‘Blackmail’ and the British Museum

The final chase scene takes place in the British Museum, culminating in the Round Reading Room.

My Irish counterpart, Colin @ Libraries at the Movies, posted some thoughts on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 film Blackmail a little over a year ago — and I’m just now getting around to rewatching this early Hitchcock film. Admittedly not his best film, it was a big commercial hit and was the first British sound film as well as the first example of sound dubbing. Blackmail also includes quite a few experimental touches and echoes of what would become Hitchcock trademarks, and the film features the Round Reading Room of the British Museum. The Round Reading Room — which, alas, was relocated in 1997 — was also the model for the Library of Congress Reading Room.


The final chase scene takes place in the British Museum, culminating in the Round Reading Room.

British Museum sign in Blackmail
British Museum sign in Blackmail

Although no librarian is featured, landing this film in the Class V category, there are several shots of the library. These shots include a birds-eye view overlooking the famous vista, as well as some behind-the-bookcase chase scenes.

Round reading room in the British Museum Library
Round reading room in the British Museum Library
Chase in the British Museum
Chase in the British Museum

The finale is atop the library dome, and Hitchcock gets to show off his amazing visual style, silhouetting the blackmailer and the policemen scurrying across the dome. Finally, in his panic, the blackmailer falls through the dome. The policemen rush up and look over the shattered glass, where one can make out shapes of the round bookshelves far below.

Chase atop the Round Reading Room dome in Blackmail
Chase atop the Round Reading Room dome in Blackmail

As a librarian, I did gasp out loud and shout at the screen, “No! He’s ruined the library!” Perhaps only a librarian would be so horrified at the thought of a body crashing through a library ceiling. I mean, imagine the gore and mess below with the library resources and furniture!

But that’s the genius of a good director. At his best, Hitchcock created suspense and horror by what he didn’t show.

Bird's-eye view of the Round Reading Room in Blackmail
Bird’s-eye view of the Round Reading Room in Blackmail

So why did Hitchcock feature the British Museum and the Round Reading Room? Colin makes a good case that:

“The library is significant because of where it is — the only way out is up, and up is where Hitchcock characters go to fall or jump off things. The director cares nothing for the library qua library.”

I agree, Hitchcock chose the library because of its visual impact — but what an impact! It’s a pretty powerful statement that the British audience watching this film would have felt immediately connected to the Round Reading Room — and even those American audience members who would have recognized the design behind the Library of Congress. It’s also a study in contrasts; the library’s history of tradition and conservatism is emphasized even more by being tainted by the blackmailer and the indignity of a police chase.

Although based on a play of the same title by Charles Bennett — who also penned some of Hitchcock’s best British films, including 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1935’s The 39 Steps, and 1936’s Secret Agent — I have not been able to locate a full-text version of the original play to doublecheck the setting of the final act. The play, which apparently was based on real life events, was a commercial flop in 1928 and starred Tallulah Bankhead. If you’re able to locate a copy of the original play, please let me know!

Sources used:

  • Blackmail. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Anny Ondra, John Longden, Cyril Ritchard. British International Pictures, 1929.
  • British Library” via Wikipedia is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license
  • Higgins, Colin. “Blackmail (1929).” Libraries at the Movies, 14 March 2012.

‘Slightly dangerous’ and snappy

I’m sure an archives librarian would have been helpful in this scenario

The 1943 comedy, Slightly Dangerous, stars Lana Turner as Peggy Evans, a small-town “soda squirt” who leaves town to find adventure, leaving behind a note that makes it seem like she has committed suicide (!). Her former boss (Robert Young) finds her posing as an heiress in New York. The title hints at something risquĆ©, but it’s more in the screwball comedy vein. I know, it’s a strange thing to write that this film is a comedy that starts off with a fake suicide, but there it is.

Searching for a new name (she’s an orphan with no family), Peggy tries out different names on store signs and billboards. After she spots a billboard for the New York Star‘s classified advertising department, she visits the newspaper and accidentally gets knocked out cold. Circumstances lead her to feign amnesia, and to search newspaper archives for articles about missing heiresses.

There’s no official librarian in this Class V film, but about a half-hour in, there is a short, minute-long scene set in the New York Public Library newspaper archives.

New York Public Library sign in Slightly Dangeorus
New York Public Library sign in Slightly Dangeorus

After an establishing close-up of the “New York Public Library” sign, the camera then cuts to a shot of Peggy walking down aisles of bound volumes, in a library setting that feels very Art Deco. Although no librarian in sight, a library ladder does get featured! šŸ™‚ Atop the conveniently placed library ladder, Peggy counts the bound volumes of newspaper archives and hauls one down.

