A closer look at the reel librarians in the original Ghostbusters

I have written about 1984’s Ghostbusters in bits and pieces before on the blog, including a “Who you gonna call?” post delving into the Librarian Ghost, as well as a “Repeat offenders” post highlighting John Rothman and his penchant for playing insensitive librarians in the early ’80s, including Ghostbusters. The comedy classic was also on the original list of reel librarians films I watched for my original undergraduate thesis, as well as on my list of best librarian films by decade.

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.

Reel Librarians | One of the "Library Lion" statues at the New York Public Library, opening shot of 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

One of the “Library Lion” statues at the New York Public Library, opening shot of ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

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!

Reel Librarians | Opening shot of Alice the librarian in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

Opening shot of Alice the librarian in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

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.)

Reel Librarians | Paranormal activity in the library card catalog, in the opening scene from 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

Paranormal activity in the library card catalog, in the opening scene from ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

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!

Reel Librarians | Reel librarian screams in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

Reel librarian screams in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

You can see a clip from the opening scene here:

Ghostbusters Library Index Card and Entrance Theme,” uploaded by Dan Baierl, Standard YouTube license

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:

Reel Librarians | First glance at the library administrator in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

First glance at the library administrator in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

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.

Reel Librarians | Meet cute between the library administrator and the Ghostbusters

Meet cute between the library administrator and the Ghostbusters

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.

Reel Librarians | Not a meet-cute between the scared librarian and the Ghostbusters

Not a meet-cute between the scared librarian and the Ghostbusters

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.

Reel Librarians | The library administrator gets the jitters in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

The library administrator gets the jitters in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

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!

Reel Librarians | Paranormal book-stacking in a library scene from 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

Paranormal book-stacking in a library scene from ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

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)

Reel Librarians | A library bookcase falls -- by accident! -- in a library scene from 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

A library bookcase falls — by accident! — in a library scene from ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

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!)

Reel Librarians | The library ghost in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

The library ghost in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

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.

WHAT?!

Reel Librarians | The library administrator freaks out, at the end of the library scene in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

The library administrator freaks out, at the end of the library scene in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

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:

I previously identified Alice as fulfilling the dual roles of the Spinster Librarian character type, as well as the Comic Relief character type.

Her Spinster Librarian role is reflected in:

  • Her conservative, buttoned-up clothing
  • Uptight demeanor, as shown in the first shot, turning into timid/meek personality, after being scared by the librarian ghost
  • Rule-monger who is horrified first by the mess made by the spilling of library cards in the card catalog
  • Her sexual undesirability, or at least de-emphasis on her femininity, as revealed through the menstruation question and her horrified (and speechless) reaction to it

In my post about Comic Relief librarians, I wrote:

“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!

Reel Librarians | The many facial expressions from Alice the librarian in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

The many facial expressions from Alice the librarian in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

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.)
Reel Librarians | The varied facial expressions of the library ghost in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

The varied facial expressions of the library ghost in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

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:

  • Conservative clothing
  • Poor social skills
  • Elitist—rates the library and its rules above the public
Reel Librarians | The main facial expression from the library administrator in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

The main facial expression from the library administrator in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

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.

Hmmm… I think I should add him to either my Hall of Shame or Dishonorable Mention lists…

The role of research

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.

Side note:  Y’all know I looked up those titles, right? Although they were invented for the film, making Wikipedia’s List of Fictional Guidebooks, each title does play a role in subsequent Ghostbusters-related series and games. Each title — as well as the book Dr. Spengler wrote later on, Spengler’s Spirit Guide — is detailed in the Ghostbusters Wikia site. See here for the entry on Tobin’s Spirit Guide, here for the entry on Spates Catalog, and here for the entry on the Roylance Guide. Also, Ghostbusters: Tobin’s Spirit Guide was published last year, as a guide for the original movies, as well as the “expanded Ghostbusters universe, delving into supernatural phenomena from the comics, animated shows, video games, and other aspects of the franchise.”

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.

