‘What does thee wish?’ To analyze the librarian in ‘The Philadelphia Story’

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.

The Philadelphia Story is one of the few pictures featuring reel librarians to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The film was also nominated for five other Academy Awards, winning for Best Screenplay and Best Actor for James Stewart. Cary Grant got the girl — SPOILER — but Jimmy Stewart wound up with the Oscar!

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!).

Library sign in The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Library sign in The Philadelphia Story (1940)

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.

Library scene in The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Library scene in The Philadelphia Story (1940)

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 shushing librarian in The Philadelphia Story (1940)
The shushing librarian!

NOTE:  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 1933 British film, The Good Companions, was the first film to do so (again, that I’ve been able to uncover), and I wrote about “The shush heard ’round the world” here. You can also learn about other “reel librarian firsts” here.

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.

Library scene in The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Jimmy Stewart’s facial expression here says it all

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.

Funny Library Clips,” uploaded by Greene County Public Library is licensed under a Standard YouTube license.

What does thee wish? To rewatch this classic film, of course! 😉


Sources used:


  • 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.

UPDATE:


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.

Reel librarians with ‘a bone to pick’

“You have a mind for murder like no one else I know.”

A few months ago in this post, I highlighted a preview of a new Hallmark TV movie, “A Bone to Pick:  An Aurora Teagarden Mystery,” based on the book series by Charlaine Harris. The title character is a younger librarian, played by Candace Cameron Bure, who also served as executive producer.

The Aurora Teagarden Mystery series continues this summer, with the next TV movie set to premiere this Sunday, July 26, on the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries channel. Will you be watching along with me?

Snapshot of Real Murders: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery episode
Snapshot of Real Murders: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery episode

I also recently rewatched the premiere movie, “A Bone to Pick,” and overall, it’s an enjoyable show. If there’s a bone to pick — I couldn’t resist the pun! — it is a typically “cozy” type of mystery, nothing too scary or mentally taxing. It’s the kind of show where there is a lot of light, and everyone seems to have huge living rooms. I most enjoyed the warm portrayal of its title character as a multi-faceted and multi-talented reel librarian.


Setting the stage for sleuthing:


The TV movie starts out not in the library, but instead in Aurora’s bedroom, where she is braiding her hair and practicing a presentation about a notorious historical murder, a speech she delivers in a town hall where the “Real Murders Club” has gathered.

Opening shot in A Bone to Pick: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (TV, 2015)
Opening shot in A Bone to Pick: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (TV, 2015)
Real Murders Club in A Bone to Pick: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (2015)
Real Murders Club in A Bone to Pick: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (2015)

After the successful presentation, an older member, Jane, ruffles up some controversy by stating that Aurora should run for president of the club. Jane then invites Aurora to her house the next day to pick up a few out-of-print titles about true crime, and we learn a lot of character background — including the fact that Jane is a retired librarian! The plot doesn’t get going until we learn that soon after, Jane has passed away and left her house and estate to none other than Aurora. Part of the legacy she left to Aurora includes a hidden skull and a mystery to solve….

*MILD SPOILER ALERTS*

The resulting mystery is not all that interesting:  It includes break-ins and cheating spouses and a really far-fetched conclusion involving a pregnant cop practically giving birth while arresting the perps.


Librarian role call:


This TV movie and the series definitely fit into the Class I category, with Candace Cameron Bure as the title character Aurora Teagarden, or “Roe” for short. Here are the other librarian characters in the story (who, strangely, don’t get seem to get screen credits):

  • Jane, the spinster librarian who died and left Roe her estate
  • Lillian, the middle-aged spinster librarian meanie who scares children and is always on Roe’s case
  • Characters also mention a Mr. Crowley, the head of the library, but we never see him onscreen
Reel librarians Roe, Jane, and Lillian in A Bone to Pick: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (2015)
Reel librarians Roe, Jane, and Lillian in A Bone to Pick: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (2015)

Salary and education:


The low salary given to librarians gets mentioned quite a lot throughout the TV movie. Roe doesn’t even expect to afford rent on her librarian’s salary (her mother pays her rent), and she wonders how Jane was able to afford such a big house (it turns out Jane had inherited money).

