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! 🙂

 

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First impressions: ‘Hidden Figures’ and its library scene

I recently watched the Best Picture-nominated film Hidden Figures, which is a biographical film featuring three African-American female mathematicians — or “computers” — at NASA during the early 1960s. The film sheds lights on their individual and collective struggles to earn personal and professional respect, both as women and as African-Americans in a field dominated with white males. The three female leads all deliver top-notch performances:  Taraji P. Henson as brilliant mathematician Katherine G. Johnson; Octavia Spencer in an Oscar-nominated performance as mathematician and computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan; and Janelle Monáe as firecracker engineer Mary Jackson.

Here’s an official trailer for Hidden Figures:

Hidden Figures | Official Trailer [HD] | 20th Century FOX,” uploaded by 20th Century Fox, Nov. 16, 2016, Standard YouTube license.

Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson all accomplished firsts during their lives:  Johnson became the first African-American woman to desegregate the graduate school at West Virginia University; Vaughan became the first African-American woman to supervise a staff at NASA; and Jackson became the first African-American female engineer at NASA.

Based on the non-fiction book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly, it is an inspiring story of “hidden figures” finally being publicly recognized for their amazing contributions and talents and intelligence. These are stories of American heroes that need to be shared and experienced.

For more information on the real-life “hidden figures,” please read this insightful and informative NPR article and interview on ‘Hidden Figures’: How Black Women Did The Math That Put Men On The Moon.

First impressions of the film? It is excellent on all fronts; the film does justice to the legacies of the real-life women it’s based on. Highly recommended! It is also a very well-structured film, although some dates were switched around and characters merged to simplify the story and increase the drama. You can read more about the historical accuracy here and additional trivia here on IMDb.com. The film is also Oscar-nominated for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay. Hidden Figures has also become the highest-grossing film thus far of the Best Picture nominees.

There is a pivotal library scene, clocking in around 2/3 of the way through the film, if I am remembering correctly. Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) visits the local public library to look at computer programming books in the library’s “white” section because what she’s looking for isn’t available in the library’s “colored” section. A reel librarian (Rhoda Griffis as “White Librarian,” how the character is listed in the credits) tells her she doesn’t “want any trouble” and has Vaughan thrown out of the library. When Vaughan and her two boys are back on the bus, she pulls out a library book out from underneath her coat, a book on the Fortran programming language. Her sons are aghast — and I, too, let out an audible gasp in the movie theater! — but Vaughan’s defiant reaction is, “I pay my taxes for this library just like everybody else!

Here’s how a review on the “Library” Books blog sums up the importance of this scene and what it sets in motion:

She [Vaughan] uses the book to secretly learn to program the new room-sized IBM mainframe computer that has recently arrived at NASA that will surely put her and many of her denizens out of a job. By learning the computer language she not changes her own destiny, but that of dozens of other women, both black and white, who work for the space program. This episode is one of many in the film that reminds us that what is legal is not necessarily right, and what is illegal is not necessarily wrong. Powerful lessons that are still relevant today.

Here’s another trailer for the film that includes a peek at the library scene at 1:45 minutes into the trailer:

Hidden Figures Official Trailer #1 (2017) Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe Drama Movie HD,” uploaded by Zero Media, Aug. 14, 2016, Standard YouTube license.

While Vaughan visited the public library to seek out more up-to-date materials, it is another book — this time, an older book — that provides the solution to another pivotal plot point. When Katherine Johnson is stuck in figuring out a key mathematical conversion to help bring a rocket back down safely, she is inspired to use “old math” for the solution. So she goes straight to the “Colored Computers” area, where there is a bookcase filled with older, hand-me-down books — and finds exactly what she needs! What is old is new again.

I will need to rewatch the movie in order to delve deeper into the library scene and the role that books and research play in the film, but it’s pretty obvious to me that the “White Librarian” character serves the role of Information Provider. She is there not to provide information to any characters, but rather to reflect the societal rules that were in place to unjustly segregate citizens. Her reel librarian character echoes the “That’s just the way things are” barriers of the time period, barriers that were starting to crack, brick by brick and book by book.

Have you seen Hidden Figures? What are your thoughts on the film and/or its library scene? Please leave a comment and share!