New York Star newspaper archives
New York Star newspaper archives

A brief montage of dates and headlines flashes by, punctuated by Peggy’s facial expressions of frustration. I’m sure an archives librarian would have been helpful in this scenario, just saying… šŸ˜‰ Peggy eventually lands upon her missing heiress, Carol Burden, and gathers the clues of “Baba” (the nickname of the child’s nanny) and “circus” (where Carol disappeared).

Peggy/Carol then begins the charade back at the New York Star headquarters, and the news editors waste no time with the “Baba” clue. They call down to Hillyer in the newspaper archives, pictured below, for anything on “Baba.”

Newspaper clerk in Slightly Dangerous
Newspaper clerk in Slightly Dangerous
Newspaper clerk in Slightly Dangerous
Make it snappy!

Hillyer (Harry Tyler, in an uncredited role), and his assistant Andy (another uncredited role), look up “Baba” in the newspaper archives — and they sure do make it snappy! In the movie timeline, it takes them about 10 seconds to locate 3 news clippings related to that particular keyword.

Although they’re not quite fast enough to supplant this guy as the fastest librarian in the West, that’s still amazingly quick. 10 seconds! Like I said,  no official librarians in this movie, but these two newspaper men fulfill a lot of the same cinematic role and purpose as an Information Provider.

Snaps to you, uncredited newspaper men!

Sources used:

  • Slightly Dangerous. Dir. Wesley Ruggles. Perf. Lana Turner, Robert Young, Walter Brennan, Dame May Whitty. MGM, 1943.

‘My Super Ex-Girlfriend’ is not a librarian

“What do we have here? Kind of uptight librarian on the outside. Ready to rumble on the inside. Go ask her out.”

Years ago, I had picked up a $5 used copy of My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006), because the trailer mentioned a librarian (scroll below). And then I forgot about the movie. But one night recently, we finally dug this DVD out. Uma Thurman plays Jenny Johnson as well as her superhero alter ego G-Girl. She starts dating Matt (Luke Wilson), but goes crazy when he breaks up with her — like throwing-a-shark-into-his-apartment-kind-of-crazy. An odd movie all the way around. It’s like the idea for the movie was pitched back in the early ’90s, but it didn’t get the green light until over a decade later.

Oh, and there’s no librarian in it, making it a Class V film. However! Not all is lost. There are some interesting references to librarians and libraries throughout.

About 5 minutes in, we get introduced to Matt, who’s on the subway with his friend Vaughn (Rainn Wilson) and they spy Jenny across the way.

Looks like a librarian? in My Super Ex-Girlfriend
Looks like a librarian?

Vaughn’s the first one to notice her:

Oh, dude, check her out. Wow. What do we have here? Kind of uptight librarian on the outside. Ready to rumble on the inside. Go ask her out.

Fast forward to their first date, we learn that she’s NOT a librarian, but rather an assistant curator at an art gallery. And here’s how Matt describes his work:

I’m a project manager at a design firm. We design and build, like, private estates, libraries, hotels. That sort of thing.

Also, in the scene that introduces Luke Wilson’s work environment, there’s yet another library reference. (Also interesting that the references to libraries came mostly in introductory scenes).

Private library at a design firm in My Super Ex-Girlfriend
Private library at a design firm

Matt and co-worker hottie, Hannah (Anna Faris), are shelving some books. Or rather, Hannah is on the ladder, shelving, while he’s checking out her rear end when his boss, Carla (Wanda Sykes), walks in.

Carla: What are you doing?

Matt: Oh, nothing, just re-shelving some reference material, trying to stay ahead.

Carla: You were staring at her butt.


The design firm’s reference library — and library ladder! — even make it into the credits:

Library ladder and a private library in the credits scene for My Super Ex-Girlfriend
Library ladder and a private library in the credits scene

I wouldn’t have been surprised if the filmmakers had decided to go the librarian route for Jenny’s occupation — and they still managed to sneak in a Naughty Librarian kind of reference, with the whole prim-librarian-on-the-outside but a wild-woman-on-the-inside remark at the beginning. Which they TOTALLY cash in on in the film’s trailer:

My Super Ex-Girlfriend” video uploaded by filmenoi is licensed under a Standard YouTube licenseļ»æ

It actually was refreshing to hear several compliments regarding Jenny’s appearance in her “real life” disguise. For example, Matt says in a later scene, “You look nice without your glasses. You look good with them, too.” So why the decision to not make her a librarian in real life? Maybe skipping in and out of the library regularly for superhero quests would have been more noticeable than in an art gallery?

And bonus! This shot — when Jenny strips off her glasses to reveal her “true” identity as G-Girl to Matt — could have totally been a promo for a Naughty Librarian, eh?

Mistaken for a librarian in My Super Ex-Girlfriend
Mistaken for a librarianā€¦ is it the glasses? Cardigan? Buttoned-up shirt?

Sources used:

  • My Super Ex-Girlfriend. Dir. Ivan Reitman. Perf. Uma Thurman, Luke Wilson, Anna Farris, Rainn Wilson, Eddie Izzard. 20th Century Fox, 2006.