  • I can’t afford a new dress.  /  Because you are woefully underpaid.
  • I never thought I’d own a house, not on a librarian’s salary.
  • Too bad I can’t afford it.

Moral of the story? Pay librarians what they are worth! (This means at least a living wage, y’all.)

Education and “library science” also merit a mention, mostly in the early exposition scene between Roe and Jane. Her master’s thesis was in true-crime literature, which sounded odd to me. Jane agreed!

Roe:  I wish I had had access to a collection like this when I was getting my master’s. My thesis was in true-crime literature.

Jane:  That wasn’t a speciality of library science in my day.

Roe:  It’s still not, officially. I think I’m the only librarian in the state who has it.

Side note:  I also did a research project in my Children’s Literature graduate class, a project all about character types in detective and mystery stories for children and young adults. We’re so alike! 😉

Here’s how Roe would probably react to that statement:

Librarian eye-rolling in A Bone to Pick: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (2015)
Whatever, Jen.

There are several scenes highlighting the bright and spacious public library. The sign on the front door says “Lawrenceton Public Library,” which is a nod to the Lawrenceton, Georgia, setting of the books. However, the TV movie was filmed in British Columbia.

Librarian tasks we see onscreen include: opening up the library, researching on the computer, shelving books, and helping a little boy find a book (he’s scared of Lillian, the dragon-lady librarian, who is really rude and condescending to him). Lillian is a total rule-monger and Spinster Librarian character type.

Public library in A Bone to Pick: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (2015)
Public library setting
Roe helping a young boy in A Bone to Pick: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (2015)
Reel librarian help

Reel librarian style:


Roe’s fashion sense is subjected to many negative comments throughout the TV film, mainly by Roe’s mother — and by Roe herself!

  • This has no pizzazz. [her mother, referring to a blazer with piped trim, seen above]
  • I’m sorry, I wanted to change into something nicer. [Roe, wearing a sweater on a date]
  • This is what you wore, on a date?! [Her mother, after Roe’s date]
  • Please tell me you’re not wearing that to church. [Roe’s mother]
  • I wish I had more fashion sense. [Roe, going shopping]

I didn’t really get this style criticism, because she looks cute, relatable, and modern to me. Cardigans and practical coats abound. (I did think they overdid it with the praise whenever she wore a dress.) But no one except her mother ever comments on her hair and her signature side braid.

Collage of Roe's style in A Bone to Pick: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (2015)
Collage of Roe’s style

Librarian skillz:


Roe has got skillz. She is smart, observant, and resourceful, and she’s not afraid to do research and get her hands dirty. And it’s nice to see how she uses her skills as a public librarian, as well, using knowledge of patrons she observed who were frequent visitors to the library. People also trust her, given her position in the community.

We definitely see a well-rounded character in Roe and an atypical reel librarian portrayal. I haven’t read the series, so I don’t know how close it is to the character in the books. We get to see different sides to Roe, the good and the flawed. Other characters, including her friends, both compliment and challenge her.

Best friends Roe and Sally
Best friends Roe and Sally

Roe has relatable flaws — she is stubborn and doesn’t really listen to her closest friend or her mother. She prioritizes her own pleasure in figuring out a puzzle above the logical (and legal) step of handing over evidence to the police — and then doesn’t want to return the skull to the police because she doesn’t want to get in trouble for withholding evidence! Gotta go with her mother on that one — “maybe you deserve to be behind bars.”

Roe is also warm-hearted, friendly, and generous. And she’s definitely got spunk! It is interesting to note that Roe is susceptible to stereotypes — she starts dating a young minister — but is also open-minded when those stereotypes are challenged. (As a librarian, wouldn’t Roe be used to being stereotyped by one’s profession?)

Her sleuthing skills are highly praised throughout, including how she had set up a crime board in the living room of her new house. But it really annoyed me that common sense takes a back seat sometimes. For example, she set up her “secret” crime board — complete with maps and post-it notes and records — in full view of the front door and the front windows with blinds wide open for anyone to see what she was up to.

