Reviewing ‘The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999’

In last week’s post, I mentioned and quoted from a book I have in my personal library, The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999, written by Ray Tevis and Brenda Tevis and published by McFarland in 2005. Although I have quoted from this book in several previous posts, and the book is included on my Resources page, I realized that I had not yet devoted an entire post to this book!

Reel Librarians | Front cover of 'The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999'

Front cover of ‘The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999’

My husband picked up this book for me at a Popular Culture Association Conference years ago, knowing that I would find it useful. And I have! In prior posts, I have described this Tevis book as “invaluable” and “well-researched” and “a great source for information on reel librarians.” The authors also refer to librarians in cinema as “reel librarians,” as evidenced in their table of contents.

Reel Librarians | Table of contents of 'The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999'

Table of contents of ‘The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999’

The Tevises, who are themselves librarians, organize the book by time period and highlight patterns throughout film history in regards to librarian portrayals onscreen. (Librarians have been in film since the silent screen days, with one of the first reel librarian film sightings in 1917, with A Wife on Trial.) The Tevises identify an early turning point for reel librarians — for better or for worse — with the 1923 film, Only 38; they continue to use that phrase, “only 38,” throughout the rest of the book. As they highlight:

Throughout the twentieth century, the majority of reel librarians, especially those in supporting roles, will be afflicted with this “only 38” characteristic. These reel librarians are portrayed as middle-aged or older, a stigmatization of librarians that begins the first time individuals, when as children, enter a library and encounter an adult librarian, an “only 38” person. (p. 13)

Reel Librarians | Page in 'The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999'

Section in book about the film ‘Only 38’

In a 2012 post entitled “The Liberated Librarian (ladies, you’re up),” I connect the “only 38” stereotype with my own “Liberated Librarian” character type.

The Tevises also include a filmography of films included in the book and note common characteristics of reel librarians in those films, such as “B” for “Bun” and “E” for “Eyeglasses.”

Reel Librarians | Filmography in 'The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999'

Filmography of movies that were included in the book

These details then are collected in tables in the Afterword, with percentages of reel librarians who wear eyeglasses, etc. I highlighted these tables in my “Visual characteristics of reel librarians” post, comparing characteristics of “reel” versus “real” librarians. Take a look at that past post — the comparisons might surprise you!

There is also a filmography of films NOT included in the film, along with the reasons why. For example, they did not choose to include science fiction/fantasy films, TV movies, short films, or prison films, among others. (I do choose to include these kinds of films in my own Master List and other related lists on this site.)

Reel Librarians | Filmography in 'The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999'

Filmography of movies not included in the book

On the back cover, the write-up highlights a silent 1921 film that “set the precedent for two female librarian characters: a dowdy spinster wears glasses and a bun hairstyle, and an attractive woman is overworked and underpaid.” The (unnamed) film referred to on the back cover is 1921’s The Lost Romance.

Reel Librarians | Back cover of 'The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999'

Back cover of ‘The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999’

Reel Librarians | Page in 'The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999'

Section in book about the film ‘The Lost Romance’

So if you are interested in this research topic, then I would recommend checking out a copy of this book, as it is one of the most comprehensive collections and analyses of reel librarians I have come across in printed form. It is available, new or used, on Amazon.com, and according to WorldCat, it’s available in multiple formats in almost 400 libraries worldwide, if you’d like to request it from your local library via InterLibrary Loan (ILL).

I do refer to The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999 as a “reference book,” as it is not the kind of escapist book you read in bed the end of a long day. It doesn’t serve that purpose — not even for me! It has been referred to in one external review as “slow-moving” (libref); I would describe the pace as methodical, as the authors work through 80+ years of reel librarian portrayals and “employ a content analysis methodology to examine reel librarians” (Riggins).

I am grateful that Ray and Brenda Tevis spent years researching this topic — kindred spirits, I am sure! — and were able to capture that research in this book, which I will continue to find useful in my own exploration of reel librarian portrayals.

Works Cited:

Libref. “Librarians in Cinema.” Wells Reference Blog, Indiana University Libraries. 22 October 2015. Web. 14 June 2016.

