The shush heard ’round the world in ‘The Good Companions’

The first occurrence of a reel librarian uttering, “Shush!” onscreen

The 1933 film The Good Companions, adapted from J. B. Priestley’s novel of the same name, tells a story of three wayward souls finding their way to a variety troupe called the “Dinky Doos” (no, I do not make this stuff up). Thankfully, they change the name straightaway to “The Good Companions,” hence the film’s title. This decidedly minor film, remade in 1957, takes its time setting up the characters and the plot.

The Good Companions (1933) clip” video uploaded by films411 is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

The librarian (Hugh E. Wright) shows up for less than a minute, and we never see his face — only the back of his head (see below). His appearance is notable only because it appears to be the first occurrence of a reel librarian uttering, “Shush!” (as determined by Ray & Brenda Tevis in their book, The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999). The Tevises also take note at how the low camera angle — revealing only the back of the librarian’s head — visually de-emphasizes the reel librarian.

The reel librarian is a white male, older, and quite thin. He is wearing a black coat, and his hair is short, grey, and appears to be thinning. We see a glimpse of spectacles as he turns slightly to the side at one point.

View over the reel librarian's shoulder, in The Good Companions (1933)
View over the reel librarian’s shoulder, in The Good Companions (1933)

The library scene occurs one hour and 17 minutes into the film (the 113-minute UK version, NOT the 95-minute US version). Right before the library scene, the two female leads, Miss Elizabeth Trant (Mary Glynne) and Susie Dean (Jessie Matthews) enjoy a picnic; the older woman laments a long-lost love, and Susie schemes to bring the two former lovers back together. The gentleman in question is a doctor, and the Susie muses that “there’s a medical register at any public library.” Next, we see a shot of Susie looking up the medical register and finds the name she’s seeking and the town where the doctor lives, Dingley. She then asks in a loud voice, “How far’s Dingley?”

Immediately, we hear a “Shush!”, then the camera pans back to reveal the library and the back of the reel librarian, who then answers “20 miles” to her question. Susie, quite unconcerned at her mild reprimand, tosses off a quick thanks. She then brings the big book back to the Circulation desk and asks the librarian what kind of illness would bring a doctor in from 20 miles away. He seems puzzled — who wouldn’t be? — and replies, “Well, I don’t know. Heart attack?” Susie seems quite pleased with his response, thanks him, and leaves. He fulfills the basic Information Provider role, one punctuated by the inaugural and soon-to-be-infamous (and oft-repeated) “Shush!”

The back of the reel librarian in The Good Companions (1933)
The back of the reel librarian in The Good Companions (1933)

We see one wide shot of the library itself, with the reel librarian perched on the edge of the stool at the far right. Anybody else visualizing Ebenezer Scrooge?! The long, wooden Circulation desk spans the bottom part of the frame, and the obligatory card files flank both sides of the librarian — another visual barrier. The left side of the frame reveals a fairly populated reading room, most likely for newspapers and other periodicals, while the larger space to the right is empty except for the girl. Is it just me, or does the library backdrop almost look painted? There are tall stacks of books, and we spy a second floor with more bookshelves, tables, and library lamps; in the close-up, we see thick velvet ropes — yet another visual barrier — curtaining off the tall stacks.


Sources used:


  • The Good Companions. Dir. Victor Saville. Perf. Jessie Matthews, Edmund Gwenn, John Gielgud, Mary Glynne. Gaumont British Picture Corporation, 1933.
  • Tevis, Ray, and Brenda Tevis. The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999. McFarland, 2005.
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‘Bon voyage’ to the ship’s librarian

Although only in a couple of scenes, the ship’s librarian definitely makes an impression, but not a very positive one.

The Disney comedy Bon Voyage! (1962) is about a typical all-American family who set sail on a “dream” vacation to Europe. Mishaps ensue. Side note: Isn’t ensue a fun word?

