I couldn’t help thinking…. wouldn’t this be so fun to do for librarians?!
A little Righteous Brothers to start out the day is nice, eh? (And if you don’t get my title reference, then there is a hole in your life, and you need to fill it in with some Righteous soul. So listen to some Righteous Brothers now or rewatch Top Gun, your choice.)
This came in the form of the July 1997 issue of the now-defunct print version of Movieline magazine. Movieline is now online, but back then, it was a treat to be able to go to the nearest Hastings store and grab my own copy, in person. I still own this July 1997 copy — ok, definitely feeling older now — and it is well-worn and loved. Seriously, almost every article in this issue is top-notch, and the writing sharp just like I like it.
And the star article in that issue for me is “The Drilling Fields: An Oral History of Hollywood’s Unfair Depiction of a Tragically Downtrodden Minority — Dentists” by Joe Queenan. Queenan goes through a history of dentists onscreen in leading roles, beginning with the 1925 film Greed, directed by Erich von Stroheim, which “introduced two themes that would characterize dental films for the rest of the century. One, dentists are butchers. Two, dentists are always looking to cop a feel.”
The article has many more delicious bon mots like that, including:
“Ask the average person to name a movie about doctors and he’ll probably cite something epic like Doctor Zhivago. Ask the average person to name a movie about dentists, and he’ll almost certainly cite Marathon Man, in which a completely over-the-top Laurence Olivier plays a fiendish Nazi who uses macabre dental techniques to extract information from bug-eyed Dustin Hoffman, the archetypal reluctant patient. Anyone who has seen the film will agree that Olivier’s hair-raising performance is not fair to dentists. It may not even be fair to Nazis.”
Just substitute It’s a Wonderful Life for Marathon Man up there, and you’ve pretty much got the picture for reel librarians. Except the bit about torture, of course. 😉
So after I first read this article and stopped chuckling over Queenan’s irresistible mix of smarty-pants film analysis and interesting trivia, I couldn’t help thinking…. wouldn’t this be so fun to do for librarians?!
And I’ve been having fun ever since.
Queenan, Joe. “The Drilling Fields: An Oral History of Hollywood’s Unfair Depiction of a Tragically Downtrodden Minority — Dentists.” Movieline, July 1997.
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 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.
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!”
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.
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.
The librarian sells her soul for a few cheap compliments
In honor of Halloween, I’m exploring the first horror film (at least, the first one I have been able to find) that features a librarian. The Seventh Victim (1943) is a creepy thriller about a woman, Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter), who is desperate to find out more about her sister’s (Jean Brooks) disappearance and mysterious involvement with a cult. For me, the scariest thing is probably Jean Brook’s hairstyle in the film (which you can see in the image, at left, and in the trailer below).
Jason Hoag (Erford Gage) is a book clerk by day, poet by night. He wrote a bestseller 10 years ago, but now has nothing much to his name. Following a lead in an effort to impress Mary, he tries to gather clues from the circulation records of suspected cult members. (By the way, do NOT try this at home. This is highly unethical and illegal behavior. Library circulation records are private, even concerning members of a mysterious cult.)
The librarian, Miss Gottschalk (Sarah Shelby in an uncredited role), is only in this scene, which lasts just under a minute. She is white, late 30s or early 40s, with her hair rolled up in an unflattering style. She is wearing makeup and seems to be attempting a modern style in her dress — she’s even wearing nail polish! — but the end result is an ill-fitting suit that comes off as conservative when combined with her old-fashioned updo. Ultimately, she seems a bit desperate.
In mild Naughty Librarian fashion, she quickly responds to Hoag’s flirting, who shamelessly seizes the opportunity to obtain the books the cult members have checked out. He uses the pretense of giving gifts because “nothing nicer than a book for a gift” and gets on her good side by complimenting her hands as “so slim and capable” (such flattery!).
At first, she demurs, “I’ll have to get permission” to look at the closed-shelf books, but soon breaks out an attempt at a coquettish smile. But “since [Hoag] is over 21”, she gets the books he’s looking for, after first flipping through her card catalog files to find the names and titles he’s seeking. Basically, Miss Gottschalk sells her soul — in less than a minute! — for a few cheap compliments, breaking the rules to provide him restricted books taken from the private records of library patrons (aarrggghhhh — again, totally unethical and illegal behavior). As Ray & Brenda Tevis sum up this scene in The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999, “the extent to which filmgoers believe Gottschalk’s behavior is transferable to working librarians depends upon whether they believe that reel librarians accurately reflect the ethics of working librarians” (46). In this case, let’s hope they don’t!