A disappearing reel librarian

I had heard good things about the 2014 film The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, when it premiered two different versions, Him and Her, at the Toronto Film Festival. I was intrigued by the concept: the two versions of the film reflect different perspectives of a married couple, played by the always excellent Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy, as they struggle to cope emotionally after a traumatic experience. The writer/director, Ned Benson, then did a third version (!) combining the two perspectives, entitled Them. I had never gotten around to watching the film(s), but then I picked up a copy I spied at our local public library.

Here’s a trailer for the film:

My husband, Sam, and I were planning on just watching the combined version, Them, when surprise! Eleanor’s sister, Katy, played by Jessica Chastain’s real-life friend Jess Weixler, turns out to be working at a public library! You know what that meant… I had to watch all 3 versions! Fortunately, each film is distinctly different, albeit with a few overlapping scenes, and it is collectively an impressive artistic achievement for all involved.

Therefore, I have structured this post starting first with Them, and then I will delve into the Him and Her versions to see what else we glean about Katy’s character and backstory.

*POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERTS THROUGHOUT*

Them

This combined version is 2 hours long, and we don’t find out until 1 hour and 19 minutes into the film that Eleanor’s sister Katy works at the library!

So let’s back up to when we first see Katy in the film, which is within the first few minutes. After a suicide attempt, Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) is in the hospital, and Katy comes to pick her up. She hugs her, quickly establishing the warm, caring relationship between the two sisters.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' (2014)

The two sisters, Katy and Eleanor, hug in ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’ (2014)

Katy, who lives at home with their parents and her young son, then brings Eleanor back home. The brief scenes of Eleanor’s family welcoming her home further establish how much Eleanor is loved by her family. She also has a good relationship with her nephew, and it’s sweet to witness how Katy gently corrects her son’s grammar and language and calls him “Lovey.”

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' (2014)

Eleanor’s family in ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’ (2014)

Of course, not all is sunshine and roses, as Eleanor works through her depression. Her father, played by William Hurt, is a psychology professor, and he brings the head of the department home one day, in hopes of helping his daughter. Eleanor does not respond well to this idea. Katy is right beside her sister in these scenes, coming across almost like her sister’s protector and bodyguard.

Katy also gives Lindy Booth in the TV movie The Twelve Trees of Christmas a run for the title of “most adorable reel librarian ever,” as evidenced by facial expressions like the one below when she admits to having a date with a dentist.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' (2014)

An adorable facial expression from Katy, played by Jess Weixler

Fifty minutes into the film, Katy is getting ready for her date, and she admits to feeling fat. She’s trying on a sheath dress, and her sister helps her smooth out the dress over her Spanx underwear. How many other times do we see reel librarians in their underwear?! Of course, we don’t know yet watching this version of the film that she is a librarian…

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' (2014)

A reel librarian in her Spanx underwear, trying on outfits for a date, in ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’ (2014)

A few minutes later, after she returns home from the date, Katy admits that she’s drunk. She giggles after telling her sister, “I could’ve given him a normal kiss good night instead of jamming my tongue down his throat.”

That then lead to a heart-to-heart conversation between sisters, in which Katy admits to being mad at her sister (for attempting suicide):  “You are kind of a selfish bitch. I was really mad at you.”

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' (2014)

A heart-to-heart conversation between sisters in ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’ (2014)

She also reveals that Eleanor’s husband, Conor (James McAvoy), came by the house looking for her. Katy also expresses empathy for Conor and how badly Eleanor has treated him.

Finally, at one hour and 19 minutes into the film, Eleanor surprises Katy at the public library. Katy is shelving magazines — but really reading them instead! 😉 (We’ve all been there.)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' (2014)

Shelving periodicals at the public library in a scene from ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’ (2014)

Eleanor, tapping Katy on the shoulder:  Ma’am?

Katy gasps, turned around:  Yes. [Realizing it’s Eleanor.] You’re a dick.

Katy:  You look like ass. Where were you last night? You want to take a load off?

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' (2014)

Periodicals section at the public library in a scene from ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’ (2014)

[Katy and Eleanor walk to a niche beside a stair’s landing]

Katy:  I come here on breaks. One of the librarians advocates a whole nap philosophy.

Eleanor:  Nap philosophy?

Katy:  Yeah, naps throughout the day, like, help with productivity and stuff. If you.. want to read this. [hands her a magazine] What?

Eleanor:  I was hoping you could read my mind.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' (2014)

The two sisters take a break in the library in a scene from ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’ (2014)

Katy:  Wouldn’t that be nice?

