The 1944 film Weird Woman, directed by Reginald Le Borg, is a horror story, one whose title character could be either of the two main female characters in the film.
While on an expedition in the South Seas, college professor Norman Reed (Lon Chaney, Jr.) marries Paula (Anne Gwynne), a native woman who continues her superstitious beliefs upon their return to the U.S. His unexpected marriage angers his ex-girlfriend, college librarian Ilona (Evelyn Ankers, who starred in several horror films, including the classic The Wolf Man), who embarks on revenge.
Hell hath no fury… like a librarian scorned!
Ilona is blonde, young, beautiful, and wears striking modern clothing. However, she does not seem like a dedicated librarian because she is never in the library; rather, she is always in her office, which appears as large as or even bigger than the actual library. Of the actual college library, we only get to see a glimpse of bookcases, a ladder, and a dictionary stand.
Her student assistant, Margaret, shelves books, and students always have to open Ilona’s door in order to talk to her. Margaret, obviously intelligent and efficient, displays an eagerness to help. She is a brunette with shoulder-length hair, skirt suit, and no glasses. Ilona, of course, abuses her assistant’s eagerness and stirs up trouble among Margaret, her boyfriend, and Professor Reed.
Ilona is a classic example of a Naughty Librarian who turns to violent and/or criminal manipulation when her love is unrequited or thwarted. She also uses her library’s resources to create more mischief (of course!). She is the (deserving?) recipient of several nasty, unflattering comments, including the following descriptions:
“A jealous old cat”
“There’s something about your smile right now that makes me think of Jack the Ripper”
An interesting note about the film’s 1962 remake: In Burn, Witch Burn! (aka The Night of the Eagle), the librarian character is changed to a female professor. The character’s name is also changed, from Ilona Carr to Flora Carr. The student library assistant’s name, Margaret Mercer, is also changed in the remake, to Margaret Abbott; her occupation, other than that of a student, is unknown in the 1962 version.
Weird Woman. Dir. Reginald Le Borg. Perf. Lon Chaney, Jr., Anne Gwynne, Evelyn Ankers. Universal, 1944.
Research on this topic continues to build, and hopefully, more respect is given to reel — and real! — librarians in the process.
Since the 1970s, the study of “popular culture” has increased in academic relevance, but I believe the image of librarians in media really began to be looked at as a serious topic of research after 1989. That was when ALA declared it the “Year of the Librarian” in its January 1989 issue of American Libraries. The article, below, and theme focused on the media image of librarians and “public awareness efforts on the library professional for the first time.”
There had been general research studies on librarians before, like Pauline Wilson’s book, Stereotype and Status: Librarians in the United States, published in 1982. However, researchers began to look more at media portrayals of librarians, which had not really been delved into that deeply before.
In 1990, Martin Raish, an academic librarian, began a class discussion on the image of librarians and Hollywood’s contribution (as described in the 1997 School Library Journal article “Reel Librarians Don’t Always Wear Buns” – see Resources). This class discussion spurred a major project that has since produced several articles; a web site, Librarians in the Movies: An Annotated Filmography; and several book contributions. I appreciate that Raish went beyond stereotypes, as the article states:
For one, he doesn’t subscribe to the view that the film industry has portrayed librarians only as stereotypes. “There’s a lot of old ladies with their hair in a bun that go around saying ‘shush,'” he acknowledged, “but there’s a lot of films where they’re bright, young, energetic.”
Amen! However, there is a notice on his web site that he has retired, and therefore, the site will no longer be maintained. Martin Raish continues as one of the major voices in librarian film research because he was one of the first — he began just a year after ALA’s “Year of the Librarian.” Also, in that year, 1990, at least 5 related articles/studies, including 1 dissertation, were published (see Resources).
The Popular Culture Association, which teams its annual conference with the American Culture Association, includes a section exclusively for “Libraries, Archives, Museums, and Popular research.” In 2005, McFarland & Company published a book-length analysis on this topic, with the very well-researched title, The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999, by Ray & Brenda Tevis (yep, I’ve got a copy!). And in 2007, The Hollywood Librarian documentary premiered at the ALA Conference in Washington, D.C.; the documentary combines film clips and interviews of actual librarians. (Note to self: I need a copy of this documentary.)
So it is quite encouraging that research on this topic continues to build, and hopefully, more respect is given to reel — and real! — librarians in the process.
Brooks, Jon. “Reel Librarians Don’t Always Wear Buns.” School Library Journal Aug. 1997: 22.
Tevis, Ray, and Brenda Tevis. The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999. McFarland, 2005.
How should a woman react when she is mistaken for a Spinster Librarian? To her credit, Dr. Constance Petersen, played by the beautiful Ingrid Bergman, takes it in good humor. The moment does inject a bit of comedy (although at the expense of librarians!) in the otherwise suspenseful and dramatic film, Spellbound (1945).
In this Hitchcock classic — which features a stunning dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali — Dr. Petersen (Bergman) realizes that the mental hospital’s new director, Dr. Edwardes (Peck), is an imposter and suffers from paranoid amnesia. They go on the run to find out what happened to the real Dr. Edwardes.
