All hail Mary?

Is Mary a famous — or infamous — character in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’?

Mary, Merry Christmas. I’ve written a lot already about Mary Bailey’s immortal (and infamous) 30-second reel librarian character in the nightmarish alternative reality featured in the second half of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). But hey, it’s a classic Christmas favorite — and one of my favorite films of all time.

'It's a Wonderful Life' poster is licensed under CC BY SA 2.0
‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ poster is licensed under CC BY SA 2.0

Are you planning to watch — or rewatch — It’s a Wonderful Life for Christmas?

Mary is certainly a memorable character, whether you’re referring to the supportive soul mate of the first half or the Spinster Librarian of the second half.

Others agree.

Screenshot from 'It's a Wonderful Life' is in the public domain
Screenshot from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is in the public domain

Mary Hatch/Bailey made both the Movieline Magazine’s list for 100 Best Female Character Roles (#6) and Filmsite’s Greatest Film Characters of All Time.

Movieline highlights Mary Bailey as “a tribute to a lost breed — women who quietly, unfussily prevail.”

Do you agree?

Sources used:


Three cheers for librarians!

Round-up of Christmas-themed reel librarian films

Note: You can browse a more updated Christmas-themed movie round-up in my “Holiday round-up with reel librarians, 2019 update” post

Spreading the holiday cheer… with the following, you don’t have to choose between Christmas and reel librarians. Happy Holidays!

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946):  And what Christmas-themed movie list would be complete without It’s a Wonderful Life? And if you’ve been reading this blog even a little bit, you’ll know it contains a fleeting (30 seconds) yet lasting impression of the classic Spinster Librarian. But of course, all is well at the end of this classic movie.

It’s A Wonderful Life – Trailer” video uploaded by londonforchristmas is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

The Desk Set (1957): Not a Christmas movie in and of itself, but this classic librarian film boasts a fantastically funny — and boozy — office Christmas party in the research department library. And some fabulous frocks. BONUS: Bongos!

A Very Drunk Katharine Hepburn” video uploaded by angeloflove is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Christmas on Division Street (TV, 1991): Admittedly, I haven’t been able to watch this Emmy-nominated TV movie yet, but the credits do list a Librarian and Library Guard. One IMDb reviewer commented that “One day, while Trevor is searching for books in a library for his school assignment on American History, he meets a homeless old man, Cleve (Hume Cronyn).” Hmmm… a library guard in the credits in a TV movie about a homeless guy…

Home by Christmas (TV, 2006): Another TV movie I haven’t been able to get my hands on yet, but a Librarian is included in the credits. As par for the course of most Christmas movies, it seems to start out really depressing. As an IMDb review states, “Linda Hamilton’s character being cheated on by her husband and then going through a series of (certainly plausible) extremely hard and devastating times. But, as the movie progresses, there is a lot of laughter, lessons and a really nice and touching story that makes this movie thoroughly enjoyable.

Sources used:

Closing time in ‘Shadow of a Doubt’

Charlie’s whole world falls to pieces in that library … but order struggles to win in the end.

The 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt, reportedly one of Hitchcock’s personal favorites of his own films, is a clever suspense story. He smartly cast Teresa Wright as Charlotte “Young Charlie” Newton, the moral center of the story, who begins to wonder if her beloved Uncle Charlie is the notorious “Merry Widow Murderer.” And Joseph Cotten, as her namesake uncle, gets to show off some of his best acting skills in this film, in a role that requires him to be quite charming in a way that lets you know there’s more beneath the surface.

Hitchcock shot most of the film on location in Santa Rosa, California, and there is a brief library scene. The old library — a Carnegie library built in 1904 — was torn down in 1964. The library, in quintessential Carnegie style, is made of brick and covered with ivy, with a large sign proclaiming it a “Free Public Library.”

Santa Rosa Carnegie Library, as seen in 1905 (public domain)
Ivy-covered exterior of the Santa Rose Carnegie library, 1943, as seen in 'Shadow of a Doubt'
Ivy-covered exterior of the Santa Rose Carnegie library, 1943, as seen in ‘Shadow of a Doubt’

Charlie hurries out to the library to look up a newspaper clipping — a vital  clue to the mystery of the “Merry Widow” murders. We see her hurry through town, spliced with quick shots of the town hall clock, almost colliding with a car while trying to cross a busy street. The lights in the library switch off (helping to set the tone of suspense and shadows) and the bells begin to ring just as Charlie scrambles up the front steps. Finding the doors already locked — this is one efficient librarian! —  Charlie doesn’t give up; she  knocks several times on the front glass door (which prominently displays the opening and closing times) until the librarian, Mrs. Cochran, reluctantly lets her in.

Screenshot from 'Shadow of a Doubt'
Closing time

Played by Eily Malyon in an uncredited role, the reel librarian is an older woman with her white and grey hair pulled back in a bun. She does not wear glasses but is dressed quite sensibly with a long-sleeved dark shirtdress that hits below her knees. Her makeup, if any, is minimal, but she does wear a classic pair of pearl earrings. Of course, she is also wearing a watch!