Eleanor:  You want to do something stupid this weekend?

Katy:  Yeah. I’m the queen of doing something stupid. What are you thinking?

Eleanor:  Get bent, take a train to the city, save the world.

Katy:  When did you become an idealist?

Eleanor:  A couple of seconds ago.

Katy:  I have a date with the dentist this weekend… I should get back to work. I’ll come wake you up in a little bit.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' (2014)

Periodicals closeup

Side note:  I laughed out loud at how the magazines were placed on the periodical shelves, which you can see better in the closeup above of Katy. I am very familiar with that kind of magazine holder with the red spines, but I have NEVER seen magazines placed on their side like that in a library before. At least, not when there’s enough room to place them upright so that patrons can, you know, READ THE TITLES. Did this film not employ a real librarian consultant? But at least you know they filmed in a real library, because there are call numbers on the spines of the books!

Eleanor and Katy then go to a club, along with Katy’s dentist date, and they have fun dancing together. They both admit they feel old, which is a charming bit.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' (2014)

A reel librarian dances in a club scene from ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’ (2014)

Eleanor starts kissing another guy while Katy looks on in concern, and we don’t see Katy again until almost the very end of the film, when she drives Eleanor to their airport.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' (2014)

Katy drives Eleanor to the airport near the end of ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’ (2014)

Him

This version of the film is an hour and a half long. We never get to see Katy in this version, as she and Conor never have any scenes together. This version should be subtitled The Disappearance of the Reel Librarian, right?! 😉

However, we do get many more scenes with Ciarán Hinds, who plays Conor’s father. That almost makes up for the lack of Jess Weixler in this version.

Her

This version of the film is an hour and 40 minutes, and we get many more details and backstory about Katy. Many scenes we see in the Them version that feature Kay are also extended in the Her version.

Extended scene in the car

Even though Katy is the younger sister, it’s obvious that she’s very protective and motherly toward Eleanor. When she picks her up at the hospital, the scene continues to them getting into Katy’s car. Katy attempts to buckle her seatbelt for her, as Eleanor’s arm is in a sling, but Eleanor isn’t having any of it.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' (2014)

Sisters Eleanor and Katy in an early scene from ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’ (2014)

New scene in the bathroom

A few minutes later, at 17 minutes into the film, Katy is washing her sister’s hair in the bathtub. I think this is the first scene I’ve ever seen in which a reel librarian is washing someone’s hair! This scene also reveals that Katy works at the library. (Remember, we don’t find out that fact in the Them version until well over an hour!)

Katy is trying to convince Eleanor to come with her to Charlie’s, a mutual friend, because “it would be good” for her to get out and be social after her depression.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' (2014)

Katy washes Eleanor’s hair in a scene from ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’ (2014)

Katy:  Ok, there was an article.

Eleanor:  Oh my god, you’ve been reading stupid shit online again.

Katy:  Yeah. But there was something in Psychology Today that I saw at the library, and you should take a look at it. I’m managing the periodicals. I’ll give you a copy.

New scene at a friend’s place

The next scene then takes place at Charlie’s place, where we get many more details about Katy, including the fact that she used to be an actress. We also see Katy dressed in a casual outfit of sandals and a floral romper. (!!!)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' (2014)

Reel librarian Katy in a floral romper

Charlie:  What have you been up to, Katy?

Katy:  Um, what do you mean?

Charlie:  I mean, what have you been up to?

Katy:  Well… Philip, uh, is going into the second grade. And… he’s about to be eight. I’m also studying to take the LSAT. And I am a part-time librarian out in Westport, so… I have that going for me.

Charlie:  No more with the acting?

Katy:  No, I mean… life just… kind of put a damper on it.

Charlie:  Whatever happened to dreams?

Extended scene at the house

At 30 minutes into the film, we get an extended scene of when Eleanor’s father brings home the chair of his psychology department. Katy literally blocks her sister from storming out of the house, and they get into a fight. In the Them version, it comes off like Katy is protecting her sister from their dad’s interference; in the Her version, we understand that Katy is physically making sure her sister doesn’t run away again!

Eleanor:  I will bite you!

Katy:  I will bite you back!

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' (2014)

Sisters Katy and Eleanor get into a fight in a scene from ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’ (2014)

Extended scene getting ready for a date

The next scene is an extension of the scene in the Them version, in which Katy gets ready for her big date. We learn more about her acting career and her life as a single mom.