Ray Parker Jr. – Ghostbusters,” uploaded by RayParkerJuniorVEVO, Standard YouTube license

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! 🙂

 

Reader poll write-up: Teenage Mother

Teenage Mother (1967) won the recent reader poll, squeaking past at the last minute due to my husband’s shameless promotion. He gets the credit blame for this post, as he wanted to watch ME watching this film, just for my reactions. I had some. 😉

My DVD copy of this film is from Something Weird Video in Seattle, with a “special edition” DVD. Something Weird promotes itself as “the very best in exploitation cinema,” and that rings true for Teenage Mother. The back of the DVD case has Handsome Harry Archer’s complete review of Teenage Mother, which opens with stating it as a “textbook example of classic old-school exploitation.” The film was directed by Jerry Gross, who would later direct the cult classic I Spit on Your Grave.

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

Reel Librarians | DVD case for 'Teenage Mother' (1967)

DVD case for ‘Teenage Mother’ (1967)

The basics

Here’s the basic plot, such as it is:  A new health teacher is hired to teach sex education in a high school and gets blamed when a student turns up pregnant. Except the student isn’t actually pregnant. She just told her boyfriend that so that he wouldn’t leave her and go off to medical school. Winners, all. And there’s footage of a live birth at the end. And an extended musical interlude in the middle. Cue the sweet anticipation!

As my husband said:

When you have a 70-minute film and only 40 minutes worth of plot, you HAVE to fill it with musical interludes and a live birth at the end!

To be clear, this movie is NOT good. It is bad. I knew it would be bad. But the question in my mind was this:  Was it SO bad that it would turn out to be awesomely bad? Unfortunately, NO. But as my husband quipped:

It’s the kind of bad that almost feels like a cultural moment.

The film starts off with footage of a stock-car race. Because WHY NOT.

Reel Librarians | Title screen from 'Teenage Mother' (1967)

Title screen from ‘Teenage Mother’ (1967)

Introducing the books and the school librarian

Fifteen minutes into the film, the coach gets to introduce the new health teacher, Miss Erika Petersen (Julie Ange), who dives straight into the required and supplemental texts for the new “anatomical biology” course.

Fun fact:  This film was the film debut of Fred Willard, who plays the coach!

Reel Librarians | Miss Petersen introduces the two textbooks for the new sex education class, in 'Teenage Mother' (1967)

Miss Petersen introduces the two textbooks for the new sex education class, in ‘Teenage Mother’ (1967)

Miss Petersen:  Two texts are required reading for this course. The first, Moreline’s (?) Basics in Human Anatomy is the best for our line of work. In fact, most colleges use it today. This will be supplemented by Caracola’s (?) Adult Sexual Behavior. Both of these books have been ordered, and we should have them for you early next week.

Miss Petersen:  If any of you would like to do additional reading on this subject, I strongly recommend Saucer’s (?) Male and Female. I’m sure your school library has a copy available.

Tony [a student]:  I’ve already checked the library, and Miss Fowler, the librarian, told me it wasn’t available.

Miss Petersen:  That’s very interesting, Tony. I didn’t know you knew of this book.

Tony:  Well, I’d like to become a doctor. In fact, our family physician Dr. Wilson told me to read this book last year.

Miss Petersen:  And Miss Fowler didn’t know of the book? Well, it’s fairly recent. Perhaps she didn’t notice it in the book publisher’s catalog.

Tony:  She knew of it. She said it was indecent for our library.

[classroom erupts in laughter]

Miss Petersen:  Nonsense. At least 90% of all colleges and universities have this book in their libraries, and as many as 50% of all high schools. I’ll discuss this matter personally with Miss Fowler.

The bell rings, ending this scene after a couple of minutes.

Editor’s note: There were no captions available, and the actress’s “European” accent (dubbed?) makes it hard to understand the authors’ names she was saying, which explains why I put in question marks beside names in the quotations above. I couldn’t find any record of the first two books she mentions in this scene. Also, in the scene above and in the later scene with the school librarian, Miss Petersen clearly states the supplementary book, Male and Female, is by an author whose last name sounds like “Saucer” and that it has been newly published. I searched WorldCat — ’cause y’all know I would, right?! — but could not find any book published by that title in the late ’60s by an author with a similar last name. There was, however, a well-known text in this field, Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World, written and published in 1949 by Margaret Mead. And interestingly, there was another edition of this book published by Penguin in 1967, the same year of this film. So why use the same title but change the author? Just another question among many when it comes to this movie!

School library scene

At almost half an hour into the film, we get the library scene. It’s a very short scene, lasting a minute or less. But it is memorable. I have also nicknamed the school librarian “Fowler the Scowler,” as you shall soon see why.

