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.
“You’re not going to like it, George. She’s an old maid. She’s just about to close up the library!”
It’s a wonderful movie, truly. It’s a Wonderful Life. One of my personal favorites, actually. And a personal favorite for many, especially as a TV staple at Christmas, thanks to its lapsed copyright in 1974 (although that was successfully challenged in 1993). The director, Frank Capra, is in top form, as is James Stewart, who displays devastating depth as George Bailey, an ordinary man who aches to be extraordinary. Both deservedly earned Oscar nominations, out of 5 total, including Best Picture.
In the film’s nightmarish second half, George gets a rare second chance to see how life would have been without his presence — a concept that’s been seen time and time again, but it still feels fresh and raw every time I rewatch this movie. And I still find tears in my eyes toward the end when everyone chips in to save good ol’ George Bailey, and when James Stewart whispers, “Attaboy, Clarence” and winks after the bell rings on the Christmas tree. Oh, who am I kidding?! I’m tearing up right now even typing about it!
But…. how do you solve a problem like Mary?
Mary is George’s wife and one true love, played with intelligence and warmth by Donna Reed. We see lots of her in the film’s first half, through childhood adventures and young adulthood until George finally realizes he’s in love with her. Throughout these scenes, she is quite lovely and open and trusting and displays a great sense of humor. She is his equal in every way. And she MUST be believable as his one true love in order for the second half of the film to work, because what she becomes is the straw that finally breaks George. Throughout the nightmare he witnesses in the second half — his brother dying, his mother withdrawing into a bitter old woman — it is the scene with his wife that finally gets to him, that breaks him.
Her scene as the Spinster Librarian is only about 30 seconds long, but that image continues to haunt librarians. Just look at the physical before-and-after:
In the first half, she looks lovely. Modern hairstyle, flattering clothing, fresh and clean. But without George, she suddenly loses her sense of style?! Glasses, sensible clothes, hat, hair pulled back, gloves, no makeup. She is so covered up, almost hiding, with the hat and the gloves and the buttoned-up clothes. This image is the stereotypical prototype for all Spinster Librarians. This does make sense, as the Spinster Librarian is one of the character types that heavily rely on stereotypical visual cues: the severe hairstyle, glasses, and prim clothing.
But worse than that is the change in Mary’s personality. In the first half, she is warm and funny and sweet. In the second half, she has become shy, furtive, non-trusting, and scared of men. A typical Spinster Librarian, right? (Sigh.) Mary clutches her purse, and finally screams and faints when he declares her to be his wife.
Clarence telegraphs the change in Mary: “You’re not going to like it, George. She’s an old maid. She’s just about to close up the library!”
What’s so disturbing about this scene — again, only about 30 seconds long! — is the uncomfortable undertones of this scene (at least for librarians). That without men in our lives, the ultimate nightmare for women is… to become “old maid” librarians?! That if we get married, we are spared from this oh-so-terrible fate? Again, sigh.
I know this scene is taken to extremes for the sake of the plot. George is near breaking point, and he needs a shock to get him to appreciate life again. And Mary becoming an “old maid” highlights the point that they are each other’s true loves — that without the other, they are not truly whole. Plot-wise, this scene makes sense. But emotionally, as a librarian, it is hard to swallow.
So this movie will continue to be a personal favorite — but a personal favorite with an asterisk.
It’s a Wonderful Life. Dir. Frank Capra. Perf. James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers. RKO, 1946.
For me, librarians + movies = love! Technically, this site is a new (and hopefully more permanent) incarnation of my previous “Reel Librarians” site, which I had developed off a previous work site and server. But the site’s back now – hopefully, better than ever. Please check back often or sign up for RSS or email updates.
Role Call, where I’ve highlighted character roles, or types, for reel librarians
Reel Substance, in which I’ve placed films into categories according to how important the librarians are to the film
So where did my interest in reel librarians begin?
I am a proud second-generation librarian — my mother is a (retired) school librarian. We should have both known I would become a librarian, because when I was young, I took (many) stacks of index cards and made a card catalog for my own personal collection of books and magazines. FOR FUN! And I literally grew up in a library — my parents had 5 library collections within our house: 1 for children’s books, 1 for fiction, 1 for non-fiction, 1 for biographies, and 1 for movies. We lived in the country, with only one TV channel available. Therefore, I grew up watching movies!
So this site, connecting librarians and movies, is a perfect combination of what I grew up on and loved — and I hope you will enjoy it a little bit, as well!