Katy:  Oh fuck, I don’t understand why this asshole walked into my library. … We’re just going to pretend to be interested in each other over cheap cabernet, and he’s gonna, like, ask me all the same stupid questions that they ask about Philip, like who the dad is, and then look at me like I’m half a moron for the choices that I’ve made. You know, it was easier when I was an actress, because I could just fuck my co-stars, but this real-life, pseudo-adult crap sucks my ass.

Katy [to Eleanor]:  You were always who you were gonna be, I mean, like a woman. I always… wasn’t yet.

At this personal confession, the two sisters embrace again. Their relationship is such a special one, and it’s enjoyable to see on screen a variety of love stories, including the love between sisters.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' (2014)

Two sisters embrace

Same scene in the library

Interestingly, the scene in the library featured in the Them version is the same as in the Her version. I wasn’t expecting that! I guess I was expecting the library scene to be longer in this version.

Altogether, in Her, we get 3 extended scenes featuring reel librarian Katy — 2 of which reveal more details about working in the library — as well as 2 additional scenes unique to this version.

Extra features and interviews

One of the special features on the DVD was an interview with Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy. In the interview, Chastain revealed that she and Jess Weixler were best friends and roommates while attending Julliard drama school and were in every play together. After graduation, they never got to work together again, until this film, which Chastain also helped produce.

Jess Weixler also talks more about this, and her role in the film, in a 3-part series of interviews with Multiplex, which you can watch here at https://www.youtube.com/user/MultiplexShow/search?query=jess+weixler

Reel librarian role and purpose

So after considering all three versions of this story, what was the purpose of Eleanor’s sister Katy being a reel librarian? It is interesting to note that it is only the Her version that reveals what Katy used to do, and how Katy feels like her life has led to her making different decisions. And what’s more different from an actress than a librarian?! 🙂

There is an element of bemusement that she works in a library, even as it’s obvious that her work is rubbing off on her. This is evident by how she mentions an article she read in Psychology Today, and by the fact that she’s been promoted to managing the periodicals. But even in the Them version, it never feels like Katy is dedicated to the library; rather, it feels apparent that working in a library is a temporary gig. Katy reveals this in the scene at Charlie’s, in which she says she will be going for her LSATs (the entry exam to study law).

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' (2014)

Sisters Katy and Eleanor in ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’ (2014)

Katy is a supporting character, one step removed from the leads, and is seen in several significant scenes in the Them and Her versions of the film. She gets the most screen time in the Her version, of course, and overall, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby winds up in the Class III category of films featuring reel librarians.

So what is Katy’s role in the collective films? There are elements of the Spirited Young Girl to her character: namely, that she is a younger woman and has no intention of working long-term in the library. She also reveals that she feels like she’s never grown up and is still figuring out what she wants to do with her life.

Ultimately, however, I feel that her character — at least in the Her version — winds up as an Atypical Portrayal, in which the reel librarian portrayals go beyond stereotypical constraints. Katy is certainly intelligent, as well as funny and fun-loving, and we see her interact with warmth and kindness with her son, sister, and parents. We also get to see the ballsy side of Katy, like when she fights with her sister. We also see her sweet, goofy side, like when she gets butterflies before her date, and how she dances and admits to feeling old at the club. We also hear Katy curse quite a bit!

In short, we get to enjoy a well-rounded character, one who is a woman first, and a librarian second.


Have you seen any version of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby? If not, are you interested in watching one or more — or all! — versions? Please leave a comment and share. 🙂

Twelve reel lessons learned from ‘The Twelve Trees of Christmas’

I have been wanting to see the Lifetime TV movie The Twelve Trees of Christmas since it came out in 2013, and right before we moved this summer, I was able to watch it on the Lifetime Movie Channel during their “Christmas in July” special marathon. I have been saving this post for Christmas to help celebrate the holidays. And to make it extra special, here are twelve lessons learned from The Twelve Trees of Christmas.

1. The Christmas part of the plot doesn’t really make sense

Here’s how the plot was described on the TV guide channel:

“A children’s librarian tries to save her beloved Manhattan library from being demolished to make way for a developer to build high-rise loft apartments. To generate media attention, she holds a Christmas tree decorating contest.”

