A ‘brief encounter’ with a librarian

Chemist’s shops, lending libraries, and lies

The 1945 film Brief Encounter is one of the greats. Yet it’s one of those films that still flies pretty low under the radar — but those who have seen it and share it with each other light up in remembrance. It’s a simple, quiet film, heartbreakingly beautiful. With the best use of Rachmaninoff EVER.

The film, based on Noel Coward’s 1935 one-act play Still Life, stars Celia Johnson (luminous in an Oscar-nominated role) as Laura Jesson, an ordinary English wife and mother, and Trevor Howard as Dr. Alec Harvey, an ordinary English husband and father. They meet one day by chance and fall in love. It’s that simple. But life is never really that simple, is it?

Almost twenty minutes into the film, Laura’s going about her usual shopping day in nearby Milford. She walks past a display window, full of new “holiday reads.” We then see her in what looks to be a kind of public library, smiling with a friendly female librarian (uncredited). The library is lined with shelves, with a main desk in the center stacked with books. The librarian is a white female with short, wavy blonde hair. She looks to be in her 30’s, appears quite friendly, and is dressed in a quite stylish cardigan (yes, there ARE some out there) with what looks to be military-style embellishments.

Boot's Lending Library in Brief Encounter
Boot’s Lending Library

Laura narrates:  “I changed my book at Boots. Miss Lewis had at last managed to get the new Kate O’Brien for me. I believe she’d kept it hidden under the counter for two days.”

Note:  Kate O’Brien was an Irish novelist and playwright (1897-1974), who explored gay/lesbian themes in several of her works. Some of her work was quite controversial, as two of her books were banned in her native Ireland. It is also interesting to note that upon its initial release, Brief Encounter was itself banned in Ireland, due to its sympathetic portrayal of adultery.

But then we see Laura turn and step from the library into a chemist’s shop (see below). What??? From our travels overseas, I knew that Boots is a British pharmacy chain. What’s the deal? Is this library actually a bookstore? Is this just an odd film set?

Laura walks from the library into the chemist's shop in Brief Encounter
Laura walks from the library into the chemist’s shop

Doing a little more digging (thanks, IMDb!), there’s an interesting answer:

Laura borrows books from the Boots Lending Library. Such Lending Libraries were an offshoot of Boots Pharmacies. Boots is a major pharmacy chain in the UK. It was founded in 1849 and still exists, although in a much different, more diversified form. The Lending Libraries were started in 1898.

Boots is still around, but their lending libraries ceased in the late 1960s. The Boots Lending Library was an example of a subscription library. You’d pay a small monthly or annual fee to the library — or a small fee per item — to be able to check out materials. Sound familiar? It’s basically the same idea as video rental stores or Netflix.

Library label for Boots Booklovers Library by alan.98 via Flickr is licensed under CC BY NC SA 2.0
Library label for Boots Booklovers Library by alan.98 via Flickr is licensed under CC BY NC SA 2.0

Ok, back to the film. That’s the only time we see the librarian, Miss Lewis — a typical Information Provider seen only for a few seconds — but her character still plays a role in the film, as you’ll see.

The library books are also mentioned a few more times throughout. A couple of minutes later, Laura and Alec are enjoying lunch, and he asks if she comes into town every week.

“Yes, I do the week’s shopping. Change my library book, have lunch and generally go to the pictures. Not a very exciting routine, but it makes a change.”

After spending the afternoon together, Laura is thinking about Alec as she boards the train to go back home. She sees a clergyman in the corner and flushes: “I felt myself blushing and opened my library book and pretended to read.”

Just over an hour into the film, their would-be love affair comes to a head. We see Laura running down the wet streets, with her library book under her arm. She knows she’s late and ducks into a tobacco shop to phone her husband.

No librarian in this phone booth in a scene from Brief Encounter
No librarian in this phone booth

We hear only her side of the conversation:

“Yes, everything’s perfectly all right, but I shan’t be home to dinner.

—–

I’m with Miss Lewis. Miss Lewis, dear. You know, the librarian I told you about at Boots.

—–

Yes, I can’t explain in any detail because she’s outside the box now.

—–

I met her in the High Street a little while ago in a terrible state. Her mother’s been taken ill, and I’ve promised to stay with her until the doctor comes.

—–

Yes, I know, but she’s always been awfully kind to me, and I feel so sorry for her.”

So she uses poor Miss Lewis (“Miss” – of course) as an excuse for being late!!!

Why? Most likely, the library book she had with her provided the inspiration. Also, being with a librarian MUST be respectable and above board, right? 😉 There would be no questions asked (and really, why WOULDN’T one feel sorry for a poor librarian?), and as Laura says, “It’s awfully easy to lie when you know that you’re trusted implicitly.”

I can’t help but wonder how Laura will react to Miss Lewis the next time she visits the lending library…


Sources used:


‘(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration’ | How my inspiration for this blog began

I couldn’t help thinking…. wouldn’t this be so fun to do for librarians?!