Snapshots of Roe's evidence wall in A Bone to Pick: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (2015)
Roe’s evidence wall, which is visible from the front door and windows

Connections between research and sleuthing:


Does Roe being a librarian matter to the story? In some ways, it seems more important that she’s a member of the Real Murders Club, but the fact that she’s a librarian is emphasized throughout the TV movie. She applies the same skills — her intelligence and logical way of thinking, her organizational and research skills, as well as her friendly demeanor — to both her job as a librarian and to her adventures as an amateur sleuth.

Roe connects the dots for the audience by using research in her sleuthing, skills she obviously picked up as a librarian. So I would argue that yes, identifying Roe as a librarian not only helps the audience trust Roe but also helps us believe in her skills as an amateur detective.

Roe researching in A Bone to Pick: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (2015)
Reel librarian research
Roe studies a skull in A Bone to Pick: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (2015)
This is my thinking face
Roe compares maps in A Bone to Pick: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (2015)
Comparing maps

I mentioned in this prior post, “Nancy Drew as a librarian?,” how much overlap I personally see between private detectives and librarians, and I’ve already stated that I think Nancy Drew would have been an AWESOME librarian. I’d like to think that in the character of Aurora Teagarden, we can have the best of both worlds — why choose between being a private detective and a librarian? You can be good at both! 😉

I will wrap things up with a compliment(?) that Jane bestowed upon Roe in an early scene:

You have a mind for murder like no one else I know.

Thank you. I think.

Again, the next Aurora Teagarden Mystery movie, “Real Murders,” premieres in a few days, on July 26. Are you interested in watching along with me?


Sources used:


‘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.

‘What not to’ do in a library

“So where’s the librarian?”

Although the focus of this website and blog is all about librarians in movies, I wanted to highlight a TV episode this week. Last year was the final season of “What Not to Wear” (2003-2013), a long-running American spin-off of the original British reality makeover series. I was a general fan of the show, as their best episodes touched on deeper, complex issues such as self-esteem, postpartum depression, transgender body issues, and negative body issues that can haunt victims of sexual abuse. How you project an image through clothing/style/hair/etc. so often has psychological and sociological roots, as I’ve explored often on this site.

During recent “What Not to Wear” reruns on TLC, I came across the 2013 episode for “Courtney D.,” season 10, episode 15, about “a tomboy who wears camouflage is advised to accept a style that’s more appropriate for her age and body type.” This is NOT one of their best episodes; in fact, it’s downright uncomfortable to watch, as Courtney is painfully shy but also quite vocal about her (very understandable) privacy concerns. At the beginning of each episode, the hosts Stacy and Clinton surprise the unsuspecting person who has been nominated for the makeover, and they set up a scenario to fit the interests or lifestyle of that particular person.

For this episode, the producers set up a fake prize of a New York city guided tour, which included a stop at a library. “Little does she know that when we get to her library tour, the hit will be on.” 😦

Here’s a shot outside the library building that was the first stop on a “tour of historic New York architecture.” (FYI, I haven’t been able to find a credit for the building they did use, and if indeed it was a library in real life or not.)

Library location in a What Not to Wear episode
Library location in a What Not to Wear episode

The producers explained the opening scenario to Stacy and Clinton:

Then the librarian is gonna tell her to look for something in the card catalog. She [Courtney] is gonna pull a book off the shelf, and then you guy are going to pop your faces in behind.

We get a special behind-the-scenes look at the set up of the library scene. At one point, a producer yells out, “So where’s the librarian?” and we are treated to a close-up of Jillian, the librarian, or rather the “librarian” as written on the screen.

Screenshot from What Not to Wear episode
“Librarian”

I assume the grey-haired lady is an actress. However, she missed her cue (!) as they started the scene (er, tour). She put on her glasses and then sputtered, “Okay. Hold on. I didn’t know we were about to go.” The co-hosts and producers behind the scenes started cracking up, whispering, “She’s rogue! She’s rogue!”