The connection between Christmas and the library being demolished is pretty tenuous… it’s best not to pull on that thread too hard. That thread is made of spun sugar. And if you can’t guess the ending, then you don’t know your Lifetime TV movies. The Christmas tree angle shoe-horned into the plot does make, however, for some beautiful set decorations:

Reel Librarians | The Christmas tree display in 'The Twelves Trees of Christmas' (2013, TV)

The Christmas tree display in ‘The Twelves Trees of Christmas’ (2013, TV)

Reel Librarians | Holiday decorations in the library interior from 'The Twelves Trees of Christmas' (2013, TV)

Holiday decorations in the library interior from ‘The Twelves Trees of Christmas’ (2013, TV)

Also, the Christmas part of the movie plot might have been inspired by a real-life Toronto tradition!

When I was researching where this TV movie was filmed (this interview with co-star Mel B. reveals that the film was filmed during summertime in Hamilton, a city in southern Ontario, Canada), I also came across posts about a long-standing tradition in Toronto at the Gardiner Museum. Every year, the museum has a “12 Trees of Christmas” exhibition and theme.

2. The star is a veteran reel librarian

The TV movie stars Lindy Booth as main character and reel librarian Cheri Jameson, and if Booth looks familiar, it’s probably because she also plays a lead role in the The Librarians TV spin-off series. Being typecast as a totally adorable reel librarian? There are worse things in life. 😉

Reel Librarians | Closeup of Lindy Booth as reel librarian Cheri in 'The Twelves Trees of Christmas' (2013, TV)

Closeup of Lindy Booth as reel librarian Cheri in ‘The Twelves Trees of Christmas’ (2013, TV)

3. Lindy Booth is the most adorable reel librarian ever

This is fact, and here is the evidence of Lindy Booth’s adorable facial expressions:

Reel Librarians | Collage of actress Lindy Booth's adorable facial expressions

Collage of actress Lindy Booth’s adorable facial expressions

Her character, Cheri, is also described at one point as “a little bit of a Pollyanna.”

4. Don’t watch this TV movie for tips on how to read a book for storytime

As the movie opens, children’s librarian Cheri is wandering through the library — convenient for us getting a good look at this beautiful old building the library is housed in — and walks up to join a volunteer who is reading a storybook to the children. Cheri finishes the rhymes from memory.

Reel Librarians | How not to read a book at storytime

How not to read a book at storytime

Pro tip:  You don’t read a book like that at storytime hour. Instead, you hold it out to the side with one or two hands so the kids can see the illustrations as you read it aloud. It’s best to combine the aural and visual experience for the children at storytime. Alternatively, you can read the words off the page, and then show the illustrations to the children, but that takes longer.

5. Involve your community and library staff when promoting your library

Within the first five minutes, we get a closeup of an interoffice memorandum email sent from the library director/head librarian Bette Greven. This memo reveals the catalyst for the plot, about how the Shaughnessy Library’s lease will not be renewed, and the library building will be demolished to make way for a condominium building development. Robin Dunne plays Tony Shaughnessy, the grandson of the Shaughnessy Foundation president, and Casper Van Dien plays a cameo role as Charles Harris, the businessman who will be building the condominium. (Plus, Mel B. — yep, Scary Spice! — plays a supporting role as a diva designer.)

Reel Librarians | Interoffice email and plot catalyst in 'The Twelves Trees of Christmas' (2013, TV)

Interoffice email and plot catalyst in ‘The Twelves Trees of Christmas’ (2013, TV)

This is how Cheri reacts to the news:

Reel Librarians | Cheri reacts to the interoffice memo in an early scene

Cheri reacts to the interoffice memo in an early scene

Cheri also interacts with Mack, the library handyman, who already has a resume in his hand. He is already anticipating having to look for another job soon, as the library is shutting down with such short notice!

Cheri immediately goes out to talk with Bette, the head librarian, who is doing “desk duty.” This presents an interesting visual dynamic between the two, as the children’s librarian is standing, and the head librarian is sitting.

Reel Librarians | Cheri, the children's librarian, talks with Bette, the head librarian

Cheri, the children’s librarian, talks with Bette, the head librarian

Cheri:  Bette, what is going on?

Bette:  I take it you read the memo.

Cheri:  This building has been a library for half a century. The foundation can’t just suddenly shut it down.

Bette:  They can and they will. Believe me, I’ve been burning up the phones for months trying to stop them.

Cheri:  Wait. You’ve known about this for months?

