for. This first moment of seeing the librarian ghost was one the producers screened about 3 weeks after editing the film, and the audience freaked out, screaming and laughing at the same time. That’s when they knew the film was going to work!
As the soon-to-be Ghostbusters run screaming from the library, the hapless library director runs out after them.
“Did you see it? What was it?”
“We’ll get back to you.”
The role of the librarians:
Now that we’ve gotten a look at all three reel librarian in Ghostbusters, let’s delve into the roles and purposes they provide in this Class III film:
“The films that provide glimpses of librarians for comedic purposes only also are the films that depict the crudest portrayals overall of librarian stereotypes. The Comic Relief librarians mostly wind up in comedies — shocker, I know — or at least in films that include comedic undertones or situations. Their purpose is the most obvious of all reel librarian roles, but the librarians of this type do not necessarily entertain themselves or other characters in the film — rather, they entertain the audience. Exclusively minor characters, the Comic Relief librarians serve as the target of jokes, and the audience is encouraged to laugh at them.”
This description perfectly sums up how Alice fulfills the Comic Relief role in this film. We most definitely laugh at her distress, or at least remove ourselves, like the Ghostbusters, from her personal distress in order to focus on the cause (the ghost) rather than the effect (“some poor librarian”).
I also enjoyed putting together the different facial expressions of Alice the librarian. Her facial range is impressive!
Interestingly, the Librarian Ghost (Ruth Oliver) also fulfills the Spinster Librarian role:
Conservative, buttoned-up clothing? Check.
Hair in a bun? Check.
Rule-monger? CHECK. (Evidenced by her shushing.)
Unfriendly/stern demeanor? DOUBLE CHECK. (She suffers no fools, y’all.)
The library administrator, Roger Delacourt, is in his early 30s, a white male. He is an insensitive, nervy library bureaucrat, one who is more concerned about his precious reputation than about his librarian employee who got the shock of her life in the New York Public Library basement. His role fulfills the Anti-Social Librarian character type:
Poor social skills
Elitist—rates the library and its rules above the public
His job centers on protecting the library’s reputation. He seems totally oblivious that a poor librarian (Alice Drummond) was scared out of her wits by a ghost. He is concerned only with how people will regard the library, and by association, himself.
The combined scenes in the library wrap up by 12 minutes into the 105-minute film. We never go back to the New York Public Library — what happened to the Librarian Ghost?! — but the role of research still played a vital role in the film.
Even though the Ghostbusters lose their university funding because their “methods are sloppy” and their “conclusions are highly questionable” — thus providing the incentive to start the Ghostbusters business — the three scientists do highlight their scientific chops in a brief scene after Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) comes to report a demon named Zuul in her refrigerator.
Venkman: There are some things we do, standard procedures in a case like this, which often brings us results.
Stantz: I could go to the Hall of Records and check out the structural details in the building. Maybe the building itself has a history of psychic turbulence.
Spengler: I could look for the name “Zuul” in the usual literature.
Stantz: Spates Catalog.
Spengler: Tobin’s Spirit Guide.
Dr. Spangler also references the book, The Roylance Guide to Secret Societies and Sects (also known as simply the Roylance Guide), in the film.
An hour and 10 minutes into the film, Stantz pulls out the building plans — in a jail cell, as you do — and reveals that “the whole building… was designed and built expressly for the purpose of pulling in and concentrating spiritual turbulence…. Spook Central.“
Their research pays off! 😀
Need more Ghostbusters?
Alice, the one who got her “socks scared off” in the film, is also featured in the music video for the Oscar-nominated title song by Ray Parker, Jr.
For those who would like to read more of those bits and pieces I’ve written previously about Ghostbusters:
Do you vividly recall the film’s opening scenes in the library? I have to admit that I had forgotten that the two scenes in the library were on either side of the scene in the Paranormal Studies office. I had melded the two library scenes together in my mind.
Have you revisited the original Ghostbusters lately? Or seen the recent remake? Please leave a comment and share! 🙂
Ghostbusters. Dir. Ivan Reitman. Perf. Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis. Columbia, 1984.
Allison Janney’s portrayal and slapstick antics serve to make school librarian Marianne Walsh a more memorable character.
I am still in a political mood, it seems, when it comes to analyzing reel librarians… from researching Nixon’s Watergate scandal in 1976’s All the President’s Men last week to now hitting the campaign trail in 1998’s Primary Colors, a fictionalized version of Governor Bill Clinton’s Jack Stanton’s history-making presidential campaign. John Travolta portrays Bill Clinton Stanton, and Emma Thompson portrays his wife, Hillary Clinton Susan Stanton.