Screenshot from What Not to Wear episode
Welcome to the library

The rest of the scenario went off as planned. Stacey and Clinton then reveal themselves through the gap in the bookshelf, and they proceed to explain the whole “What Not to Wear” scenario in quiet whispers. Whenever anyone cheers, there are cuts to the librarian saying, “Shhhhh!” The co-hosts even shush THEMSELVES twice!

Screenshot from What Not to Wear episode
Oh, the stereotypes

Predictably, the “librarian” in this opening scene falls into the stereotypical image of a Spinster Librarian:  an older lady who wears conservative clothing and glasses, and of course, shushes anyone who talks above a whisper.

Sigh.

What not to wear? The librarian is wearing a scrunchie in her hair, for goodness sake! Maybe they should have started with the reel librarian instead! 😉


Sources used:


  • “Courtney D.” What Not to Wear. TLC, Season 10, Episode 15, 2013.

The librarian in ‘The Attic’

“Being a head librarian is not my idea of a lifetime career.”

Continuing our October list of scary films featuring reel librarians… next up is The Attic (1980), starring Carrie Snodgress as jilted librarian Louise Elmore. The film is tagged in IMDB.com as a thriller or horror film, but it’s really more of a suspenseful drama. The original trailer makes it seem waaaaaay scarier than it actually is:

The Attic (1980) – Original Theatrical Trailer” video uploaded by Ryan Clark is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

It’s a strange film, in more ways than one. (MAJOR SPOILER ALERTS throughout.)

This plot summary from IMDB.com hints at the crazy:

Woman librarian devotes life to caring for wheelchair-bound tyrannical father after being stood up at altar. She fantasizes his death and finds joy only with her pet monkey.

This film also extends the storyline of the librarian and her father, two characters featured in The Killing Kind (1973), written by the same screenwriters as The Attic (1980). Neither film was a hit at the box office, and the roles in the earlier film were played by different actors.

The attic — the title of the whole shebang — is also never actually mentioned in the film, and not even seen until the last few minutes. Decidedly odd.

Even though the main character, Louise, is a librarian, the ultimate message is NOT uplifting. Like I said, SPOILER! After watching the film, my husband’s reaction summed it up perfectly:

That was depressing as hell. Based on this film, being a librarian must suck.

Let’s break it down as the reel librarian also breaks down:

The film opens with Louise crying over old home movies of her ex-fiance, and the camera pans over an overflowing collection of stuffed animal monkeys before settling on a closeup of her slashed, bloody wrists. Carrie Snodgress, nominated for Best Actress for 1970’s Diary of a Mad Housewife, really gives it her all in a pretty thankless role.

Screenshot from The Attic
Memories…

The next shot provides another closeup of her wrists, this time bandaged and back to stamping books in the library. This extended scene set in the library introduces several more reel librarians, including a young female librarian, Emily (Ruth Cox), and a male library assistant, Donald (Terry Troutt), who is shelving books as they close up for the day. The scene also uses two older, gossipy ladies to provide background to the plot. One older lady is checking out books from the front counter and notices the bandages on Louise’s hands.

The other lady is busy gossiping to Emily by the card catalog — in full earshot of Louise! — and we learn that Emily has been hired to replace Louise as the head librarian. Louise is retiring, and the older lady insinuates that they’re pushing her out because of a recent, accidental fire in the library. She also links this current fire to a past fire that caused the paralysis of Louise’s father. Hmmmmm…..

Screenshot from The Attic
Reel librarians in The Attic

Emily, as seen above on the left, is definitely a Spirited Young Girl character type — young, stylish, intelligent, and views working in the library as just a job. Her reaction to her new position?

I like it here. Beats being a college librarian.

Being a head librarian is not my idea of a lifetime career.

