A ‘brief encounter’ with a librarian

Chemist’s shops, lending libraries, and lies

The 1945 film Brief Encounter is one of the greats. Yet it’s one of those films that still flies pretty low under the radar — but those who have seen it and share it with each other light up in remembrance. It’s a simple, quiet film, heartbreakingly beautiful. With the best use of Rachmaninoff EVER.

The film, based on Noel Coward’s 1935 one-act play Still Life, stars Celia Johnson (luminous in an Oscar-nominated role) as Laura Jesson, an ordinary English wife and mother, and Trevor Howard as Dr. Alec Harvey, an ordinary English husband and father. They meet one day by chance and fall in love. It’s that simple. But life is never really that simple, is it?

Almost twenty minutes into the film, Laura’s going about her usual shopping day in nearby Milford. She walks past a display window, full of new “holiday reads.” We then see her in what looks to be a kind of public library, smiling with a friendly female librarian (uncredited). The library is lined with shelves, with a main desk in the center stacked with books. The librarian is a white female with short, wavy blonde hair. She looks to be in her 30’s, appears quite friendly, and is dressed in a quite stylish cardigan (yes, there ARE some out there) with what looks to be military-style embellishments.

Boot's Lending Library in Brief Encounter
Boot’s Lending Library

Laura narrates:  “I changed my book at Boots. Miss Lewis had at last managed to get the new Kate O’Brien for me. I believe she’d kept it hidden under the counter for two days.”

Note:  Kate O’Brien was an Irish novelist and playwright (1897-1974), who explored gay/lesbian themes in several of her works. Some of her work was quite controversial, as two of her books were banned in her native Ireland. It is also interesting to note that upon its initial release, Brief Encounter was itself banned in Ireland, due to its sympathetic portrayal of adultery.

But then we see Laura turn and step from the library into a chemist’s shop (see below). What??? From our travels overseas, I knew that Boots is a British pharmacy chain. What’s the deal? Is this library actually a bookstore? Is this just an odd film set?

Laura walks from the library into the chemist's shop in Brief Encounter
Laura walks from the library into the chemist’s shop

Doing a little more digging (thanks, IMDb!), there’s an interesting answer:

Laura borrows books from the Boots Lending Library. Such Lending Libraries were an offshoot of Boots Pharmacies. Boots is a major pharmacy chain in the UK. It was founded in 1849 and still exists, although in a much different, more diversified form. The Lending Libraries were started in 1898.

Boots is still around, but their lending libraries ceased in the late 1960s. The Boots Lending Library was an example of a subscription library. You’d pay a small monthly or annual fee to the library — or a small fee per item — to be able to check out materials. Sound familiar? It’s basically the same idea as video rental stores or Netflix.

Library label for Boots Booklovers Library by alan.98 via Flickr is licensed under CC BY NC SA 2.0
Library label for Boots Booklovers Library by alan.98 via Flickr is licensed under CC BY NC SA 2.0

Ok, back to the film. That’s the only time we see the librarian, Miss Lewis — a typical Information Provider seen only for a few seconds — but her character still plays a role in the film, as you’ll see.

The library books are also mentioned a few more times throughout. A couple of minutes later, Laura and Alec are enjoying lunch, and he asks if she comes into town every week.

“Yes, I do the week’s shopping. Change my library book, have lunch and generally go to the pictures. Not a very exciting routine, but it makes a change.”

After spending the afternoon together, Laura is thinking about Alec as she boards the train to go back home. She sees a clergyman in the corner and flushes: “I felt myself blushing and opened my library book and pretended to read.”

Just over an hour into the film, their would-be love affair comes to a head. We see Laura running down the wet streets, with her library book under her arm. She knows she’s late and ducks into a tobacco shop to phone her husband.

No librarian in this phone booth in a scene from Brief Encounter
No librarian in this phone booth

We hear only her side of the conversation:

“Yes, everything’s perfectly all right, but I shan’t be home to dinner.

—–

I’m with Miss Lewis. Miss Lewis, dear. You know, the librarian I told you about at Boots.

—–

Yes, I can’t explain in any detail because she’s outside the box now.

—–

I met her in the High Street a little while ago in a terrible state. Her mother’s been taken ill, and I’ve promised to stay with her until the doctor comes.

—–

Yes, I know, but she’s always been awfully kind to me, and I feel so sorry for her.”

So she uses poor Miss Lewis (“Miss” – of course) as an excuse for being late!!!

Why? Most likely, the library book she had with her provided the inspiration. Also, being with a librarian MUST be respectable and above board, right? 😉 There would be no questions asked (and really, why WOULDN’T one feel sorry for a poor librarian?), and as Laura says, “It’s awfully easy to lie when you know that you’re trusted implicitly.”

I can’t help but wonder how Laura will react to Miss Lewis the next time she visits the lending library…


Sources used:


He’s… Conan the Librarian!

“Never before in the history of motion pictures has there been a screen presence so commanding, so powerful, so deadly. He’s… Conan the Librarian!”

I haven’t featured that many male reel librarians so far, so let’s bring out the big guns (or swords, rather) with Conan! The! Librarian! from the 1989 cult comedy, UHF. In this film, George Newman (Weird Al Yankovic) takes over an almost-bankrupt public TV station, and it becomes an unexpected hit. And one of those hits is showcased in a brief sketch — only 40 seconds long! — in the form of a television ad for the show “Conan the Librarian,” a parody of the famous “Conan the Barbarian” character created by R. E. Howard. I think it’s a bit fun, too, that the name serves as a subtle (and unintentional?) riff off the “Marian the Librarian” character and song from The Music Man (1962).