Bette:  Sit. I haven’t told any of the staff yet, because so far it’s only been rumors, and I didn’t want to upset people unnecessarily. This is a public library in a private building. The Shaughnessy Foundation gave the city a 50-year, $1-a-year lease, which expired last month. They’ve decided not to renew it but to instead redevelop this property as part of a new condominium and apartment complex.

This conversation reveals not only more details about the plot, it also reveals the important fact that the head librarian did NOT seek any additional help from her staff — or the community of users they serve! — for months leading up to this crisis. Not a smart move.

Cheri immediately has the idea of contacting the foundation president’s grandson, who happens to live in her building, and of course, she also comes up with the idea of the “12 Trees of Christmas” community contest and the “What the Shaughnessy Library Means to Me” theme. This is convenient to the Christmas holiday timing, but it also demonstrates that if the head librarian had involved her library staff and community sooner, then perhaps all of this could have been prevented!

At the announcement of the “12 Trees of Christmas” contest, Artie, a younger guy who’s a loyal patron of the library, asks about the rumor that they’re going to tear down the library. Bette confirms the rumors, and Cheri turns the announcement into an incentive to show the community how much this means. Artie, and others (including Tony, who loves competition!) immediately sign up to compete in the contest.

We’re hoping for a miracle. At least, if we go, we go in a blaze of glory.

6. Public libraries need to be funded by the public.

It’s vital for communities to fund and support their local libraries. This the main point of the movie’s plot, and a plot focusing on the proper funding of libraries is a rarity among reel librarian movies. (Also see the movie Miranda and the British Project: Library web series, and to a lesser extent, the plot of Party Girl.)

But there is a twist on this funding angle. It’s the issue of setting up a municipal service, such as a public library, in a building that is privately owned. As this funny list and review points out, the #1 lesson from this TV movie is that “Setting up a municipal service in a privately owned building will only lead to tears and a run on genuine Irish crystal.”

The second half of that initial conversation between Cheri and Bette provides more details on this central conflict.

Reel Librarians | The exterior of the Shaughnessy Library building

The exterior of the Shaughnessy Library building

Bette:  I’ve been head librarian for 10 years. I’ve dealt with the city on hundreds of issues. I know how to get things done, but I need a few good cards to play, and we’ve got nothing. The thing is, they’ve got all the legal advantages on their side. The Shaughnessy Foundation is exercising a right that is very clearly theirs.

Cheri:  We could do a fundraiser. The community would support us. People love this building. I grew up here. This building, it’s a landmark in the neighborhood.

Bette:  It doesn’t matter. The foundation doesn’t need community approval. They can do whatever they want.

When Cherie then talks to Tony Shaughnessy, to try and convince him not to sell the building to a developer, he also points out this conflict of a public service in a private building:

Cheri:  This neighborhood, it needs a library.

Tony:  Sure. And that’s a matter for the city. The point is that libraries are a municipal matter.

On a personal note, I happen to agree with Tony here, at least with the general principle (if not his methods). Municipal services for the public good are a matter for the municipalities, and they need to fund public libraries accordingly. And members of those communities also need to vote to support stable funding for those public libraries! (This is also why so many public libraries put measures on the ballot to try and create library tax districts, in order to provide some kind of stable funding for public libraries. That way, they don’t have to depend so much on the election cycle whims of municipal politicians.) Libraries, unfortunately, are often among the first services cut in times of economic crisis, even though during those times, library resources and services become even more important to the general public.

7. Libraries and librarians impact people’s lives in many different ways

As Cheri states:

This is more than just a library. It’s a watering hole for the community. You know what happens in Africa when a watering hole dries up? Everything dies.

Throughout the film, scenes in the library are featured. And as a librarian, it is wonderful to see just how many different kinds of users this library serves, and in different ways.

As the children’s librarian, Cheri obviously highlights the services provided to children. And here’s how she drops the mic during a conversation with Tony:

When you see witness the joy on the children’s faces, and then crush all of their dreams when you announce your great plan to demolish their sanctuary of imagination, knowledge, and art. For a condo.

And this description, that the library is a “sanctuary of imagination, knowledge, and art” is evidenced in the movie. For example, we get to see users — and even library staff — of all ages doing research, or quiet study, in the library. The community members who signed up for a Christmas tree get busy researching books and information to support their different themes. Mack researches vintage recipes for his Christmas foods-themed tree. Deirdre and Artie team up to research technology for their technology-meets-art-in-the-library theme. Parents of a library-loving child team up to research children’s literature.