As Louise, Carrie Snodgress — only 33 herself at the time of filming! — is playing a character who can’t be more than 40 years old. We learn that she has worked in the library for 19 years, which is how long ago her fiance disappeared. Louise is also quite attractive and wears modern, stylish clothing. She also wears her long hair in different styles current for that time period, but her hair seems artificially greyed-out. Being that young an age for retiring does seem suspicious. We also hear the older lady gossip about Louise “in her intoxicated condition.” That is definitely one thing the older lady was right on target about:

Screenshot from The Attic
Drinking in the library!

The friendship between Louise and Emily is also evident early on, as Louise remarks, “I was prepared to hate you, replacing me and all. Instead, you have become my friend.”

And they do become friends, and enjoy several scenes together in the film. Louise and Emily bond over respective, overbearing parents:  Louise’s father vs. Emily’s mother. Emily invites Louise over for dinner as well as for a bike ride to talk over personal issues; Emily wants to go to California to be with her boyfriend, but feels guilty about leaving her younger brother alone with her overbearing mother. Louise keeps urging Emily to seek happiness when she can, to avoid the fate she herself has endured. The film directors, George Edwards and Gary Graver, enjoy visually contrasting the two librarians, including shots that reflect similar wardrobe choices or body positions:

Screenshot from The Attic
Reel librarians meeting outside the library
Screenshot from The Attic
Making friends
Screenshot from The Attic
Librarians celebrating!

Due to a lifetime of criticism from her wheelchair-bound father (Ray Milland in a deliciously cheesy role), Louise has no sense of herself — or doesn’t want to face the truth about herself. She says she’s not much of a drinker, yet is shown drinking in repeated shots throughout the film. She talks about her fiance, Robert, as if he just left — and that was over 19 years ago! She professes to dislike her job — more on that below — yet obviously takes pride in being thorough, as seen when she straightens up the library at the end of the day.

Her account of the library fire, however, is quite disturbing, as is her state of mind leading up to the fire:

Have you ever been seized by a mood of despondency? Sometimes, I feel that I’m in the grip of a huge vise that seems to render me incapable of thought, of movement … Wouldn’t you [feel like that]? If they put you out to pasture, like an old mare.

The books were my enemy. Destroy them, before they destroy you, a voice whispered to me. It felt so wonderful, to see all those books going up in flames. I’d won the battle!

I would do it all over again.

Screenshot from The Attic
Librarian hallucinations

It was interesting that I found myself reminded of so many other films while watching The Attic, including:

  • A scene in which Louise fantasizes about taking a trip, her reflected image superimposed on a poster for Hawaii. This reminded me of the 1932 film Forbidden, in which a spinster librarian (Barbara Stanwyck) quits her job and heads off to Havana with her life savings.
  • The library fire scene made me think of Storm Center (1956), starring another aging librarian (Bette Davis) that others are trying to force out — but because she’s defending the right to keep the books on the shelves rather than burning the library down.
  • In the scene in which Louise and Emily stop outside the pet shop, I was reminded of the pet shop scene in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Emily buys a chimp for Louise — huh? — while in The Birds, Tippi Hedren makes a similar impulse purchase on a pair of lovebirds.
  • In the scene where Louise goes to the movies, the character on screen makes a reference to “Norman Bates,” the main character in Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho — another film featuring a lead character who has psychological problems due to a domineering parent.
  • Also in the movie scene, Louise meets a sailor and goes to his hotel room, pretending he’s her ex-fiance while they have sex. I was reminded of the scenes in Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), in which Marnie’s adolescent psyche is severely damaged by her domineering mother’s tryst with a sailor.

As Louise is the main character of this film, we are treated to several scenes outside the library, including scenes of home life, a rarity for reel librarians. For example, we see Louise masturbating in bed; having dinner with her father (and then fantasizing about poisoning his drink!); getting dressed in the morning; and brushing her teeth.

Screenshot from The Attic
A reel librarian’s home routine

Two major scenes later in the film also reveal a lot about Louise’s character and her relationship with Emily. The first is the dinner scene with Emily and her mother, who asks about Louise’s job:

Mrs. Fowler:  I understand you’ve been a librarian for … 19 years?

Louise:  Yes. You make it sound so dreadfully long.

