Until this week, I had never before seen this Raymond James commercial (apparently, it first aired in Fall 2010) about the “fastidious librarian Emily Skinner,” who lives life to the fullest, even at 187 years young. After viewing it, I turned to Sam and said, “That’s the Liberated Librarian arc in a commercial!” Raymond James is, of course, posturing itself as her savior — but one could make the argument that it’s Emily herself, right?
I quite enjoyed the ad, and overall, it’s a pretty flattering portrayal of a librarian. Emily, “The Woman Who Lived Longer Than Any Person Who Has Ever Lived,” is obviously intellectually curious (loooove the detail of her dress matching her wallpaper in the shot of hanging up that first diploma) and fun-loving. She pays attention to details but also looks at the big picture with long-term goals. A life well planned, and a life well lived. Go librarians! 🙂
Exploring the male Liberated Librarian character type
In my original undergraduate thesis, I had identified only four male character types. The more films I have seen, I have since added two categories, or rather, divided two existing categories. The first of these is the Librarian as Failure — sorry, never was that good with catchy titles — which I later split into two, giving full credence to the male version of the Liberated Librarian.
Rereading my thesis, I can see the idea there:
The films in this category demonstrate that any male who chooses (or perhaps does not choose) to work as a librarian must have something wrong with him. However, variations do exist […] most of the men are relatively young (with one notable exception), perhaps showing the audience that they have time to redeem themselves and find a better job. Interestingly, most of the males in these films triumph, in some way, in the end.
And that’s the major difference. The male Liberated Librarians may begin as failures, but they grow in character throughout the film, just like their female counterparts; their latent skills and talents find a way to rise to the forefront — but only through the instigation of an outside force, action, or other person. (I’ll delve into the Librarian as Failure later. They’re not going anywhere.) 😉
The male Liberated Librarian, as I mentioned, is usually young. Their physical appearance may or may not improve (compare this with their female counterparts, whose makeovers are practically a requirement!), but their wardrobes tend to get better. Personality-wise, they become more masculine and assertive. For major male librarian roles, the most common character type is the Liberated Librarian, with their liberation comprising the main plot.
There are some more minor characters fulfilling the male Liberated Librarian role. The male librarian (James Frain) in Where the Heart Is (2000) is a supporting character, but the arc of his liberation mirrors the liberation of the lead role, played by Natalie Portman. And Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid) in the TV movie Stephen King’s It (1990), is the only one of the seven lead characters to stay behind in Derry, Maine, a town that hides an inherent evil manifesting as Pennywise the Clown (a chilling Tim Curry). Hanlon, the town librarian, sarcastically referred to as “the answer man,” eventually unites everyone to fight against that evil.
The notable exception to the age characteristic I mentioned above is Jason Robards in Something Wicked This Way Comes. He plays the aging librarian Charles Halloway, who has a bad heart and professes that he never takes risks — risking his son’s respect in the process. However, he is motivated by the evil carnival owner, Mr. Dark (a deliciously evil Jonathan Pryce), to take a risk to save his son and, consequently, saves the entire town.
Exploring the female Liberated Librarian character type
The Liberated Librarian female character type is really an extension of the Spinster Librarian — if the spinster had met the right love interest. This type usually focuses on a trapped, naive woman who discovers herself (that is, her sexuality and her potential as a lover/mother/sex symbol) with the help of a good man in the face of an adventure or disaster that forces her to come out of her shell. Some movies in this category combine these to further insure the liberation of the reel librarian.
In The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999 by Ray and Brenda Tevis, characteristics of this type are apparent in what they call the “only 38” stereotype. The moniker comes from the 1923 film, Only 38, starring Lois Wilson as Mrs. Stanley. That film is “about Mrs. Stanley’s attempt to recapture at least part of her missed youth, achieve her independence, and realize her potential as an individual.” Yep, that’s our typical Liberated Librarian storyline, all right. As the Tevises astutely observe, “‘only 38’ is an age at which [the female librarian] could be vibrant, full of fun and giddiness, intoxicated with love, and looking forward to many years of happiness and love with… a new husband” (p. 13).
Hallmarks of the type include undergoing a change of appearance. The woman usually becomes more attractive and wears more flattering clothes, either throws away her glasses or gets contacts, and is young enough to attract the right man and live a long and fulfilling life after he has “set her free.” ALERT: Tongue-firmly-in-cheek. Liberated Librarians are portrayed as intelligent but not necessarily that committed to the profession; they usually leave the library after their “liberation.”
For formula-by-number examples of the type, see romantic melodramas Adventure (1945) and No Man of Her Own (1932). In Adventure, public librarian Emily Sears (Greer Garson) proclaims that she “worked in a morgue” until bad boy Clark Gable came along. (Sigh.) And in No Man of Her Own — that title! — Clark Gable’s sex appeal knocks Connie (Carole Lombard) off her library ladder. Connie elopes with him to escape the dull town she works in and later drapes herself in low-necked gowns, satin and sequins.
Movies feature this character type more than any other; as the Tevises observed, “[t]hroughout the twentieth century, the majority of reel librarians… will be afflicted with this ‘only 38’ characteristic” (p. 13). It makes sense to feature Liberated Librarians in leading roles, as character growth and development often make for compelling plots. There are many, many examples, so I’ll try to pick out some noteworthy ones.