Reel Librarians | School library and librarian in 'Teenage Mother' (1967)

School library and librarian in ‘Teenage Mother’ (1967)

The scene begins with a wide shot of the school library — the film was filmed at East Rockaway High School in Long Island, so I assume this was also their school library — and the school librarian (an uncredited role) is checking in or filing cards in card catalog drawers. The school library is (surprisingly?) filled with lots of students and lots of books.

Miss Petersen walks in, and they make nice for about 5 seconds.

Reel Librarians | The school librarian and the new health teacher meet in 'Teenage Mother' (1967)

The school librarian and the new health teacher meet in ‘Teenage Mother’ (1967)

Miss Petersen:  Good morning, Miss Fowler.

Miss Fowler:  Good morning, Miss Petersen. Can I be of some assistance?

Miss Petersen:  Yes, one of my students, maybe you know him, Tony Michaels. He told me he was unable to find Saucer’s Male and Female on file here. You do have the book, don’t you?

Miss Fowler:  Most certainly not.

Miss Petersen:  Why not, Miss Fowler? It’s one of the most standard texts on anatomical hygiene.

Miss Fowler:  It’s a filthy book.

This outburst and Miss Fowler’s high-pitched exclamation catch the attention of nearby students! Miss Fowler clears her throat.

Reel Librarians | A startled student in the school library in 'Teenage Mother' (1967)

A startled student in the school library in ‘Teenage Mother’ (1967)

Miss Petersen:  Filthy?

Miss Fowler [in a lower voice]:  Yes, filthy! I wouldn’t allow one of our students to even leaf through it. The illustrations are positively vulgar.

Miss Petersen:  They only show the beauty of the human body.

Miss Fowler:  Teenage children are not meant to see such things.

Miss Petersen:  That’s just the point. These youngsters are not children any longer. Their bodies are the bodies of young adults, with all the needs and desires of young adults.

Miss Fowler:  I wouldn’t know about that. [turns her head and looks down, rapidly blinking her eyelids]

Reel Librarians | Librarian closeup from 'Teenage Mother' (1967)

Miss Petersen:  Apparently not. These young people have the right to know about the facts of life. which you say they cannot read. This is a free country, Miss Fowler.

Miss Fowler:  That book has never appeared in this library and never will, as long as I’m here.

Miss Petersen:  Let’s hope that’s not too long.

“Fowler the Scowler” then adjusts her glasses and goes back to filing her cards, an even more pinched look on her face. She ends as she begins the scene, as an uptight, sexually repressed librarian whose mind is closed to new ideas. An uplifting cinematic message for all librarians. 😦

Reel Librarians | The school librarian goes back to filing cards in 'Teenage Mother' (1967)

The school librarian goes back to filing cards in ‘Teenage Mother’ (1967)

I put together a collage of facial expressions to illustrate the reason for my “Fowler the Scowler” nickname of this school librarian:

Reel Librarians | Collage of 'Fowler the Scowler' from 'Teenage Mother' (1967)

Collage of ‘Fowler the Scowler’ from ‘Teenage Mother’ (1967)

Town meeting and attempted censorship

The rest of the film delves into the Tony’s relationship with his girlfriend, Arlene Taylor (played by a real-life Arlene, Arlene Farber), the one who lies about being pregnant in order to trap her boyfriend. She attempts to run away, and her friend confesses the (fake) secret pregnancy to Arlene’s dad, who somehow has the clout to call an immediate “town meeting” at the high school in order to get Miss Petersen fired.

Here’s one memorable line from the town meeting scene, in which the principal defends his decision to hire Miss Petersen:

If your daughter became pregnant, it wasn’t because of anything she read in a book.

Oddly, “Fowler the Scowler” is NOT at that meeting, which I found disappointing. A missed opportunity! In my head, it would have been an awesome ending to have Miss Fowler also join the attempt to get Miss Petersen fired — and then the reverse happens! It would close the loop on Miss Petersen’s final words in the library scene, that she hopes it’s “not too long” before Miss Fowler is gone.

And that’s what this film does:  It makes a real-life librarian root AGAINST a reel librarian. 