The film, based on a popular book by Joe Klein, earned two Oscar nominations, for Best Supporting Actress (Kathy Bates) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Elaine May). Rewatching the film, I had forgotten how many other actors of note there were in the film, including Billy Bob Thornton, Diane Ladd, Maura Tierney, and Larry Hagman!
I checked out a DVD of the film from my library, but the library scene is also included in this online clip:
The film is primarily told from the perspective of Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), a younger African-American man who the Stanton campaign is trying to recruit to help run their campaign. He gets swept up in the action, and as an outsider, he serves as a surrogate for the audience.
The film opens outside a school in New York, where Henry meets Governor Stanton, who is about to attend an adult literacy program. Stanton introduces Marianne Walsh, a “very special librarian who is running their classes.” A reel librarian personally introduced within the film’s first two minutes! Very special, indeed!
In the credits, the librarian is listed as “Miss Walsh,” signifying her unmarried status. Miss Walsh, played by Allison Janney, is a white woman, tall with short brunette hair, and wearing a modestly cut print shirtdress with long sleeves. She wears no glasses, modest jewelry, and subtle makeup. Miss Walsh is obviously nervous, as she immediately calls Governor Stanton by the wrong name!
She then takes the group on a tour of the school, the walls littered with graffiti. She admits the walls are pretty bad but that the library is better. “We’re very proud of the library. […] It’s the only reading program like it in New York, that I know of.”
On the walk up the stairs to the library, Miss Walsh suddenly slips under the railing — she quickly recovers, with the help of Governor Stanton, but not before we all find out that the librarian chooses not to wear a slip! Yep, a slip reveals the absence of a slip. 😉
She seems thoroughly embarrassed, running her hands through her hair, but the next scene in the library reveals a very different version of the school librarian, one who is calm and collected. Adult students, all older men and women of color, are seated around a table and sharing their stories.
Miss Walsh encourages one older man, Dwayne, to share his story, as seen in the screenshot below. She clearly knows the students well and has a warm, encouraging tone. She looks like she’s in her element, supportive and confident. After Dwayne shares his story, which is truly touching and emotional, Governor Stanton shares a (seemingly) personal story about his Uncle Charlie who also couldn’t read.
After Stanton finishes his story, the librarian claps and stands up along with everyone else. She and the students go to hug and congratulate Stanton — and in the middle of the crowd, Miss Walsh slips again! Stanton advises her to have her shoes checked.
These scenes in the library, which slowly circle around the room, reveal a school library that is well-stocked with books and lined with bookcases and inspirational posters. The school library is indeed a place to be proud of!
In the next scene, Henry arrives at the hotel’s campaign headquarters, where he encounters Jack Stanton coming out of his bedroom, buttoning his shirt and putting on a tie. The librarian, Miss Walsh, then also comes out of bedroom and slips again as she’s straightening her own collar!
She stutters through thanking him for the opportunity to discuss the, uh, program. Looking embarrassed, she hurriedly grabs her things and walks out of the hotel room filled with people talking away.
Stanton then explains that Marianne Walsh is on the regional board of the Teachers Union. Henry, looking a bit shell-shocked, murmurs, “A teacher AND a librarian.” So that explains why Stanton slept with the school librarian, to curry favor with the Teachers Union. I’m sure the no-slip slip didn’t hurt his mission.
Editor’s note: Yes, we can be both teachers and librarians, as librarians are also educators. That’s also why school librarians are also sometimes referred to as “teacher librarians.”
No one but Henry and Miss Walsh seem fazed by this hotel scene. It’s obvious that both of them are newbies at this political game, while it’s “business as usual” for everyone else. Miss Walsh is obviously not Governor Stanton’s first conquest!
Later, after Jack tells Susan that the teacher was “inspirational,” Henry adds that she seemed like the “typical school board bureaucrat” to him. I suppose he could be right… if the typical school board bureaucrat also has a tendency to fall down a lot. Does Henry say this to make the reel librarian seem dull to Susan, and thus cover for Jack? After all, reel librarians are known to be naughty… 😉
The reel librarian also makes it into the film’s trailer!
In the end, Marianne Walsh fulfills the dual role of an Information Provider and as Comic Relief. As Information Provider, she introduces us to the school library and its adult literacy program, and comes across as warm and confident in the library around the adult learners. She also provides information to the audience about Stanton’s philandering ways. As Comic Relief, she makes the men around her — as well as the audience — laugh at her clumsiness and display of nerves (as well as her gullibility?).
Even though the scenes featuring the reel librarian collectively last less than 10 minutes, Allison Janney’s portrayal and slapstick antics serve to make school librarian Marianne Walsh a more memorable character. Janney is a very talented actress, and she manages to portray a myriad of emotions (including nervousness, pride, confidence, and vulnerability) in her short time on screen. She lands the film in the Class III category, films with supporting or minor characters with a few memorable or significant scenes.