While Bergman waits for Peck in a hotel lobby — remember, they are on the run, so recognition would be disastrous — she comes under the scrutiny of the house detective. He tries to guess her occupation, and by her conservative appearance (dark and conservative suit & hat), he guesses either schoolteacher or librarian! She is mistaken for a Spinster Librarian. A success for her character, as her real identity and occupation are safe, but alas, a step backward for (real) librarians.
Spellbound. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, Leo G. Carroll, Michael Chekhov. Selznick International, 1945.
“Suzanne is a librarian who breaks with her stuffy New England background to live this… ‘Rome Adventure’!”
In Rome Adventure (1962), Suzanne Pleshette plays Prudence Bell, an assistant librarian at the Briarcroft College for Women. The first scene sets the stage: Prudence lands in trouble for letting a young girl read Lovers Must Learn, a book considered “too adult” for this school. The board has banned the book (this also serves as a clever advertisement for the real book, which the film was based on, and its author, Irving Fineman, who is name-dropped in the first five minutes) and reprimands Prudence in the process. Prudence, however, stands up to them and defies their rules. She delivers a speech about the importance of love — what’s hiding in every girl’s heart, that need to be loved — and quits the library to follow the book’s advice. She says, “This is Independence Day!” We are on her side for standing up to the board — and, in effect, standing up against censorship. [Plus, this week is the annual Banned Books Week, so this post is right on target!]
She is “going out to find love instead of waiting for it” (as apparently she has been doing as a librarian at a girls’ school?). Part of this scene is highlighted (albeit a little misleadingly) in the film’s trailer, below.
This was Suzanne Pleshette’s first leading role (although she gets 4th billing), and she was one of the loveliest actresses of her day. Her character is dressed in conservative but stylish suits, and her hairstyle and makeup are modern and fresh. Pleshette had a very direct kind of acting style — coupled with her trademark throaty voice — which works for this film, as it strengthens what might have otherwise been a very insipid role in lesser hands. Pleshette injects an intelligence and witty humor behind Prudence’s (forgive me!) slightly prudent demeanor.
Prudence is a prime example of the Liberated Librarian character type, a woman whose “liberation” often becomes the major plot. Liberated Librarians may even seem on the path to Spinster Librarians, but are spared from this oh-so-terrible fate (tongue firmly in cheek). This is the case for Rome Adventure, and Prudence even says early on: “I have absolutely no talent for being a spinster.”
So Prudence travels to Rome, to learn and to get a job — which the plot promptly serves up. Prudence begins work at The American Bookshop, befriending another American who fell in love with Italy (and Italian men).
This plot and setting is quite familiar, taking cues from the classic Roman Holiday (1953) and Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), both Best Picture nominees. The original title for both this film and the novel it’s based on was Lovers Must Learn, but they most likely changed the film’s name in an effort to capture a bit of borrowed glory from Roman Holiday. Even the packaging is similar. We get to see lots of iconic Roman sights, coupled with pretty girls in pretty dresses falling in love and learning “the ways of the world” along the way. Nothing wrong with that!
Prudence rapidly falls in love, saying those three little words on her first date with Don Porter, played by then-heartthrob Troy Donahue. Onscreen romance led to love off-screen, as well — Suzanne Pleshette and Troy Donahue were married, albeit briefly (8 months), after this film was released. In the film, Prudence goes on a trip with Don — just the two of them — but is concerned about what her mother might think of her affair. “I can’t run away from my conscience!” But she valiantly battles with her rival in love, an ex-girlfriend in the shape of sexy Angie Dickinson. Romantic complications ensue, and she seeks lessons in love from the master, Rossano Brazzi (who is totally more swoon-worthy than Troy Donahue, in my opinion), who helps change her image to a sexier one. But this sexier image is one that Prudence — proving her namesake to the end — ultimately rejects, saying “I think first I better change back into me.”
Prudence’s liberation comes full circle. She decides to go back home because the cost to her freedom and self-respect is too much — and even if her choices at the end of the film may seem conventional, the point is that she did learn, but only by making her own choices.
After rewatching this film, I can’t help thinking, WHY is Prudence a librarian? Her initial profession is certainly highlighted in the trailer — which was a surprise to me! — but why wasn’t she a teacher or even a flower shop assistant? Was “librarian” a profession chosen at random? I haven’t found a copy of the book yet to see if she’s a librarian on the page as well as on screen (that is now added to my to-do list). That might be the easy answer, but again, why a librarian? I think a young woman in that profession lends an air of intelligence and, let’s be honest, respectability — which she might need as support once she goes traipsing on long weekends in Italy! And, harkening back to my more cynical point-of-view, being a librarian provides a more solid contrast to the idea of “liberation” — that without this chance of a “Rome Adventure” to broaden her horizons, she will have to face a future of spinsterhood (and overbearing would-be censors, a sad fate indeed). There just isn’t the same kind of contrast if she had simply been a salesclerk or a young lady with no profession. So when Prudence does explore her sexuality in the film, the audience might even be relieved for her, instead of condemning her more liberated escapades (perhaps a more serious issue in 1962, when the film was released?). Ahhh, the specter of the Spinster Librarian!
Rome Adventure. Dir. Delmer Daves. Perf. Suzanne Pleshette, Troy Donahue, Angie Dickinson, Rossano Brazzi. Warner Bros., 1962.