Mrs. Cochran loses no time in reprimanding Charlotte:

Really, you know as well as I do the library closes at 9. If I make one exception, I’ll have to make a thousand. I’m surprised at you, Charlie, no consideration. You’ve got all day to come here…  I’ll give you just 3 minutes!

Charlie apologizes quite profusely but wastes no time herself in bee-lining it to the (quite impressively large) newspaper section. She quickly locates a back issue and finds the article she’s looking for about the Merry Widow murders.

Shocked and disoriented, Charlie stands up; visually reflecting her emotions, the camera then reels up to a bird’s-eye view of the library’s main floor. We then get to see a more expansive view of the library (thank you Hitchcock!), with its large, wooden Circulation desk, multiple tables and chairs, classical columns, and glimpses of adjoining rooms. The camera work is impressive; as Jim McDevitt and Eric San Juan write in their interesting work, A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks with the Master of Suspense, “The dramatic pullback shot in the library, when realization first dawns on her, punctuates the isolation she must feel at that moment” (p. 158).

Charlie’s whole world falls to pieces in that library, based on the info she finds in that newspaper — but order struggles to win in the end. As Hitchcock visually demonstrates, the columns stand tall, the wooden doors and panels seem solid — but they’re half-obscured in shadow. Despite Charlie’s internal confusion, the walls of her outside world are still standing. But is it all just surface, a mirage, a public room almost empty? (I totally get symbolism. ;))

So what is the point of the reel librarian in this short, but important, library scene? Mrs. Cochran serves to intensify the tension and suspense, an obstacle Charlie must overcome in a race against time to find out if her uncle is a serial killer or not.  The librarian provides another layer to the tension caused by the conflict between order and chaos. Mrs. Cochran is also the gatekeeper — in a literal sense — of information vital to the mystery. In this way, Mrs. Cochran fulfills the Information Provider role.

She also exhibits some characteristics of the Spinster Librarian, albeit a less severe one. Uptight, no-nonsense personality? Check. Focused more on rules than people? Check. Hair in a bun? Check. Sensible, nondescript clothing? Check.

Sources used:

  • McDevitt, Jim, and Eric San Juan. A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks with the Master of Suspense. Scarecrow Press, 2011.
  • Shadow of a Doubt. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotton, Henry Travers, Hume Cronyn, Patricia Collinge. Universal, 1943.

Are you not entertained?! Library references in ‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane’

She lies and says, “In the library.”

The 1970 film Entertaining Mr. Sloane is a film adaptation of Joe Orton’s play of the same name. I didn’t know anything about Joe Orton before I watched Prick Up Your Ears (1987), a biopic of his life and murder (that film includes two reel librarians, whose characterizations made my Hall of Shame list). Orton was a controversial figure who wrote controversial plays.

I can see how Entertaining Mr. Sloane was a groundbreaking play. It takes a comedy of manners and twists it through a lens of satire, sex, and pitch-black humor. The main plot involves the opportunistic Mr. Sloane (Peter McEnery) who lodges with an eccentric family, consisting of the aging nymphomaniac Kath (Beryl Reid), her uptight brother Ed (Harry Andrews), and their doddery Dadda (Alan Webb).

Entertaining mr sloane (1970) trailer” video uploaded by rocknrollheart67 is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Does it have a librarian? No.

But there’s a bit more to the story. So stick with me.

About twenty-one minutes in the film, after Kath has picked up the lodger, her brother Ed returns and demands to know where she picked him up.

She lies and says, “In the library.”

Where did she actually pick him up? In the cemetery, where he was lounging on a tombstone with no shirt on.

Ed goes up to talk to the lodger in his bedroom. Sloane — after a run-in with a pitchfork (don’t ask, nothing really makes sense) — is lounging this time on the guest bed, clad only in his undies.

After a bit of chit-chat, Ed muses, “You’re a librarian.”

Sloane’s response. “NO!”

Ed: “No? That’s what she said.”

Sloane mumbles something about having worked at a tobacconist, but who knows if that’s the truth. He’s an opportunistic, manipulative liar. But even HE couldn’t see his way through to make believe he was a librarian. 😉

It’s interesting, however, that even in a film like this which has no reel librarian, the profession is used in a lie. The sister uses the location of the library in a desperate attempt at respectability. Alas, in the case of Mr. Sloane, plausibility was not an option.

I suspect Orton also included the mention of the library to wink at his own criminal past — he and his lover amused themselves by stealing library books and defacing them. For this guerilla artistic expression, Orton served 6 months in jail in 1962 — an incident included in the biopic Prick Up Your EarsAnd in classic pop culture fashion, the book covers have since become a popular collection for the Islington Local History Centre! Check out the online gallery of these infamous book jackets.