Mrs. Fowler:  I wish Emily would settle down to a steady job like that. She’s had three employers since she left college. … Maybe you can hold on to this new position.

Louise:  I wish that I had had the good sense to try some other jobs when I was young. I might not have been a librarian.

Mrs. Fowler:  It’s a perfectly respectable job.

Louise:  Respectable, yes. And often boring.

Mrs. Fowler:  A job is what you make of it.

I know that Mrs. Fowler, Emily’s mother, is described repeatedly as domineering and overbearing. But I have to say, from my personal perspective of being a librarian, I think Mrs. Fowler makes a lot of sense here! If you love being a librarian, then it is NEVER boring.

The other major scene is Louise’s retirement party, in which we meet a fourth, and final, reel librarian:  an older lady librarian played by actress Frances Bay. The four are toasting Louise with champagne — which is ok, because they’ve locked the doors. No one will see they’re — GASP! — drinking in the library. The older librarian, focusing on the rules, fulfills the Spinster Librarian role, whereas the socially awkward male library worker rounds out the group as the Anti-Social Librarian character type.

Screenshot from The Attic
A reel librarian’s retirement party
Screenshot from The Attic
Reel librarians celebrating

They have bought her a corsage, as well as a cake featuring a woman heading off with a suitcase, as seen below. As the older lady librarian states, “You’ve always wanted to travel, Louise. Nothing to hold you back now. Free as a bird.”

Screenshot from The Attic
Retirement cake

This visually demonstrates how Louise’s main role in the film is as a Liberated Librarian, a trapped/naïve woman who discovers herself — and what she’s capable of — under extreme circumstances. The “liberation” can be positive or negative, and Liberated Librarians are usually major characters with their “liberation” often supplying the main plot. This is all true of Louise’s role in this film. As my husband quipped:

That’s a Liberated Librarian on a cake!

As Louise forges a friendship with Emily — and after, in her own words, “getting laid” by the sailor — Louise begins to assert her independence, in different ways, and defying her father’s influence by putting on lipstick (in public!); keeping the chimp that Emily bought her; visiting her friend — twice! — instead of spending time with her father; and spending her severance pay to buy Emily a plane ticket to California.

This later scene, in which Louise buys Emily the plane ticket, is quite sweet — and unintentionally hiLARious. The older lady librarian delivers the letter (and enclosed plane ticket) to Emily at the library, and after reading it, Emily literally runs out the door — unlike Louise, another contrast between the two. Louise gets a cake with a picture of someone going on an adventure; Emily actually does it.

Older librarian:  Emily? Where are you going?

Emily:  To get married!

The older lady librarian looks up and smiles, with a hopeful (or wistful?) look on her face, as seen below. Ahhhhh, the ghosts of the spinster librarian Mary in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Obviously, being a spinster librarian is the ONLY option if you don’t get married. I’m so glad films like these are here to teach us these valuable life lessons. 😉

At the front counter
At the front counter

We also get treated to this gem after Louise’s retirement party, as she straightens her bow tie and shouts out a farewell speech to the books in the library:

Well, goodbye all you bastards! If I never see you again, it’ll be too soon. It’s time.

And on that uplifting (?!#@!) note, perhaps it’s time to wrap up this post. Here’s a look at the many different sides we see of Louise, a Class I reel librarian:

Collage of reel librarian Louse in The Attic
Collage of reel librarian Louse in The Attic

I won’t give the ending away completely, but let’s just say that the final five minutes finally do reveal the attic referred to in the title. We learn the secrets her father has been keeping all these years, which force Louise to finally face her own fears. The ending is a bit open-ended, but Louise does seem to be spiritually liberated, if not literally liberated. Her final words are, “I loved you, Robert.” Finally, she uses the past tense of the verb, “loved,” a recognition of the past itself.

But what does her future hold?


Sources used:


  • The Attic. Dir. George Edwards & Gary Graver. Perf. Carrie Snodgress, Ray Milland, Ruth Cox. MGM/UA, 1980.
  • The Attic (1980) Plot.” Internet Movie Database, n.d.