In the excellent and thorough reference book on reel librarians, The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999, which I reviewed here in this post, the Tevises sum up the censorship message of the film and the ultimate contrast and conflicting messages of the school principal and the school librarian:

Teenage Mother is one of the few films that confronts the topic of sex education materials in secondary schools. Although the principal of the school is progressive, the librarian scorns the value of sex education. Without the support of the librarian, whose responsibility includes obtaining the appropriate learning materials to support instruction and student research, the program’s success is problematical. The film depicts the librarian as the high school’s moral watchdog who uses her power to censor library materials. (p. 122)

Spinster Librarian role

So what role does Miss Fowler play in this film? I would say most definitely the Spinster Librarian character type, with her uptight manner and closed-minded outlook on collection development. The midpoint of her conversation with Miss Petersen — the self-confession of “I wouldn’t know about that” in response to the health teacher’s remark about the body’s “needs and desires” — clinches the deal.

Also, all of the stereotypical physical traits are there:  an older white woman, hair pulled back in a bun, glasses on a lanyard, high-necked blouse, etc. Even though her time onscreen is short, “Fowler the Scowler” is memorable, landing her librarian role and film in the Class III category.

The 30 seconds of “Fowler the Scowler” in Teenage Mother almost rival the 30 seconds of Spinster Librarian infamy in the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life.

Final review and trailer

Here’s an excerpt from Ian Jane’s DVD Talk review of the film:

Preaching to its audience from a fairly lofty perch, the picture purports to deliver a social message about why kids should abstain or at the very least play it safe, but it’s been made so cheaply and marketed with such a sleazy, hyper-sexualized marketing campaign (be sure to watch the trailer which completely misrepresents the film in every way possible) that all of that gets thrown aside. Why? Because it’s obvious that all of this build up and moralizing was simply an excuse to bust out some really graphic footage of a baby popping its way out of some gooey female genitalia.

And finally, I’ve linked to that spectacularly misleading trailer below. I usually like to begin a film analysis post with a trailer, but this trailer needs to come AFTER the film, not before. Also, this trailer IS graphic — as it warns, it includes footage of the live-birth scene from the end of Teenage Mother.

Teenage Mother (1967) Trailer,” uploaded on April 18, 2016, by Vulture Graffix, is licensed under a CC BY license.

Revisiting ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

As we get closer to Christmas, I thought it would be good timing to revisit one of the first posts I ever wrote on the Reel Librarians blog, a post analyzing the 1946 Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.

Screenshot from 'It's a Wonderful... Stereotype?' post on Reel Librarians

Screenshot from ‘It’s a Wonderful… Stereotype?’ post on Reel Librarians

My post, entitled “It’s a Wonderful… Stereotype?” was first posted on Sept. 21, 2011. I have reprinted it below in its entirety. Enjoy!


It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s a wonderful movie, truly. 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 worthy of his love and 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.

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:

Mary in the movie’s first half

Mary in the movie’s second half, as the Spinster Librarian

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!”

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.

Shushing Meryl Streep in ‘Ironweed’

Movie poster for Ironweed

Movie poster for ‘Ironweed,’ The Paramount Vault

As I mentioned last week, the Paramount Vault YouTube channel features select full-length films, including Ironweed (1987), which includes a short library scene. I immediately set to watching Ironweed — you can view the entire film here — and taking more notes for this analysis post.

Set in 1938, the film is based on the novel by William Kennedy (who also wrote the screenplay) and features Jack Nicholson, a homeless drifter, who returns to his home town and meets up with an ex-radio singer, played by Meryl Streep, who is ill and homeless. Both Nicholson and Streep were Oscar-nominated for their lead roles in this film. It is also interested to note that Nicholson currently holds the record for most Oscar nominations for an actor, while Streep currently holds the record for most Oscar nominations for an actress, as well as the most Oscar nominations for any actor or actress, period.

The library scene occurs almost exactly halfway through the 2-hour-and-23-minute running time of the film. The interior of the library scene, according to the IMDb.com filming locations trivia, was filmed on the second floor of the Troy Public Library in Troy, New York. (See more pics and read more about the library here in this ‘All Over Albany’ post, which also links the library setting to the Ironweed film.)

Here is the info about the librarian and library scene from reel librarian researcher Martin Raish’s site Librarians in the Movie: An Annotated Filmography. Raish characterizes the librarian’s behavior in Ironweed as welcoming and nice, as evidenced in the sentence, “A librarian… very nicely, tells her she is welcome to use the library.”