Riggins, Adina L. “Review of the book ‘The image of librarians in cinema, 1917-1999.” NC Docks, The University of North Carolina, Greensboro. 2009. Web. 14 June 2016.

Tevis, Ray and Brenda Tevis. The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2005.

Reader poll write-up: Navy Blues

It’s time for my analysis of the movie that readers chose in the latest reader poll, 1937’s Navy Blues. The film stars Dick Purcell as Russell J. ‘Rusty’ Gibbs, a sailor whose friends bet that he can’t get a woman of their choosing to go out on a date with him. The woman they choose is a librarian, Doris, played by Mary Brian. Here’s her opening screen credit(s), which provide a sneak peek at the plot to come:

Reel Librarians | Opening credits in 'Navy Blues' (1937)

Reel Librarians | Opening credits in 'Navy Blues' (1937)

One reader shared that they voted for Navy Blues because the main star, Dick Purcell, portrayed Captain America in the 1943 serial film. As good a reason as any!

*SPOILER ALERTS THROUGHOUT*

I first mentioned the film Navy Blues on this site in the 2012 post “Have you seen this movie?,” in which I highlighted movies with major librarian characters that I had not been able to locate copies of. I did locate a streaming copy of it available online via YouTube (but of course, the video quality is not the best).

In their book The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999, Ray and Brenda Tevis do not mince words about this film:

Navy Blues renders such a visual and verbal assault on librarians that the motion picture effectively released the film industry from continuing any semblance of decent and respectful cinematic depictions of librarians. […] More importantly, in this film the sailors continually lambaste its librarian, demonstrating outright disrespect for women librarians. (p. 33)

In addition to being a mediocre film, Navy Blues is an extremely insensitive assault on librarians. Not all cinematic depictions of librarians in preceding motion pictures are commendatory toward the occupation, but none is more outlandish in its derision of librarians. (p. 35-36)

It is a mediocre film, one that starts off on a comedic, happy-go-lucky tone, and about two-thirds of the way in, elements of spy and action thrillers get added into the mix. It’s an odd combination. And due to its extremely negative portrayal of reel librarianship, I have to admit at having to stop the film at certain points to get my blood pressure down before continuing. And that’s before I reread the film’s entry in the Tevis book!

Less than five minutes into the 77-minute film, the librarian is referred to as a “bow-wow,” a slang term for “dog” — and in this context, also a slang term for “ugly.”

Here’s how that scene plays out, which takes place after Rusty’s sailor pals go ashore to start their shore leave.

Chips: I saw a dame in a public li-berry once.

Biff and Gateleg:  Where?!

Chips: Now don’t get me wrong, boys, I just popped in there out of the rain. Well, I took one gander at this dame and ran right out again, rain or no rain.

Biff:  That bad?

Chips: Yeah. A bow-wow.

A few minutes later, Rusty takes the bet, and they drop him off at the library. The sign says it’s the “Harbor Branch.”

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Navy Blues' (1937)

Chip:  In there, sailor.

Rusty:  A library, eh? I’ve been in libraries before. They don’t scare me.

Chip:  Don’t you think you’ll need an introduction?

Rusty:  Say, how will I know her?

Chip:  She’s got on a pair of glasses as thick as cookies. You know the type! [Laughs hysterically]

Rusty strides into the library and asks for the first book title he sees, Advanced Algebra by Hammersmith. This turns out to be an important plot point — as the book he picks out turns out to be used as a code book for a spy ring! As Rusty later laments, “Of all the books in the library, I had to take that one!”

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Navy Blues' (1937)

He tries to butter up the librarian with cliché phrases like, “Old books, you know, are like old friends” and “When I get engrossed in a book, the hours just fly.” She isn’t having any of it and crisply hands the book over and informs him of closing time.