Missed opportunities in ‘Wanted’ and ‘Phenomenon’

Sometimes, I am disappointed by NOT seeing reel librarians, especially in movies that include libraries.

I come across reel librarians unexpectedly all the time — see my recent posts about My Week with Marilyn and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But sometimes, I am disappointed by NOT seeing reel librarians, especially in movies that include libraries. I was recently disappointed twice in as many days by the movies Wanted (2008) and Phenomenon (1996).

Wanted (2008):

I had been wanting (hee hee) to see the movie Wanted (2008) for quite some time, as I had heard it was a solid genre flick. And I like a good genre film, one that owns its genre and just goes for it (see Salt or Taken or The Bourne trilogy). James McAvoy stars as Wesley, a regular guy who finds out one day he shares his (dead?) father’s super-human assassin skills. But in addition to being disappointed by no librarian in the movie, I was also disappointed by the movie itself. It could have been so cool (with talent like Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy, and Morgan Freeman, how do you mess that up?!), but turned out to be quite silly and over-the-top with countless, pointless slo-mo scenes.

With an early scene set in a warehouse library, my interest was piqued, and I kept hoping for a reel librarian. There are several more scenes set in the library, including the final showdown fight. But nope, no librarian. No spoilers here — except for the fact that there’s no librarian, of course — but this film also demonstrates how research isn’t actually research if you go into it looking for sources just to back up what you already think! Rookie mistake. šŸ˜‰

Phenomenon (1996):

And I had also never seen the John Travolta flick Phenomenon (1996). Remember when Travolta had that late-career resurgence in the mid-’90s? Good times. Personally, I thought Phenomenon was ok, but it went on for too long. It’s about this small-town guy, George Malley (Travolta), who becomes super-smart after seeing a light in the sky one night. (Put that way, the plot kind of resembles the Wanted plot, right? Superficially, of course, but hmmm, interesting.)

Anyways, because George starts reading multiple books a day, the library is mentioned several times throughout the movie. They even hold a library book fair showcasing all the library books he’s read in the past 2 months! George takes a long time getting ready for that book fair. Alas, no librarian. Which felt really odd to me. Wouldn’t a scene showing a librarian’s shock at George checking out all those books have been funny? It would have been interesting to juxtapose George’s all-of-a-sudden smartness with a librarian’s all-around intelligence. Missed opportunity, IMHO.

Sources used:

  • Phenomenon. Dir. Jon Turteltaub. Perf. John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Kyra Sedgwick, Forest Whitaker. Touchstone Pictures, 1996.
  • Wanted. Dir. Timur Bekmambetov. Perf. James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Terence Stamp, Common. Universal, 2008.

Gimme shelter in ‘Moscow on the Hudson’

Taking respite from the rain in front of a library

The 1984 film Moscow on the Hudson surprised me. Based on the DVD cover, I was not expecting much — or rather, I guess I was expecting a lot of bad accents and Russian stereotypes. To be sure, there are some bad accents and immigrant stereotypes, but overall, I was very pleasantly surprised by this movie. In truth, I found myself falling a little bit in love with my country again. It’s a typical immigrant plotline, but an intriguing one.

However, I was disappointed not to spot any librarians in the film. I went through the movie twice and called my husband in to make sure I wasn’t going crazy. At first, I couldn’t even spot a library!

So why did I request a copy of this movie from my local public library in the first place? Because in Martin Raish’s Librarians in the Movies online filmography, the line accompanying Moscow on the Hudson states: “Robin Williams has a scene in the library.” But the film is also listed in Category D, films Raish hadn’t seen yet or found adequate descriptive comments about. Perhaps there was a library scene that got deleted at some point?

I did finally find a web site, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, that included a comment that one of the film scenes had been filmed outside a branch of the New York Public Library, the Tompkins Square Branch Library. Here’s how the outside of the library, and side alley way, appear in the movie (see below). You could also just spy a blurry library sign as the group walked past the entrance, in their hurry to get out of the rain.

Library exterior location in Moscow on the Hudson
Library exterior location in Moscow on the Hudson

It seems the library has undergone extensive renovations; click here for the branch library’s website.

So Moscow on the Hudson joins the other films in Class V, the category of films with no identifiable librarians. Below, enjoy a brief clip near the end of the movie.

The pursuit of happiness…” video uploaded by Greg Swann is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Sources used:

  • Moscow on 7th Street.” Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, 18 July 2008.
  • Moscow on the Hudson. Dir. Paul Mazursky. Perf. Robin Williams, Maria Conchita Alonso, Elya Baskin, Cleavant Derricks. Columbia, 1984.
  • Raish, Martin. “The D Group.” Librarians in the Movies: An Annotated Filmography, 5 August 2011.
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