She is a less extreme version of the Naughty Librarian — you can tell she wants to let her hair down after work and is seeking opportunities to do just that, with her (sadly inept) flirting. And she does engage in illegal behavior — for shame! — but it’s not to the extremes of violence as other Naughty Librarians (see Personals). She also serves the role of the Information Provider, providing Hoag with the clues he uses to follow the cult’s trail.
The Seventh Victim. Dir. Mark Robson. Perf. Kim Hunter, Jean Brooks, Tom Conway, Isabel Jewell, Erford Gage. RKO, 1943.
Tevis, Ray, and Brenda Tevis. The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999. McFarland, 2005.
One image I keep seeing, in different forms, is the librarian as nightmare.
Certain reel librarian characterizations, I believe, can transcend their stereotypes and become something more — a pop culture representation we can recognize, consciously or not. Film is an excellent medium for this; as the librarian becomes a literal image, the significance of that image can become strongly linked in our brains to deeper meanings. One image I keep seeing, in different forms, is the librarian as nightmare. Or maybe it’s the influence of Halloween. You decide.
The second half of the film explores how the town and certain characters’ lives would have changed if George Bailey (James Stewart) had never been born. Mary becomes a drawn, reclusive, and unattractive old maid who works in the library, and her failure to recognize her husband finally sends George over the edge and causes him to beg for his life back. She is literally the last straw for George, but she also acts as the last straw for US, the audience. In this frightening vision of a town without George, the horrible realization that Mary becomes (gasp!) a Spinster Librarian rings the final death gong for the nightmarish hell we have witnessed on screen. We want, as much as George, to escape from Pottersville and return to Bedford Falls. In the first half of the film, Mary represents the virtuous mother, but in the second half, she represents a nightmare — a cinematic journey of opposites and extremes. In her reincarnation as the Spinster Librarian, Mary reinforces the horrifying twist of reality that we seem to have no control over our lives.
There is also a significant sub-genre of horror films featuring librarians. Why? Personally, I suspect a deeper link to the obsession over the idea of control, or fear of losing control in our lives — and librarianship is a perfect profession to play off of that. It’s true, librarianship is inextricably linked to the ideals of organization (or control, if you’re feeling cynical). As a librarian, I see patterns of organization everywhere. It would be tempting indeed to extend that organizational tendency and tip it over the edge into obsession — or even insanity — to create cinematic drama and tension. Horror films are ripe for showcasing the librarian-turned-nightmare. Let’s look at some, shall we?
Chainsaw Sally (2004) features a “a calm librarian by day, and a brutal serial killer by night” — a nightmare come to life. In this case of extremes, it’s the librarian side of Sally — the “timid and harmless” side — that is the costume; the nightmare she becomes at night has become her true self. It seems her killer tendencies stem from traumatic childhood experiences, and her desperate attempts to exert control over her life manifest in both areas of her life, the librarian and serial killer.
The TV movie Wilderness (1996) treads familiar ground, but presents a twist on the librarian-as-nightmare image. “Mild-mannered librarian” Alice turns into a different kind of nightmare every month — a werewolf! Her daily life as librarian represents her obsession over control. Her secret life where she “is free to satiate her most personal and sometimes shocking desires” represents the wild break and loss of that controlling obsession.
Although a librarian is NOT the main character — thank goodness — in The Killing Kind (1973), the librarian in that film fantasizes about nightmares — or as she calls them “hallucinations, they’re so real.” One of her hallucinations includes a rape fantasy, a secret for which she immediately feels shame for sharing. Her sexual repression is represented in the seemingly constrictive binds of her profession. I’m not personally agreeing with that view, merely calling ’em as I see ’em.
The plotline in All About Evil (2010) may ring familiar: A “mousey librarian” discovers her inner serial killer — in this case, after she inherits a movie house. The obsession over control rears again; in the high-pressure situation of saving the family business, she resorts to churning our her own brand of “snuff films” of her own killings. Naturally, as according to a DVD Verdict review, she also “chastis[es] an indie film audience to do things like keep quiet and silence their cell phones.” Once a librarian, always a librarian!
Hopefully, these librarian characters will not haunt YOUR nightmares… Happy Halloween!
All About Evil. Dir. Joshua Grannell. Perf. Natasha Lyonne, Jack Donner, Julie Caitlin Brown. Backlash Films, 2010.
Chainsaw Sally. Dir. Jimmyo Burril. Perf. April Monique Burril, Mark Redfield, Alec Joseph. Shock-O-Rama Cinema, 2004.
It’s a Wonderful Life. Dir. Frank Capra. Perf. James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers. RKO, 1946.
The Killing Kind. Dir. Curtis Harrington. Perf. John Savage, Ann Sothern, Ruth Roman, Luana Anders, Cindy Williams. Media Cinema Group, 1973.
Wilderness (TV miniseries). Dir. Ben Bolt Perf. Amanda Ooms, Gemma Jones, Michael Kitchen. UK, 1996.