Shirley Jones stars as Marian Paroo — inspiring the song “Marian the Librarian” — in The Music Man (1962), decked out in a tight bun, buttoned-up clothing, and a reserved manner. One of her piano students even calls her an “old maid.” In the latter half of the film, after attracting the attention of con man Robert Preston, she dances in a gauzy dress that shows off her cleavage before meeting him down by the bridge for a session of heartfelt love and confession.
The adventure-movie formula has also donated several films to the Liberated Librarian character type, notably in The Mummy (1999), The War of the Worlds (1953), and The Substitute (1996). Rachel Weisz, who plays Evie Carnahan in The Mummy, has the showiest role of all three, as she works not only as a librarian but also as an Egyptologist (she can read and write ancient Egyptian). In one hilarious but touching scene, she proclaims — while inebriated — that she is “proud of what I am. I …. am a librarian!” before promptly falling over in a stupor. She does wear sexier clothes in the latter half of the film, attracting the attention of heroic Brendan Fraser. But it is SHE — not Fraser — who cracks the code at the end that saves them from the mummy’s curse.
The thriller-mystery also fills up a substantial portion of the Liberated Librarian category. Examples include Julia Roberts as Sara in Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), Penelope Ann Miller as the title character in The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag (1992), and Claire Bloom as Nan Perry in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965). In Sleeping with the Enemy, Sara, an attractive young redhead, lies to her abusive husband about her job at the library, fakes her own death, and runs away to Iowa. Her neighbor — who just happens to be an attractive bachelor — helps her find a real job in the local public library. In a rare instance of reversal, the library helps to save her from a man, if only temporarily. There is also a twist in The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag, as Betty Lou also already has a husband in the beginning of the film. She is liberated in the end not by her husband but by the excitement of finding a gun and confessing to a murder she did not commit. BTW, that’s an odd sentence to write.
In Foul Play (1978) — one of my personal favorites — Goldie Hawn plays Gloria Mundy, who is young, attractive, and blonde. Although she dresses nicely and even shows some cleavage in her opening scenes, her friend calls her an “old maid.” We also learn that Gloria used to be a cheerleader, but gets chided that “you lock yourself in that library and hide behind those glasses.” Gloria ditches her glasses when she helps solve an assassination attempt plot with Chevy Chase.
Next week, we’ll explore the male side of the Liberated Librarian… stay tuned! 😉
Tevis, Ray, and Brenda Tevis. The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999. McFarland, 2005.
The analysis in the “One of the Invisible Professions on Screen” article about the character of library science professor Sylvia Van Buren (played by Ann Robinson) is spot-on, and I agree that “Sylvia Van Buren” is a fantastic name for a librarian!
So that got me thinking… what are some other great character names for reel librarians? Here are some of my picks:
Bebe Neuwirth as Sylvia Marpole in An Extremely Goofy Movie (2000, animated) — another Sylvia, but this one is way more fun
Goldie Hawn as Gloria Mundy in Foul Play (1978) — one of my favorite reel librarian characters, with a name that winks at her “Girl Monday” characteristics
Selina Cadell as Miss Battersby in Prick Up Your Ears (1987) — a very descriptive surname for this uptight public librarian
Frances Sternhagen as Charlotte Wolf in Up the Down Staircase (1967) — another (unfortunately) descriptive name for this school librarian
Barbara Stanwyck as Lulu Smith in Forbidden (1932) — the quintessential name for a Liberated Librarian! Her surname sounds so generic and blah, seemingly perfect for a small-town, mild-mannered librarian, but the fanciful first name hints at what lies beneath the surface (see right)
James Frain as Forney Hull in Where the Heart Is (2000) — Southern names are kind of endearing, aren’t they? You just want to root for a guy saddled with a name like “Forney”
Claudia Wilkens as Iona Hildebrandt in Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) — a lot of name for this librarian cameo, but with a name like that, she manages to get in a few zingers
Katharine Hepburn as Bunny Watson in Desk Set (1957) — you’ve got to have a female librarian named Bunny at some point, and Katharine Hepburn pulls it off in matter-of-fact fashion
Charles Grodin as Harrison Winslow in Heart and Souls (1993) — can’t you just SEE the bow tie and buttoned-up demeanor in this name yearning to break loose for this Liberated Librarian?
Morgan Farley, John Barclay, Belle Mitchell, and Cyril Delevanti as The Books in Soylent Green (1973) — in this dystopian tale, the librarians are known simply as “Books” — appropriate yet a bit forbidding, as this utilitarian moniker strips away their personal identities
Peter Kastner as Bernard Chanticleer and Rip Torn as I. H. Chanticleer in You’re a Big Boy Now (1966) — I just like repeating the surname. Chanticleer. Chanticleer. Try it! It’s fun.
Shirley Jones as Marian Paroo in The Music Man (1962) — a reel librarian list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Marian the Librarian, right?!
“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.
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!
Rome Adventure. Dir. Delmer Daves. Perf. Suzanne Pleshette, Troy Donahue, Angie Dickinson, Rossano Brazzi. Warner Bros., 1962.