A little Righteous Brothers to start out the day is nice, eh? (And if you don’t get my title reference, then there is a hole in your life, and you need to fill it in with some Righteous soul. So listen to some Righteous Brothers now or rewatch Top Gun, your choice.)

So the long-term inspiration for this blog stems deep, from my childhood love of movies and librarians. But there is another, more specific inspiration for connecting the two, to seek out and analyze reel librarians specifically.

This came in the form of the July 1997 issue of the now-defunct print version of Movieline magazine. Movieline is now online, but back then, it was a treat to be able to go to the nearest Hastings store and grab my own copy, in person. I still own this July 1997 copy — ok, definitely feeling older now — and it is well-worn and loved. Seriously, almost every article in this issue is top-notch, and the writing sharp just like I like it.

Movieline inspiration, my own copy of the July 1997 magazine issue
Movieline inspiration, my own copy of the July 1997 magazine issue

And the star article in that issue for me is “The Drilling Fields: An Oral History of Hollywood’s Unfair Depiction of a Tragically Downtrodden Minority — Dentists” by Joe Queenan. Queenan goes through a history of dentists onscreen in leading roles, beginning with the 1925 film Greed, directed by Erich von Stroheim, which “introduced two themes that would characterize dental films for the rest of the century. One, dentists are butchers. Two, dentists are always looking to cop a feel.”

The article has many more delicious bon mots like that, including:

“Ask the average person to name a movie about doctors and he’ll probably cite something epic like Doctor Zhivago. Ask the average person to name a movie about dentists, and he’ll almost certainly cite Marathon Man, in which a completely over-the-top Laurence Olivier plays a fiendish Nazi who uses macabre dental techniques to extract information from bug-eyed Dustin Hoffman, the archetypal reluctant patient. Anyone who has seen the film will agree that Olivier’s hair-raising performance is not fair to dentists. It may not even be fair to Nazis.”

Just substitute It’s a Wonderful Life for Marathon Man up there, and you’ve pretty much got the picture for reel librarians. Except the bit about torture, of course. 😉

Reel dentists article, from my own copy of the magazine
Reel dentists article, from my own copy of the magazine

So after I first read this article and stopped chuckling over Queenan’s irresistible mix of smarty-pants film analysis and interesting trivia, I couldn’t help thinking…. wouldn’t this be so fun to do for librarians?!

And I’ve been having fun ever since.


Sources used:


  • Queenan, Joe. “The Drilling Fields: An Oral History of Hollywood’s Unfair Depiction of a Tragically Downtrodden Minority — Dentists.” Movieline, July 1997.

Whaddya mean, you’re a librarian?

Few films mention the education required for librarians.

In the film history of librarians, anyone who works in a library is deemed a librarian. I confess to doing the same for the purposes of this web site, even when the characters are not technically — or the audience has no way of knowing if they are — librarians. Sometimes, a character will make a distinction between librarians and library workers, as in Party Girl (one of my favorite librarian movies!), but that is the exception, not the rule.

Partygirl.WMV” video uploaded by deanxavier is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Above is a clip, with transcript below, from a library scene between Mary (Parker Posey) and her godmother, Judy (Sasha von Scherler), a public librarian:

Judy: I lost two dedicated clerks last month because I couldn’t afford to pay them a competitive wage. They make more money at McDonald’s. You… no, a girl like you couldn’t —

Mary: What do you mean, a girl like me? … You think I couldn’t be a librarian?

Judy: Darling, a librarian is a professional with a master’s degree in library science. Even a clerk, who merely shelves and stamps —

Mary: You think I couldn’t be a library clerk? …

Judy: A library clerk is smart, responsible —

Mary: You don’t think I’m smart enough to work in your fucking library?

Judy: I think nothing of the sort.  … Fine, you can start right now!

Mary:  Fine! I will. Great.

Typically, the term “librarian” is rarely said out loud in movies — most likely because of time — and in most films, there is really no need to verbally identify the librarians. Standing or sitting behind a counter or desk, shelving books, or pushing a cart is quite enough to establish a reel librarian.

Few films mention the education required for librarians. Again, Party Girl (1995) is an exception! There is a wonderful scene toward the end where Mary and her co-workers discuss the value of different library science degree programs. There is also a scene in the film, shown below, that highlights the 19th century qualifications for a “lady librarian”:

Party Girl: Mary Gets Fired” video uploaded by HackerX5 is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Major League (1989) includes a subplot about veteran ballplayer Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) trying to woo back his ex-wife, athlete-turned-librarian Lynn Wells (Rene Russo). This scrap of info about her education comes in the scene where he runs into her at a restaurant:

Lynn:  Jake? How’d you know I was here?

Jake:  Oh, just a hunch. I took you there when you got your master’s degree, remember?