It’s almost Halloween! I’ve been thinking about costumes, and if I were to dress up as a librarian, who would I pick? Who would YOU pick? One librarian I will NOT dress up as is the librarian in Killer Movie (2008).
In this film, a reality TV shoot at a small town in North Dakota turns into a murder game for a crazed-yet-cunning killer. I caught this film on my cable’s on demand list, and the movie, which was shot in 21 days, was better than I was thinking it would be. Faint praise. I was thinking it was going to be like those Date Movie parodies, but the movie seemed like it wanted to play it straight. It has elements of black humor (“What greater truth is there than reality? Even when it’s scripted”), and it borrows heavily from the Scream movies, especially in the characters and basic plot points — and the Scream movies themselves gleefully borrowed from the (cheesy) tradition of modern horror films. But everyone in the film seems like they’re acting in a different movie from each other. Paul Wesley, as TV director Jake Tanner, plays his role totally straight and serious, like he does on The Vampire Diaries; Cyia Batten, who plays the TV show’s producer, is way over-the-top; and Kaley Cuoco as spoiled actress Blanca Champion wanders through like she’s doing her best Anna Faris-as-Britney. She fits in the movie as well as her miniskirts and shorts fit in with the freezing temps.
Mary Murphy plays the aforementioned Librarian — her official title in the credits — in a cameo about 24 minutes into the film. Before the library scene, Jake proclaims that “something’s off here,” helping to set up a feeling of unease and suspicion. His production assistant then shows him some newspaper articles on microfilm in the school library. In this one-minute-long scene, she finds the time to diss the school library and the town in one go:
“I’m dying to Google these people. I don’t know if you’ve tried yet, but it’s impossible to get on the internet up here. I’ve tried the dial-up like 30 times, only I get knocked off after 10 seconds.”
After discussing the newspaper articles about several deaths in the area and how they don’t think the most recent death was an accident, they look up from the microfilm reader because of the school librarian’s sudden appearance. There is a long pan to the librarian in the distance:
The librarian does not engage in conversation. She simply gives them a long glare and spits out her one line:
“You two have to leave. NOW.”
At her close-up, my husband and I both recoiled in horror. Score one for the friendly school librarian!
In this character introduction, she is a black, shadowy figure. She looks more like a nun — or a crow — in her long black layers, glasses hanging from a lanyard, black-streaked-with-grey hair pulled back. She is holding a couple of books in her arms, hands clutching her other arm. In the close-up, we see her hands and face only — her pale face with her sour, forbidding expression stands out. Her body is pretty shapeless in her long skirt, turtleneck, and cardigan.
We don’t get to see much of the school library. There is an aisle of dark blue carpet inbetween two rows of bookcases, plus a bookcase seen behind the librarian. The dark woods of the bookcases and walls add to the foreboding feel of the horror movie set-up. The books are not that neatly shelved, but not overly messy, either. We see no signs of any students using the library — and with a school librarian like that, who would?!
There are quite a few cameos in the film, and this one has that touch of black humor when you compare this reel librarian’s image with Mary Murphy herself (seen below). In real life, she is a dancer and choreographer, lending her expertise as a judge on the popular (and addictive) reality TV show So You Think You Can Dance. She is quite dynamic and loud and sparkly on the show, a total opposite from this crow of a reel librarian. Her cameo in this film might also be a clever play on her “Queen of Scream” nickname — if you’ve ever watched the show, you know about her trademark holler!
So what’s the point of this library scene? I think it adds to the “lost in rural America” feel of the small town, as the main characters won’t be able to rely on technology to seek help. The librarian’s appearance and behavior definitely contribute to the creepy mood of the town and backlog of suspicious deaths. With the long camera pans in the scene, we also get the sense of someone (the killer?) watching others. This is a camera trick used throughout the film, as in a scene later on in a convenience store, where we get a long pan down the grocery aisles and see a flash of the killer walking by. This subtly mirrors the visual introduction of the librarian. The school librarian also serves as a possible suspect. As the victims piled up — and they do, believe me — I shouted out several times, “Is it the librarian? There’s almost no one left!” Is she the killer? Hmmm….
So as the main function of this librarian is to contribute to the atmosphere, she serves the primary role of an Information Provider. But the director still can’t help but to resort to the physical characteristics of the Spinster Librarian! So if a librarian is going to be onscreen for a short time, the trend is to go for the stereotypical image.
I’ve written a lot for such a small role. Quite a(n unfortunately) memorable impression for a reel librarian onscreen for 4 seconds!
Killer Movie. Dir. Jeff Fisher. Perf. Paul Wesley, Kaley Cuoco, Jason London, Leighton Meester. Peace Arch Home Entertainment, 2008.