Have you seen Primary Colors or rewatched it recently? (Or is it too soon to rewatch it?) If you have seen the movie, do you remember Allison Janney’s stumbling school librarian character? Please leave a comment and share. 🙂
Primary Colors. Dir. Mike Nichols. Perf. John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Adrian Lester, Kathy Bates, Billy Bob Thornton. MCA/Universal, 1998.
“We’ve checked every possible source. You’re our last resort.”
My colleague Michael from the Century Film Project passed on The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) to me for the website. It’s a ’50s sci-fi film about how an earthquake in California unleashes radioactive mollusk monsters. As you do. The special effects are… pretty much what you’d expect from that plot description. Earnest and enjoyably cheesy.
I also love the film’s tagline, “Distinctly chilling. So real that it is nearly incredible.” Nearly incredible. Nearly. A ringing endorsement! 😉
So where does a reel librarian fit into the picture? There’s not a librarian technically, more a museum archivist. But I’m still including the character in the reel librarian category, as the character is primarily an Information Provider, along with a little Comic Relief thrown in for good measure.
The Naval officers on a base near where the mollusk monsters were unleashed are working hard to contain the issue and track down the remaining monsters. Fifty-five minutes into the film, Lt. Commander John “Twill” Twillinger (Tim Holt) and a scientist figure out that the mollusks are traveling by an underground river through a system of 700 miles of canal bank. The scientist advises them to be on the lookout for a survey map that would show underground rivers.
Twill assures him, “If there is such a map, we’ll find it.“
A couple of minutes later, the director cuts to the Imperial County Museum, and we see a middle-aged, balding man closing a file cabinet drawer. Milton Parsons plays the museum archivist Lewis Clark Dobbs, in an uncredited role.
Let’s listen in on the exchange:
Dobbs: Well, now, we gave most of our map collection to the library.
Twill: Mr. Dobbs, we’ve already been to the library. We’ve checked every possible source. You’re our last resort.
Dobbs: Too bad, too bad. We don’t have many documents. We don’t have room for them. We put up a bond issue, Proposition 14-A specifically asking for a document room, but… Oh, here. Here we are. [He hands them one rolled-up map.]
Twill: Is this all you have?
Dobbs: I’m sorry, just not a speck of room.
Twill: Mr. Dobbs, this is very important. Have you ever heard of an underground river or an ancient waterway in the valley that empties into a deep pool?
Dobbs: Dear, dear. Let me think. I can’t think of a thing. But every once in a while, somebody dies, and leaves us a whole lot of documents for our room, the one we didn’t get, you understand. Propositition 14-A was defeated.
Twill: Well, if you should hear of anything, let me know. You should be able to get me at the base.
Dobbs: Oh sure, sure, I always cooperate with the authorities. You’ll find that I’m a very cooperative person. Just call on me any time, night or day.
The officers are as eager to get away as Dobbs is eager to continue talking to them. He is very solicitous but doesn’t actually help them (at least not yet). He is more interested in talking about the failed bond issue. I KNOW THE FEELING. It’s an interesting choice to highlight public funding issues for a library or museum. This is definitely an issue that continues today — but not one I’d expect to find in a cheesy ’50s sci-fi flick.
I honestly thought we had seen the last of Lewis Clark Dobbs. But I was mistaken! At one hour and seven minutes, he shows up at the base — so nondescript that Twill doesn’t notice him on his way out; Dobbs calls out to him to no avail. Dobbs holds a briefcase and has smartened up a bit with a blazer and hat. He takes off his hat when the phone operator asks if she can help him. Dobbs dithers, muttering, “Well, well” several times and announces that he will wait. The phone operators shrug, and Dobbs sits down in the corner. Awkward social manners, to be sure.
Hours later, Twill comes back to the base and is so focused on fighting mollusk monsters — as you do — that he doesn’t notice Dobbs in the corner. (Dobbs is probably used to this.)
After they shake hands, here’s the resulting conversation:
Dobbs: It’s probably not anything at all.
Twill: I see. [turns away, dismissive]
Dobbs: You said it was important, you know, about the map.
Dobbs: Well, a very strange thing happened. I was looking for these papers — well, actually, I was looking for this petition. [Takes out papers.] We’re campaigning again, for the Proposition 14-A, the one that was defeated. [Twill nods.] And there was this folder, and in this folder, there was this map.
As Twill reviews the map, Dobbs mutters on about a family that helped settle the area, the family that donated the map; Dobbs is oblivious that Twill is not listening. Instead, Twill points to the map and asks him if this is a river.
Dobbs puts on his glasses, and states, “Oh no, but the Indians dug wells all along there. It says here — in Spanish, of course — the wells of life. I read 18 foreign languages.“
So what do we learn about Dobbs?