Sources used:

  • Entertaining Mr. Sloane. Dir. Douglas Hickox. Perf. Beryl Reid, Harry Andrews, Peter McEnery. Canterbury Film Productions, 1970.
  • Gallery.” Joe Orton Online, n.d.

Silence is golden in the silent film ‘The Blot’

Women who work in respectable professions have better opportunities of meeting respectable young men, with the aim of marrying and eventually leaving the profession — a classic plot for many reel librarians.

The title of this silent film, The Blot (1921), refers not to the librarian profession (thank goodness), but rather the blot of poverty, as well as societal disregard for intellectuals. Most definitely a message film — one whose message is, unfortunately, not blunted by modern times — it was directed and co-written by Lois Weber, one of the first major female directors.

Weber, who directed over 100 films, was the first woman inducted into the Motion Picture Directors Association, which was basically reformed into the Directors Guild in 1936. She and her husband, Phillips Smalley, had formed their own production company, Lois Weber Productions in 1917 (see the logo in poster, below). After signing a $250,000 deal with Paramount Studios in 1920, the year before The Blot was released, Weber was the highest-paid director in Hollywood.

Advertisement for The Blot, highlighting director Lois Weber (public domain)
Advertisement for The Blot, highlighting director Lois Weber (public domain)

This socially conscious film — shot in sequence and mostly on location in the Boyle Heights neighborhood and the old University of California campus in Los Angeles — contrasts a poor college professor’s family with their more affluent neighbors, immigrant shoemakers. The professor’s daughter, Amelia Griggs (played by Claire Windsor), works at the public library. Throughout the film, Amelia attracts three potential suitors: one of her father’s students, a rich and rowdy young man called Phil West (Louis Calhern); the quiet, serious Reverend Gates; and the eldest son of their neighbors.

We first meet Amelia behind the Circulation desk counter, and she is quite pretty, with long, curly dark hair pinned back. A sign warning SILENCE is visible behind her. (And it’s in a SILENT film, hah!)

Claire Windsor in The Blot (public domain)
Claire Windsor in The Blot (public domain)

Amelia’s co-worker (uncredited) is an older female librarian, also seen behind the Circulation counter. Generally nondescript, she appears middle-aged, with her brunette hair pulled back in a bun. Although the two woman dress similarly — high-necked blouses, cardigans, hair pulled back in buns — Amelia seems much more stylish. The older librarian is obviously well on her way to spinsterhood.

Overall, from the few scenes set in the library, the ladies seem efficient, pleasant, and well-liked by community members. They display a variety of library-related tasks: answering the telephone, helping users in the stacks, shelving books, checking out books, and answering reference questions.

Phil comes to see Amelia at the library — unbeknownst to his friends, of course — but Amelia is suspicious of his attentions. She even catches him in a lie about reading books! However, she’s more worried about ruining her sensible heels by walking home; therefore, she rides home with the prospective suitor. She is later impressed by the flowers the rich boy gives her, but also displays a quiet pride when the young man brings up her father’s poverty.

The young man describes her as a “working girl”, but she is also referred to as “stuck up” by their neighbors. This is because the Griggs family tries desperately to conceal their financial plight. The movie’s plot turns when Amelia’s mother steals food. Amelia is appalled by her mother’s behavior and wishes “if only she had the courage” to force her mother to return the stolen food. Amelia seems happier at work, going back even when she becomes ill from a combination of malnutrition and severe exhaustion. Amelia is quite admirable — winning the affections of many throughout the film — even if she does come off a little too saintly. She does the honorable thing by finally admitting to their poverty and talking to their neighbors about her mother stealing food. Amelia fulfills the Spirited Young Girl character type:  a young, stylish woman who works in the library — a temporary job — who meets the leading man while working. She is not a Liberated Librarian, because she doesn’t really change throughout the film; rather, Amelia’s strength of character and innate goodness changes others.

Click to view film clips from The Blot
Click to view film clips from The Blot

The film is quite unusual, especially in its theme of examining the poverty of professionals — educators, ministers,  librarians, etc. — which is also a (surprisingly?) timely subject for modern times. There is also an underlying message of how the love of a good woman can change a man to good works.

So why a librarian? I’ve categorized the film as Class II, in which a major character is a reel librarian, but the profession has no direct effect on the film. After all, Amelia’s wages as a librarian are so low that she makes no apparent contribution to the family’s income; there is no mention at all about her salary in a movie about poverty (!), which is quite revealing in and of itself. But by this time, the early 1920s, librarianship was an established profession for women — a respectable profession for respectable young (and older) ladies. And, of course, women who work in respectable professions have better opportunities of meeting respectable young men, with the aim of marrying and eventually leaving the profession — a classic plot for many reel librarians.

Sources used:

  • The Blot. Dir. Phillips Smalley & Lois Weber. Perf. Philip Hubbard, Margaret McWade, Claire Windsor. Lois Weber Productions, 1921.
  • Lois Weber” via Wikipedia is licensed under CC BY SA 3.0
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