Ironweed info from Martin Raish website

‘Ironweed’ info from Martin Raish website

This makes it seem as if the librarian, played by Bethel Leslie, is quite friendly, but a little more is revealed as you watch the remainder of the two-minute library scene.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Ironweed' (1987)

Opening shot of the library scene in ‘Ironweed’ (1987)

Meryl Streep, as Helen Archer, is sleeping in the library beside the fireplace. The librarian comes over and hands her a Life magazine. She tells her, “My dear. You may stay as long as you read. I don’t allow sleeping.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Ironweed' (1987)

The librarian wakes up Helen and hands her a magazine to read.

The librarian is middle-aged-to-older (her lack of makeup and dowdy clues make her seem older), with greying, marcelled hair pulled back at the nape. She is dressed in earth tones and very conservatively, in a long cardigan sweater and long tweed skirt. What appears to be a watch charm or pendant hangs on a long chain from her neck.

As Helen tries to save face by saying, “I wasn’t sleeping. I was waiting for the fire, to die there,” the librarian smiles and pats her on the shoulder. One could see that as a friendly gesture, but it could also be viewed as condescending, as well. Perhaps it is both friendly and condescending? Or perhaps just pitying?

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Ironweed' (1987)

The librarian walks away in ‘Ironweed’ (1987)

As the librarian walks away, stepping quietly in her sensible brown heels, a smartly dressed woman looks over. She recognizes Helen and comes over, introducing herself as Nora Lawlor. The woman says she hasn’t seen Helen in twenty years and that she used to hear her on the radio but lost track. Helen says she toured abroad for several years, and Nora responds by saying how much she envies her.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Ironweed' (1987)

Nora Lawlor in ‘Ironweed’ (1987)

As Helen gets up to leave, Nora states she has seen Helen’s brother in church last week. This is a trigger point, as this information immediately riles up Helen, who declares her brother a hypocrite. She then begins shouting that he and her mother cheated her out her inheritance. Not five seconds go by before the librarian is back and shushing Helen.

[Side note:  How awesome would it be to be able to say, “I got to shush Meryl Streep in a movie!” Ah, the benefits of portraying a reel librarian. 😉 ]

The librarian again puts her hand on Helen’s arm — the same hand that patted Helen’s arm and shoulder not one minute beforehand — and this time, the gesture is not so kindly. She states firmly, “I’m sorry, but you have to leave. You’re making MUCH too much noise,” as she propels Helen toward the door.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Ironweed' (1987)

The librarian ejects Helen from the library for making too much noise, in ‘Ironweed’ (1987)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Ironweed' (1987)

Helen leaves the library in ‘Ironweed’ (1987)

Although a very short scene, I have classified the library scene in Ironweed in the Class III category. In my opinion, the reel librarian serves as both a Spinster Librarian and as Information Provider. It is significant that in the first part of the library scene, she states, “I don’t allow sleeping.” I, not we. She personally embodies the rules of the library, and by extension, the rules of society. And in the latter part of the library scene, the arm that gently awakened Helen out of her slumbers is the same arm that forcibly ejects her out of the library one minute later. The librarian will brook no behavior that falls outside the narrow confines of her safe and secure walls. She exhibits the uptight nature and rule-mongering of the Spinster Librarian character type, along with the conservative clothing and hairstyle. The reel librarian in Ironweed also provides information about the library to both Helen and the audience.

In the next scene, Helen is drowning her sorrows in a glass of wine, still shouting, “Thieves!” at random intervals. The immediate cut from the dark-paneled walls of a library to the dark-paneled walls of a bar is a jarring juxtaposition, to be sure; both locales serve as places of safety and security, in their own, different ways.

And no one at the bar tells Helen to leave or to be quiet.

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

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! 🙂

Poster for 'The Philadelphia Story' (1940)

Poster for ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)

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!).

Reel Librarians | 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.

Reel Librarians | 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 is thee wish?

Mike:  I’m looking for some local books… what’d you say?

Librarian:  What is 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.

Reel Librarians | The shushing librarian in 'The Philadelphia Story' (1940)

The shushing librarian in ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)

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.

Reel Librarians | Library scene in 'The Philadelphia Story' (1940)

Library scene in ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)

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 and 1:00) are included in the “Funny Library Clips” video below, compiled by Greene County Library.

Funny Library Clips,” uploaded by Greene County Public Library on Dec. 9, 2011. Standard YouTube license.

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