Reel Librarians | Users of different ages research and study in the library

Users of different ages research and study in the library

Reel Librarians | Quiet study zone in the library

Quiet study zone in the library

There are other scenes where people have space to work together on projects.

Reel Librarians | Group study zone in the library

Group study zone in the library

There are also spaces for different kinds of social group activities, from the children’s storytime hour to art class in the library.

Reel Librarians | Art class in the library

Art class in the library

Toward the beginning, a young girl gives Cheri, or “Miss Jameson,” a present. As she explains, “It’s kind of a Christmas and a thank you gift. I’m really happy you’re tutoring me.” This small, lovely scene reveals that the library and librarians also offer personal tutoring services.

Cheri also relates her own personal memories of the Shaughnessy Library, where her father wrote his doctoral thesis:

I grew up in that building… It was amazing… this magical land filled with everything in the whole world. It’s where I learned to love books. And reading. It’s the greatest gift my father gave me. And I think every child in this neighborhood should experience that feeling.

Later, Tony and Cheri get stuck in the elevator of their apartment building. Tony starts hyperventilating, and Cheri manages to helps calm him down with EMDR techniques.

Tony:  Where’d you learn that? Wait, don’t tell me, the library.

Cheri:  Not all of us can afford a world-class education.

This exchange highlights how library resources spread the importance of education and knowledge to community members who can’t afford tuition rates for higher education. It also supports how libraries and librarians serve as educational support.

8. Literacy is vital, and libraries are vital to promoting literacy

In an interview with Robin Dunne, the actor who plays Tony Shaughnessy, he expresses how he sees the message of this movie:

There’s also a really nice message in the film about literacy and community and the importance of libraries. Yes, we’re going into a very technological age where some people may argue we don’t need things like libraries and everyone is reading books on iPods. Still, at the end of the day, we do need to promote literacy and encourage reading with children. These places, like libraries in the community, really support that environment for kids. That’s a nice message.

This message — that there are different kinds of literacy, and that libraries are vital in promoting literacy — also gets voiced in a couple of conversations.

Reel Librarians | Interior shot of the Shaughnessy Library

Interior shot of the Shaughnessy Library

First, Tony and Cheri spar yet again:

Tony:  Kids, they get everything online.

Cheri:  Yes, but it’s not the same. You can read Dickens on an e-book. You get the words, but you’re missing the music.

Cheri then has a conversation with her boss Bette about what Tony said.

Bette:  Yet he does have a point. E-books are taking over, and most kids these days haven’t even heard of an encyclopedia, much less opened one. And with Google, why should they?

Cheri:  The internet can add to the mix, but you’re never going to be able to replace physical books. I mean, you need to be able to see and touch and hold and even smell a book to get the whole reading experience.

This kind of message, that it benefits us to be conversant in both internet literacy as well as traditional literacy, is also the ultimate message of a few other reel librarian movies, like the 1957 classic, Desk Set.

9. Librarians and library staff have different roles and tasks

This TV movie showcases a diversity of roles and type of work to be done in a public library. It’s not just checking out books and shelving books, y’all!

For example, Cheri interacts with Deirdre, a young woman who volunteers at the library, because as Deirdre states, “I’m new to the city, so volunteering at the library helped me make new friends.”

There are several nice scenes featuring Mack, the library handyman and custodian, who also reveals one of the best perks about working in a library. “I read whatever I get my hands on. It’s one of the perks of working here. I get to see all the new stuff as it comes out, and I grab it right away.”

Side note:  TRUE STORY. This is one of the best perks!

Cheri and Bette also enjoy a warm and collegial relationship, like a mentoring relationship that is based on mutual respect. This is also visually reflected in a couple of scenes in which they sit across from each other, as equals, and each contributes something to the conversation.

Reel Librarians | Two librarians talk in 'The Twelves Trees of Christmas' (2013, TV)

Two librarians talk in ‘The Twelves Trees of Christmas’ (2013, TV)

Reel Librarians | Two librarians talk in 'The Twelves Trees of Christmas' (2013, TV)

Two librarians talk in ‘The Twelves Trees of Christmas’ (2013, TV)

Bette’s responsibilities as head librarian are clearly different from Cheri’s duties as the children’s librarian. As Bette states, “I’ve been head librarian for 10 years. I’ve dealt with the city on hundreds of issues. I know how to get things done.”