She also climbs a book ladder a few minutes later, and Rusty makes a face at the closeup of her ankle, encased in sturdy Oxfords. The reel librarian makes a face right back at him.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Navy Blues' (1937)

Rusty’s friends are waiting for him outside the library, wondering what is taking him so long. When the librarian — we learn her name is “Miss Kimbell” and later learn her first name, Doris — closes up the library, she walks out with another man named Julian. (By the way, Julian turns out to be a spy who was using the Advanced Algebra book to pass through codes and secret information! Because no one could actually be interested in a woman librarian!) Rusty manages to infiltrate himself into the situation and helps walk Mary home.

His friends are astounded, and we get these further insults in rapid-fire succession:

He must be a glutton for punishment.

It must be Thanksgiving or something. She’s all made up like a pilgrim.

It’ll take a brave man to wheel that museum piece into the Crow’s Nest.

So within the film’s first 10 minutes, the reel librarian is the subject of multiple insults, from “bow wow” to “museum piece.” And we still have 60 minutes to go!

Even her aunt and uncle get in on the insults:

Aunt Beulah:  How do I know where he’s luring Doris to?

Uncle Andrew:  She’s probably luring him, to some roundtable discussion. And that’ll end it.

I will highlight just two more scenes.

First, the romantic scene that includes a makeover, or at least the description of a makeover. (At this point, my husband — who was only half paying attention — looked up and said, “This plot sounds just like the movie She’s All That!” He’s not wrong about that, at least until the spy ring and naval intelligence get involved.)

Here’s a clip of that scene, coming in at 20 minutes into the film and lasting about 3 minutes.

This scene has Rusty assuring that Doris doesn’t need to wear glasses — “But you can see without them?” — and that she should make more of an effort to look feminine — “I don’t know how long you’ve been wearing this disguise, but I’m gonna be around to see the unveiling.” (More jabs at the “museum piece” analogy.)

Rusty also “accidentally” drops her glasses while they kiss on the beach at sunset, and her glasses break on the rocks. Grrrrrrrrr… this necessitated me pausing the film. Because RAGE. Laser beams coming out of my own pair of glasses, which I will keep right on wearing, thank you very much.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Navy Blues' (1937)

Rusty — never offering to pay for her broken eyeglasses, no surprise there — has an ulterior motive for her makeover, as he wants to bring her to the Crow’s Nest bar to show her off to his friends and collect his cash for the bet. But his plan backfires, as his pals don’t believe it’s the “li-berrian” they saw before. They refuse to pay, because “That girl’s a ringer.”

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Navy Blues' (1937)

To convince them, he makes up a story — it involves him lying about being an undercover naval intelligence agent, which had me seriously doubting Doris’s intelligence — and forcing her to put on another pair of glasses while he hand-mimics “four eyes” in the background. Now they recognize her!

This scene is like the flip side of Superman’s “disguise” as Clark Kent, with no one recognizing him whenever he wears glasses. In this movie, no one recognizes the librarian unless she’s wearing glasses!

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Navy Blues' (1937)

At the end of this scene, Doris finds out about Rusty’s bet and storms off, and he goes after her. Fair warning, this is the most rage-inducing scene in the entire film:

Rusty:  Sure I made that bet. Why else would I have bothered with a freak like you?

Doris:  A freak?!

Rusty:  Well, that’s what you were. I changed you over from a crow, a bookworm. Made you into a girl that could take her pick of anything.

The actress’s facial expression matched my own:

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Navy Blues' (1937)

She rightly slams the door in his face. Attagirl! (Too bad she later forgives him.)

I have to admit, this film was exhausting to watch and to weather all the insults hurled at reel librarians — and insults hurled at women in general. I cannot divorce my analysis of this film apart from my being a librarian and a woman librarian at that. I am biased. So is this film. (Written by two men, I might add.)

The librarian profession is central to the plot, making it a Class I film, but the profession is there to be mocked at! I mean, isn’t it funny that a man was TRICKED to court a librarian?! HILARIOUS.:/

The character seems destined for early spinsterhood and is rules-obsessed (in the opening library scene, she says, “[I]f it’s so important to you, I might waive a rule”), but as the film continues, it’s obvious that Doris Kimbell fulfills the Liberated Librarian character type. I mean that in a tongue-in-cheek, rolling-my-eyes kind of way, as she doesn’t need to be liberated from anything. But this is the kind of film in which stereotypes will be stereotypes, and the star always gets the girl, even if the star plays a character who is arrogant, rude, and a pathological liar.

