Silence is golden in the silent film ‘The Blot’

Women who work in respectable professions have better opportunities of meeting respectable young men, with the aim of marrying and eventually leaving the profession — a classic plot for many reel librarians.

The title of this silent film, The Blot (1921), refers not to the librarian profession (thank goodness), but rather the blot of poverty, as well as societal disregard for intellectuals. Most definitely a message film — one whose message is, unfortunately, not blunted by modern times — it was directed and co-written by Lois Weber, one of the first major female directors.

Weber, who directed over 100 films, was the first woman inducted into the Motion Picture Directors Association, which was basically reformed into the Directors Guild in 1936. She and her husband, Phillips Smalley, had formed their own production company, Lois Weber Productions in 1917 (see the logo in poster, below). After signing a $250,000 deal with Paramount Studios in 1920, the year before The Blot was released, Weber was the highest-paid director in Hollywood.

Advertisement for The Blot, highlighting director Lois Weber (public domain)
Advertisement for The Blot, highlighting director Lois Weber (public domain)

This socially conscious film — shot in sequence and mostly on location in the Boyle Heights neighborhood and the old University of California campus in Los Angeles — contrasts a poor college professor’s family with their more affluent neighbors, immigrant shoemakers. The professor’s daughter, Amelia Griggs (played by Claire Windsor), works at the public library. Throughout the film, Amelia attracts three potential suitors: one of her father’s students, a rich and rowdy young man called Phil West (Louis Calhern); the quiet, serious Reverend Gates; and the eldest son of their neighbors.

We first meet Amelia behind the Circulation desk counter, and she is quite pretty, with long, curly dark hair pinned back. A sign warning SILENCE is visible behind her. (And it’s in a SILENT film, hah!)

Claire Windsor in The Blot (public domain)
Claire Windsor in The Blot (public domain)

Amelia’s co-worker (uncredited) is an older female librarian, also seen behind the Circulation counter. Generally nondescript, she appears middle-aged, with her brunette hair pulled back in a bun. Although the two woman dress similarly — high-necked blouses, cardigans, hair pulled back in buns — Amelia seems much more stylish. The older librarian is obviously well on her way to spinsterhood.

Overall, from the few scenes set in the library, the ladies seem efficient, pleasant, and well-liked by community members. They display a variety of library-related tasks: answering the telephone, helping users in the stacks, shelving books, checking out books, and answering reference questions.

Phil comes to see Amelia at the library — unbeknownst to his friends, of course — but Amelia is suspicious of his attentions. She even catches him in a lie about reading books! However, she’s more worried about ruining her sensible heels by walking home; therefore, she rides home with the prospective suitor. She is later impressed by the flowers the rich boy gives her, but also displays a quiet pride when the young man brings up her father’s poverty.

The young man describes her as a “working girl”, but she is also referred to as “stuck up” by their neighbors. This is because the Griggs family tries desperately to conceal their financial plight. The movie’s plot turns when Amelia’s mother steals food. Amelia is appalled by her mother’s behavior and wishes “if only she had the courage” to force her mother to return the stolen food. Amelia seems happier at work, going back even when she becomes ill from a combination of malnutrition and severe exhaustion. Amelia is quite admirable — winning the affections of many throughout the film — even if she does come off a little too saintly. She does the honorable thing by finally admitting to their poverty and talking to their neighbors about her mother stealing food. Amelia fulfills the Spirited Young Girl character type:  a young, stylish woman who works in the library — a temporary job — who meets the leading man while working. She is not a Liberated Librarian, because she doesn’t really change throughout the film; rather, Amelia’s strength of character and innate goodness changes others.

Click to view film clips from The Blot
Click to view film clips from The Blot

The film is quite unusual, especially in its theme of examining the poverty of professionals — educators, ministers,  librarians, etc. — which is also a (surprisingly?) timely subject for modern times. There is also an underlying message of how the love of a good woman can change a man to good works.

So why a librarian? I’ve categorized the film as Class II, in which a major character is a reel librarian, but the profession has no direct effect on the film. After all, Amelia’s wages as a librarian are so low that she makes no apparent contribution to the family’s income; there is no mention at all about her salary in a movie about poverty (!), which is quite revealing in and of itself. But by this time, the early 1920s, librarianship was an established profession for women — a respectable profession for respectable young (and older) ladies. And, of course, women who work in respectable professions have better opportunities of meeting respectable young men, with the aim of marrying and eventually leaving the profession — a classic plot for many reel librarians.

Sources used:

  • The Blot. Dir. Phillips Smalley & Lois Weber. Perf. Philip Hubbard, Margaret McWade, Claire Windsor. Lois Weber Productions, 1921.
  • Lois Weber” via Wikipedia is licensed under CC BY SA 3.0

What’s in a name?

Great character names for reel librarians

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!

"Hello my name is sticker" graphic is in the public domain
“Hello my name is sticker” graphic is in the public domain

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
  • Valerie Curtin as Miss Ophelia Sheffer in Maxie (1985) — an innocent-sounding name for this Naughty Librarian
  • Judi Dench as Marcia Pilborough in Wetherby (1985) — an imperial name for this imperious librarian
  • Emilia Fox as Spig in Shooting the Past (TV, 1999) — a wonderfully quirky name for this Spirited Young Girl character
  • 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?!

Sources used:

A ‘weird’ librarian

Hell hath no fury… like a librarian scorned!

The 1944 film Weird Woman, directed by Reginald Le Borg, is a horror story, one whose title character could be either of the two main female characters in the film.

Weird Woman – Classic Movie Trailer” video uploaded by Cliff Held is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

While on an expedition in the South Seas, college professor Norman Reed (Lon Chaney, Jr.) marries Paula (Anne Gwynne), a native woman who continues her superstitious beliefs upon their return to the U.S. His unexpected marriage angers his ex-girlfriend, college librarian Ilona (Evelyn Ankers, who starred in several horror films, including the classic The Wolf Man), who embarks on revenge.

Hell hath no fury… like a librarian scorned!

Ilona is blonde, young, beautiful, and wears striking modern clothing. However, she does not seem like a dedicated librarian because she is never in the library; rather, she is always in her office, which appears as large as or even bigger than the actual library. Of the actual college library, we only get to see a glimpse of bookcases, a ladder, and a dictionary stand.

Her student assistant, Margaret, shelves books, and students always have to open Ilona’s door in order to talk to her. Margaret, obviously intelligent and efficient, displays an eagerness to help. She  is a brunette with shoulder-length hair, skirt suit, and no glasses. Ilona, of course, abuses her assistant’s eagerness and stirs up trouble among Margaret, her boyfriend, and Professor Reed.

Ilona is a classic example of a Naughty Librarian who turns to violent and/or criminal manipulation when her love is unrequited or thwarted. She also uses her library’s resources to create more mischief (of course!). She is the (deserving?) recipient of several nasty, unflattering comments, including the following descriptions:

“A jealous old cat”

“There’s something about your smile right now that makes me think of Jack the Ripper”

An interesting note about the film’s 1962 remake: In Burn, Witch Burn! (aka The Night of the Eagle), the librarian character is changed to a female professor. The character’s name is also changed, from Ilona Carr to Flora Carr. The student library assistant’s name, Margaret Mercer, is also changed in the remake, to Margaret Abbott; her occupation, other than that of a student, is unknown in the 1962 version.

Sources used:

  • Weird Woman. Dir. Reginald Le Borg. Perf. Lon Chaney, Jr., Anne Gwynne, Evelyn Ankers. Universal, 1944.
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