But Bette and Cheri both have “desk duty,” which means working at the reference desk in order to help answer questions from the public. It’s really nice to see onscreen a library director working with the public in this way!

10. Librarians need their own spaces, both at work and at home

Cheri’s work desk is the setting for multiple, albeit brief, scenes in this TV movie. It is indeed a rarity to see a reel librarian’s private work space! (See also Desk Set.) Cheri’s desk is very traditional, a long wooden table, and it’s always piled high with stacks of books and files.

Reel Librarians | Cheri's desk in the Shaughnessy Library

Cheri’s desk in the Shaughnessy Library

We also get a couple of glimpses of Cheri’s apartment, another rarity on screen! (Once again, see Desk Set.) Cheri’s home decor is quite cozy and cheery — and filled with bookcases. 🙂

Reel Librarians | Cheri's apartment and holiday decorations

Cheri’s apartment and holiday decorations

In the scene below, Tony comes over to help put together even more bookcases for Cheri!

Reel Librarians | Tony helps Cheri put together bookcases in her apartment

Tony helps Cheri put together bookcases in her apartment

11. Librarians can be stylish, and in different ways

Cheri has a consistent style throughout the TV movie, dressing in a retro-inspired way with cardigans or sweaters paired with flared dresses or skirts. Cheri is also not afraid of pairing together patterns and bright colors, which reflect her cheerful and energetic personality. She wears her hair down in loose curls, the better to show off the glorious red hue of her hair. She has a cute, classic look, one that feels appropriate for a children’s librarian.

Reel Librarians | Collage of Cheri's librarian style in 'The Twelves Trees of Christmas' (2013, TV)

Collage of Cheri’s librarian style in ‘The Twelves Trees of Christmas’ (2013, TV)

Her boss, Bette, also has a signature style, but one that is more traditional and conservative. She wears her hair in a classic bob hairstyle, and she wears blazers in classic cuts and solid colors. Her jewel-toned blouses and jewelry hint at a bit of flair underneath. She is the head librarian, and she dresses like one.

Reel Librarians | Collage of Bette's librarian style

Collage of Bette’s librarian style

We also get a peek at Cheri and Bette getting ready for the big Christmas tree finale and party. We even get to see Bette with her hair in rollers! Is this the first time we get to see a reel librarian getting her hair done onscreen? 😉

Reel Librarians | A reel librarian gets her hair done!

A reel librarian gets her hair done!

12. Library science is a real thing

In yet another (confrontational yet flirty) scene between Tony and Cheri, he asks why she wanted to become a librarian. She reveals she thought she was going to be a college professor, like her father.

Cherie:  But once I got to college, I became this voracious reader. I spent all my spare time at the library out at the library and decided to major in library sciences.

Tony:  Library sciences is not a real thing. You just made that up.

Cherie:  Seriously. It’s a real thing.

Tony:  You totally made that up. Wow. What did your dad say? Was he disappointed?

Cherie:  He wasn’t. He was actually incredibly supportive… I got this summer job as a library intern, tutoring kids and working on this literacy program… [describes how this one kid read a book by himself for the first time.] I found my calling.

Another rarity — the discussion of library science and the education behind being a librarian! (Also see, you guessed it, Desk Set. And Party Girl also has a great scene in which librarians debate different kinds of library science graduate programs.)

Although Tony’s incredulity at “library sciences” being a “real thing” is sure to illicit side-eyed shade from real-life librarians, Cherie takes it in stride and instead turns the conversation into highlighting how significant and personal a decision it really is to become a librarian. Yes, unfortunately, we librarians are used to people not understanding library science — if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard, “Oh wow, librarians have master’s degrees?!” SIGH — but we also often describe librarianship as a calling. The movie absolutely got it right with that line, “I found my calling.” We are librarians because we are committed to our profession and the services and resources we provide. Ultimately, we are here to help the members of our communities.


The Twelve Trees of Christmas, although sugary sweet and fairly predictable, is ultimately quite significant in several ways when it comes to portraying reel librarians onscreen. Just like you can’t judge a book by its cover… I guess you can’t judge a Lifetime TV movie by its sugary coating. 😉

Reel Librarians | Cheers to 'The Twelves Trees of Christmas' (2013, TV)

Cheers to ‘The Twelves Trees of Christmas’ (2013, TV)

Happy holidays, y’all! And I’ll be back next week with a New Year’s Eve-themed reel librarian movie — stay tuned!

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.