He dresses conservatively
He is patient
He doesn’t read social cues very well (which adds to the “Comic Relief” role)
He is a multi-linguist
Proposition 14-A is his favorite topic of conversation
Twill, a man of action, immediately sends the map off to the photo lab to help identify the location of the mollusk monsters. He doesn’t even thank Dobbs for the map! Twill gets all the credit (of course), but it’s really Dobbs who provided the essential evidence that saved the day. And if only that Proposition 14-A had passed, he could have helped them sooner… and perhaps saved a few more lives.
I was hoping this Class III film would end with Twill saying that the Naval base would contribute funds to the Imperial War Museum and their documents room, but alas there was no more mention of Dobbs or Proposition 14-A after that third short scene with the reel librarian. Oh, well. In my head, that’s what happened: the Imperial War Museum got a donation (and a plaque) to celebrate their pivotal role in challenging the mollusk monsters that challenged the world, and Dobbs is now happily puttering away in his new documents room.
Reel librarians save the world! Now THAT’s a movie tagline. 😉
As far as I have been able to discover so far, this scene is a first for reel librarians — the first American film to feature a librarian saying, “Shush!” on screen.
The classic 1940 film, The Philadelphia Story, includes a classic reel librarian scene featuring a shushing Quaker librarian. I’ve mentioned the film in several posts, including here, here, here, and here, and it was one of the films in my original thesis. However, I hadn’t yet dedicated an entire post to analyzing the library scene… until now! 🙂
The film was based on the play by Philip Barry, who wrote the play for Katharine Hepburn, who starred in both the play and the subsequent film adaptation. (She owned the film rights to the play — smart gal!) The plot is a classic love triangle (or rectangle?): A rich socialite, Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn), is about to remarry, and her ex-husband, C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), and reporter, Macaulay “Mike” Connor (James Stewart), show up right before her planned wedding. Romantic complications ensue.
In one comedic scene 37 minutes into the film, Mike visits the public library, to do some research on the Lord family history. The public library is in a traditional building with ivy crawling up the brick walls and a hanging sign announcing its hours (open daily from 9 to 5, with additional hours on Wednesday evenings!).
He wanders over to a bookcase, near where a woman is shelving books. There are no verbal clues about her being a librarian (or her qualifications), but the books she is organizing are effective props to immediately and visually identify her occupation.
Here’s how their “reference interview” unfolds. Note that the librarian initiates the conversation!
Librarian: What does thee wish?
Mike: I’m looking for some local books… what’d you say?
Librarian: What does thee wish?
Mike: Local biography or history.
Librarian: If thee will consult with my colleague in there. [points]
Mike: Dost thou have a washroom? [Librarian points.] Thank thee.
Mike then discovers Tracy Lord in the library’s reading room, poring over a book he had written years ago. As Connor challenges, “Are you sure you’re doing the right thing? You know what happens to girls like you when they read books like mine. They begin to think. That’s bad.“
They continue discussing his book, but their conversation in the library ends when the same librarian walks by and shushes them.
The Quaker librarian is seen on screen for only about 30 seconds in total, with Hilda Plowright playing the uncredited role. The female librarian, middle-aged with no glasses, is conservatively dressed in a plain dress with long sleeves and a high collar, with her dark hair pulled back into a bun at the neck. She seems severe (e.g. the shushing) yet also helpful at the same time (initiating the reference interview with Connor). She also seems (rightly) suspicious of Jimmy Stewart as he mocks her “thees” and “thous,” both verbally and visually.
It’s a short but memorable scene, so The Philadephia Story ends up in the Class III category, in which librarian(s) plays a secondary role in a memorable or significant scene. And what role does the librarian fulfill in this film? From my observations, the shushing Quaker librarian blends two character types:
Spinster Librarian: Her plain hair and clothes immediately identify her visually as a Spinster Librarian, as well as her shushing and enforcing the rule of quiet within her library domain.
Comic Relief: Of course, her use of “thees” and “thous” open her up to ridicule, as Jimmy Stewart pokes (gentle) fun by mocking her speech — and thus making it ok for the audience to laugh at her and the situation.
A few seconds of this scene (at :22, 1:00, and 1:13) are included in the video below.
What does thee wish? To rewatch this classic film, of course! 😉
The Good Companions. Dir. Victor Saville. Perf. Jessie Matthews, Edmund Gwenn, John Gielgud, Mary Glynne. Gaumont British Picture Corporation, 1933.
The Philadelphia Story. Dir. George Cukor. Perf. Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey, John Howard, Roland Young. MGM, 1940.
The original title and dialogue in this post were inaccurate, as I had misheard the Quaker Librarian saying, “What is thee wish?” instead of the properly grammatical Quaker saying, “What does thee wish?” Please see the comment thread below for the reader comments that alerted me to the error.