The 1941 film Cheers for Miss Bishop follows the story of Miss Bishop, a college English teacher, as she reflects on her life living and teaching in one small town.
The write-up on the back of the case reveals most of the plot:
Tomboy Ella Bishop has blossomed into a smart, sophisticated woman… From a rocky start as a young school teacher to the unexpected adoption of an abandoned child, and finally as the venerated old maid who has inspired scores of her students to achieve greatness, Miss Bishop deserves three cheers!
The film plays like it aspires to be a female version of the 1939 classic Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Martha Scott plays the title role, from a young woman through middle age to a “venerated old maid.” We first meet Miss Bishop — yes, an educated woman who never marries — when she is an old woman, as seen below. She says to her old friend, Sam (William Gargan) that “looking backward [is a] great waste of time.” Perhaps not the most encouraging way to begin a biopic… 😉
As a young woman eagerly starting college at the new Midwestern University — graduating as valedictorian in the early 1880s — Ella Bishop’s character is quickly established through this exchange of two admirers:
There’s not another girl in the class that can touch her.
There’s not another girl in the whole world that can touch her.
Ella herself seems quite confident that education will NOT be her entire life, with these early statements:
You don’t think I’m going to spend all my life teaching, do you?”
And don’t worry, I won’t be an old maid. I’ll know when the right man comes along. But now… there’s so much to do.
The DVD cover tries to stir up more drama than is evident in the film with the tagline, “The woman they whispered about…” and the odd central photo of Ella Bishop embracing an older man, as seen below. But it is obvious that when compared to her silly, boy-crazy cousin Amy, Miss Bishop is portrayed in the film as a good girl.
After graduating, the college president Corcoran (Edmund Gwenn) offers Miss Bishop a teaching position at Midwestern to teach Freshman English; her first year of teaching is 1884. Her first year does get off to a shaky start, as when her first student enters the classroom and mistakes her for a fellow student, asking if the teacher has come yet! Also in that first class, she asks her pupils to write a brief essay about their life’s ambitions.
One student, Minna Fields (the cinematic debut of Rosemary DeCamp), nervously recites her speech, “Except to get learning, I ain’t got no special life’s ambition, yet.” In the very next scene, 15 minutes into the film, Miss Bishop advises Minna to be a librarian! Coming right after Minna’s statement that she “ain’t got no special life’s ambition,” this suggestion doesn’t come across as very encouraging!
Miss Bishop: It just occurred to me that with that amazing memory of yours, you might be interested in the librarian’s course. It would be an interesting job, wouldn’t it, Minna?
Minna: Oh yes, Miss Bishop. But… I have got a life’s ambition now. It’s to be just like you.
So that’s one potential reel librarian down.
Later, Miss Bishop defends Minna in a meeting whether or not to expel her because of a plagiarism charge — but it was a misunderstanding due to Minna’s “amazing memory” mentioned earlier. (By the way, we later find out that the student, Minna, became a “world-famous historian” instead!)
In a scene almost 40 minutes in, Miss Bishop has endured heartbreak in her personal life — her fiance jilted her for her boy-crazy cousin Amy — so she writes a letter to President Corcoran that she’s leaving for New York to become a librarian. However, he convinces her not to go!
President Corcoran: I’ve just received your letter.
Miss Bishop: I thought it easier to write. You see, Mother and I are going to New York, President Corcoran. It’s an assistant librarian’s position.
President Corcoran: Oh I see. Of course, It is a hard job, teaching. It never pays much, and lots of the time it’s a headache, wondering if it’s worthwhile…. You’ve got it, Ella, that magic touch that makes young minds open up and flourish. Of course, Midwestern must accept your resignation. But are you sure your New York public library needs you as much as [we do] here in Midwestern?
So there’s another potential reel librarian down the drain!
It is interesting that the film mentions a college librarian course, especially set in the year 1884. This minor plot point — promoting a librarian course for women at a midwestern college in the early 1880s — is stretching history a little. Because it wasn’t until 1887 that Melvil Dewey, often referred to in the U.S. as the “Father of Modern Librarianship,” founded the world’s first library school at Columbia College, now Columbia University in New York (after first proposing the idea in 1883). Dewey also insisted on admitting women as students — against the college’s Regents’ wishes — resulting in 17 female students enrolled in the program that first year. He also helped found the American Library Association, the oldest international library association, in 1876. You can read more about the history of library science education in the U.S. in this article, “History of American Library Science: Its Origins and Early Development,” by John V. Richardson, Jr.
So although this film highlights librarianship and library education — a rarity in cinema! — Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941) ends up in the Class V category, as there are no actual reel librarians. I’m a little bit relieved, as Miss Bishop — who DOES become an “old maid” — would definitely have been a stereotypical portrayal.
And what did we learn about desired qualifications or motivations for pursuing a “librarian’s course” or librarian position? Based on this film, you need to either (a) have a good memory, or (b) be unlucky in love.
I’m one for two. 😉
- “About Melvil Dewey (1851-1931).” Library of Congress, n.d.
- Cheers for Miss Bishop. Dir. Tay Garnett. Perf. Martha Scott, William Gargan, Edmund Gwenn. United Artists, 1941.
- Richardson, John V. “History of American Library Science: Its Origins and Early Development.” Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, 3rd ed. Taylor & Francis, 2010.