A few other films also mention education specific to librarians. In The War of the Worlds (1953), Sylvia Van Buren (played by Ann Robinson) teaches library science courses, and the main character in Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941) almost quits her teaching position to take a college librarian course in New York. In Desk Set (1957), head librarian Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn) mentions taking a few college courses in her interview with efficiency expert Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy). Miss Watson more than earns Mr. Sumner’s respect — and ours! [The battle-between-the-sexes witticisms begin flying about a minute into the clip below].

Desk Set 1957 Part 4” video uploaded by angeloflove is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Sources used:


  • Cheers for Miss Bishop. Dir. Tay Garnett. Perf. Martha Scott, William Gargan, Edmund Gwenn. United Artists, 1941.
  • Desk Set. Dir. Walter Lang. Perf. Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Gig Young, Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill. 20th Century Fox, 1957.
  • Major League. Dir. David S. Ward. Perf. Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen, Rene Russo. Paramount, 1989.
  • Party Girl. Dir. Daisy von Scherler Mayer. Perf. Parker Posey, Sasha von Scherler, Guillermo Diaz, Liev Schreiber. First Look, 1995.
  • The War of the Worlds. Dir. Bryon Haskin. Perf. Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite. Paramount, 1953.

‘It’s a wonderful’… stereotype?

“You’re not going to like it, George. She’s an old maid. She’s just about to close up the library!”

It’s a wonderful movie, truly. It’s a Wonderful Life. One of my personal favorites, actually. And a personal favorite for many, especially as a TV staple at Christmas, thanks to its lapsed copyright in 1974 (although that was successfully challenged in 1993). The director, Frank Capra, is in top form, as is James Stewart, who displays devastating depth as George Bailey, an ordinary man who aches to be extraordinary. Both deservedly earned Oscar nominations, out of 5 total, including Best Picture.

In the film’s nightmarish second half, George gets a rare second chance to see how life would have been without his presence — a concept that’s been seen time and time again, but it still feels fresh and raw every time I rewatch this movie. And I still find tears in my eyes toward the end when everyone chips in to save good ol’ George Bailey, and when James Stewart whispers, “Attaboy, Clarence” and winks after the bell rings on the Christmas tree. Oh, who am I kidding?! I’m tearing up right now even typing about it!

But…. how do you solve a problem like Mary?

Mary is George’s wife and one true love, played with intelligence and warmth by Donna Reed. We see lots of her in the film’s first half, through childhood adventures and young adulthood until George finally realizes he’s in love with her. Throughout these scenes, she is quite lovely and open and trusting and displays a great sense of humor. She is his equal in every way. And she MUST be believable as his one true love in order for the second half of the film to work, because what she becomes is the straw that finally breaks George. Throughout the nightmare he witnesses in the second half — his brother dying, his mother withdrawing into a bitter old woman — it is the scene with his wife that finally gets to him, that breaks him.

And what does Mary become if George is out of the picture? A Spinster Librarian! Sigh.

Her scene as the Spinster Librarian is only about 30 seconds long, but that image continues to haunt librarians. Just look at the physical before-and-after:

Screenshot of Mary (Donna Reed) in 'It's a Wonderful Life' (1946)
Mary in the first half of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946). This screenshot from the film is in the public domain.
Mary as the Spinster Librarian in 'It's a Wonderful Life' (1946)
Mary as the Spinster Librarian in the second half of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946). This screenshot from the film is in the public domain.

In the first half, she looks lovely. Modern hairstyle, flattering clothing, fresh and clean. But without George, she suddenly loses her sense of style?! Glasses, sensible clothes, hat, hair pulled back, gloves, no makeup. She is so covered up, almost hiding, with the hat and the gloves and the buttoned-up clothes. This image is the stereotypical prototype for all Spinster Librarians. This does make sense, as the Spinster Librarian is one of the character types that heavily rely on stereotypical visual cues:  the severe hairstyle, glasses, and prim clothing.

But worse than that is the change in Mary’s personality. In the first half, she is warm and funny and sweet. In the second half, she has become shy, furtive, non-trusting, and scared of men. A typical Spinster Librarian, right? (Sigh.) Mary clutches her purse, and finally screams and faints when he declares her to be his wife.

Clarence telegraphs the change in Mary:  “You’re not going to like it, George. She’s an old maid. She’s just about to close up the library!”

Clarence…Where’s Mary?” video, uploaded by plurp7, is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

What’s so disturbing about this scene — again, only about 30 seconds long! — is the uncomfortable undertones of this scene (at least for librarians). That without men in our lives, the ultimate nightmare for women is… to become “old maid” librarians?! That if we get married, we are spared from this oh-so-terrible fate? Again, sigh.

I know this scene is taken to extremes for the sake of the plot. George is near breaking point, and he needs a shock to get him to appreciate life again. And Mary becoming an “old maid” highlights the point that they are each other’s true loves — that without the other, they are not truly whole. Plot-wise, this scene makes sense. But emotionally, as a librarian, it is hard to swallow.

So this movie will continue to be a personal favorite — but a personal favorite with an asterisk.


Sources used:


  • It’s a Wonderful Life. Dir. Frank Capra. Perf. James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers. RKO, 1946.