"1962 - Colonial Theater Ad- 10 Jul MC - Allentown PA" is in the public domain
“1962 – Colonial Theater Ad- 10 Jul MC – Allentown PA” is in the public domain

In an early scene on the cruise ship, the husband and head of the family, Harry Willard (Fred MacMurray), mentions the book State Fair, and the next morning, his wife (Jane Wyman) is reading it. That’s our (subtle?) first clue there’s a library on board the ship.

Harry then visits the ship’s library. Second (not-so-subtle) clue: Several bookshelves are arranged along the wall. We are introduced to the ship’s librarian by seeing his back first. First impressions? Extremely skinny with gelled hair. This is typical of a Comic Relief librarian, where exaggerated physical characteristics add to the visual humor. Character actor James Millhollin, seen below, plays the Ship’s Librarian, his official title in the fim’s credits — late 40’s (47 in real life), with dark, short hair oiled back, no glasses. He’s wearing a ship’s uniform — perhaps considered a member of the crew? or just posturing? — with a bow tie (!). The librarian extends a greeting and adjusts his cuffs while standing behind the Circulation desk. This extra clue is added by a file box full of cards, the standard movie prop for a Circulation desk.

"James Millhollin in trailer for "No Time for Sergeants" (1958)" via Wikipedia is in the public domain
“James Millhollin in trailer for “No Time for Sergeants” (1958)” via Wikipedia is in the public domain

The reference interview commences:

Ship’s librarian: “May I help you?”

Harry: “I’m looking for something in the way of a mystery. I guess I’d like to read about somebody else’s troubles for a change.”

Ship’s librarian: “Very good, sir. We have any number of stimulating items in that category. I rather learn toward the intellectual type of crime myself.”

He then leads Harry straight to another bookcase and takes down a book. Harry, perhaps turned off by the librarian’s manner and also caught up in his family woes, is quite dismissive and says he’ll find something but “thanks very much.”

Ship’s librarian: “Just as you say sir. Oh, and good hunting.”

Later, Harry sees his daughter researching architecture in the library, with books spread out all over the desk. She and her dad get into an argument about a boy, resulting in the daughter running off.

Ever-so-helpful, the librarian then comes over, straightening his coat. He is very fastidious about his dress, always straightening something — again, adding to the humor. Leaning over, he continues the reference interview with an oblivious smirk:

Ship’s librarian: “Did you find your mystery, sir?”

Harry: “Yes. It’s called The Case of the Puzzled Parent Who Can’t Understand Why His Children Keep Saying He Doesn’t Understand.” [Stalks off.]

Ship’s librarian: “Hmmm…. That’s an oddish title.” [talking to himself, obviously puzzled]

Not the most socially bright crayon in the bunch, is he?! He fits the Comic Relief character type perfectly, with his skinniness and mannerisms exaggerated so that we laugh AT him, not WITH him — but we wouldn’t have a chance anyway, as he doesn’t display any sense of humor. The Comic Relief librarian’s role is to serve as the butt of jokes, and this ship’s librarian fills that role to a super-straight T.

Although only in a couple of scenes, the ship’s librarian definitely makes an impression, but not a very positive one. On the plus side, he knows “his” collection — he does seem like the type to describe it like that, doesn’t he?

On the negative, he is consistently overly solicitous, oblivious to people’s needs or the concepts of sarcasm or humor. (The sarcasm in this post would most likely fly over his well-oiled hair.) He just doesn’t “get” people — but doesn’t get that! — and comes across as too formal or proper. The ship’s librarian is just not that great at customer service, which is comically at odds with the purpose of his job. Cruises are supposed to be fun — I’ve never been on one, but I’ll go out on a limb with that assumption — and this librarian most certainly is NOT fun. But he sure is fun to make fun of! Bless.


Sources used:


  • Bon Voyage! Dir. James Neilson. Perf. Fred MacMurray, Jane Wyman, Tommy Kirk, Deborah Walley. Buena Vista/Walt Disney, 1962.