Reel Librarians | Closeup of library book in 'Navy Blues' (1937)

I will end this post with a tidbit about the book at the center of this film, Hammersmith’s Advanced Algebra. Y’all knew I would look that up, right? Well, you were right — I used both a basic Google search plus a search in WorldCat, the “world’s library catalog.” I could not find any book with that exact title and author, and from the closeup above, it does look like the title on the spine could be pasted on. However, I did find a book in WorldCat titled Advanced Algebra (Vol. 2), published in 1937 (the same year as this film) and written by Clement Vavasor Durell and Alan Robson — and here’s the kicker — with a copy in the Hammersmith & Fulham Libraries in Hammersmith, UK.

Coincidence? You be the judge! Discuss and share your thoughts about the film in the comments.

Reader poll winner: You chose your next adventure!

The votes are in… and y’all chose the 1937 comedy Navy Blues as your next adventure! The film stars Dick Purcell as Russell J. ‘Rusty’ Gibbs, a sailor whose friends bet that he can’t get a woman of their choosing to go out on a date with him. The woman they choose is a librarian, played by Mary Brian.

Next week I will be back with a film analysis post about Navy Blues. Stay tuned!

It’s reader poll time again! Choose your next adventure

If you’re a regular reader — as always, thank you! — then you know that I open up a reader poll every few months, when I ask readers to vote for the next film for me to analyze. You can see past reader polls here.

I’ve pulled together four film titles from various sources, two titles that I’ve recorded on DVR as well as two titles available to view online.

Now is the time to choose your next adventure!

Reader poll poster collage

Collage of movie posters from, left to right: A Girl Named Tamiko, Navy Blues, This Happy Breed, and This Was Paris


A Girl Named Tamiko (1962)

  • The title character of Tamiko, who is from a wealthy Japanese family, works as a librarian for the Foreign Press Club in Tokyo. There are a couple of scenes set in the Foreign Press Club library.
  • Available to view online via The Paramount Vault

Navy Blues (1937)

  • B-movie plot centers on 3 sailor pals, who bet that ladykiller Rusty can’t get a woman of their choosing to go out on a date with him. The woman they choose? A librarian, of course.
  • Available to view online

This Happy Breed (1944)

  • Follows one British family from the end of WWI (1919) through the start of WWII (1939). Aunt Sylvia is a tiresome maiden aunt and hypochondriac who is always complaining. She lives with her brother’s family and has declared herself too ill to work, but about 2/3 through the film, we learn she has been working at the library.
  • Based on Noel’s Coward’s 1939 play of the same title.
  • Recorded on DVR

This Was Paris (1942)

  • A comic spy thriller set in Paris in 1940, before the German invasion. A reporter suspects a man of being a German spy, so he looks at the newspaper archives—and he makes a mess by throwing pictures and files around. He also takes time to insult Watson, the newspaper librarian.
  • Recorded off TV onto blank VHS tape

What should I watch next and analyze? You decide!

‘Reel Librarians’ gets cited!

And I mean “cited” in a good way!🙂

My “Hall of Shame” page has been cited on the Matthew Wilson: Big Screen Project website. The site outlines a film project for Quiet Please, described as “a short mockumentary … following the life of a librarian who aspires to become a serial killer.” As you do.😉

Screenshot of citation

I am included on the site’s Research Dossier, as well as in the research presentation’s bibliography, which is linked off the dossier page. I have watched the 11-minute short film, which is available to watch here in this post. I’m honestly not sure how my “Hall of Shame” page helped the production, but it’s exciting to be cited!

And if you can’t get enough of reel librarian serial killers, then check out my post about “Killer librarians” as well as my “Little miss serial killer librarian” post.

I will be back next time with a new reader poll, so please check back next week to cast your vote for what film I should watch next!