Conan’s first scene shows a balding, middle-aged man with thick glasses, cable-knit sweater, and tweedy jacket (really, doesn’t HE look more like a stereotypical male librarian?) who asks Conan the Librarian, “Can you tell me where I can find a book on astronomy?”

Conan’s classic response?  To heave the poor man up by his lapels, of course, and shout, “Don’t you know the Dewey Decimal System?”

FYI, the astronomy books would be in the 520’s. And as a librarian, I have repeated this line — and Schwarzenegger-type intonation —  many times. It is ALWAYS funny!

Conan then goes on to showcase more what-NOT-to-do examples for providing reference services, including slicing a young man in two because his books were overdue.

UHF Conan The Librarian” video uploaded by sirstrongbad is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

UHF successfully parodies the “Guardian of the Library” image and the librarian character types who display anal-retentive qualities — the Spinster Librarian and her male equivalent, the Anti-Social Librarian immediately spring to mind — who are prone to shushing anyone who dares to be loud in a library, or reel librarians who express over-the-top anxiety about late or damaged books. Conan the Librarian is a classic Comic Relief character type, with its crude portrayal of librarianship and extreme physical characteristics.

The scene’s over-the-top humor is more potent because it plays against type: a reel librarian, especially a male librarian, is often portrayed as weak or effeminate. Conan the Librarian shows off his physical superiority at every opportunity. (Fun fact! We first see Conan hanging out in the 613’s, which is the Dewey Decimal number for Aerobics.) Librarians are also usually portrayed as intelligent — even if a condescending type of “book smart” — and this Conan characterization riffs off of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dim-yet-tough brand of acting in his classic 1982 Conan the Barbarian. Although Conan the Librarian is a VERY bad librarian, he is a hero in one sense: he helps save the UHF television station. He’s so bad that he’s funny.

So although only 40 seconds long — again, a short scene provides an immortal reel librarian! — this scene packs a punch (literally) while laying waste to several reel librarian stereotypical traits. Just as Conan the Librarian helped save the fictional TV station, I think this funny scene and unforgettable librarian helped save the film itself. UHF was a notorious flop at the time it was released, but has since solidified fame with its cult status.


Sources used:


  • UHF. Dir. Jay Levey. Perf. Weird Al Yankovic, Victoria Jackson, Kevin McCarthy, Michael Richards. Orion, 1989.

‘Woof!’ Beware of librarian

“Remember getting trapped in that library? I still have nightmares about that!”

The 1989 film Woof! details the comic adventures of an English boy, Eric (played by Edward Fidoe), who turns into a dog — a Norfolk terrier, to be exact — whenever his nose starts twitching. The movie, although a bit dull and hokey to me, is connected to a long-running (!) British TV series.

Stereotypes abound in this movie. There is the stuffy, child-hating teacher who yells at students to keep off the grass; the absent-minded and slightly buffoonish father; and, of course, the glasses-wearing, sour-faced librarian. This movie seems harmless enough, but I got an overwhelming sense of rules, rules, RULES. There are rules about not walking on the school lawn, no toys in the pool, no dogs allowed, no talking, and so on. Perhaps the boy (subconsciously) simply wants to escape!

The boy becomes determined to figure out why he keeps turning into a dog and tells his parents he’ll be going to the library later. His mother’s reaction? To feel his forehead and ask if he’s all right. It seems in this household, going to the library is odd behavior and cause for concern. Brushing away his mom’s concern, he tells his not-so-bright friend, Roy, at school that they must start by collecting data. Roy sees a light bulb, “Oh, that’s why you asked about the library tickets!”

Their first stop is the school library, a small room with few books available. There doesn’t appear to be any school librarian. The room is filled with older wood-and-metal tables and chairs, a chalkboard, a bulletin board covered with pictures, and a few low bookcases. From one angle, we see a large window along the back wall with a view of trees. There are a few books haphazardly stacked up on one bookcase, and a small 6-drawer card catalog on top of another. Overall, the look is very cluttered and disorganized.

Screenshot from 'Woof!' movie
The school library from the Woof! movie – no school librarian to be seen
Screenshot from the 'Woof!" TV series
The school library in the TV series seems to be better stocked – did they finally get a librarian?

Although the scene is only two minutes long, the message of RULES gets hammered again. Two girls come in and immediately ask, “Have you got permission to be in here?” Then a teacher — the same one who had yelled at them about walking on the grass — bursts in and yells again. “What are you up to?!” The fact that he’s holding a gun in his hand is commented on but never explained. Decidedly odd.

“It’s not easy is it, research?” Eric muses, on their way to the public library. This five-minute scene takes place toward the end of the first hour of the movie. The public library looks cheerful from the outside, with its traditional red brick and gold lettering; it seems quite busy and popular with lots of people going in and out. No “beware of librarian” signs to be seen.

The next shot showcases the main librarian (Sheila Steafel), checking out books with a scanner at the Circulation desk. She appears to be middle-aged, with short blondish hair, glasses perched low on her nose. She wears a tan cardigan and a light blue/grey blouse with an undone bow at the neckline. She wags her finger at two girls, who promptly move to the other side of the librarian’s right side (again, RULES alert!). After the girls have moved to the proper place, the librarian then motions for their library card. There is another librarian, uncredited, with her back to the camera. We see glimpses of her later on; she is of African descent, and she also wears rather conservative clothing (a black cardigan, white button-up shirt, long black-and-white polka-dotted skirt).

We get to see more of the public library, which has many bookcases, light-colored walls, and several informational signs. A character even mentions a second floor. There are several dark wood tables and comfy chairs visible.

Librarian rings a bell in Woof!
Actions speak louder than words

The boys apparently find more books, judging by the stack on their table, but their research is cut short. Next, we see the librarian standing in the middle of the floor, in a light tan, calf-length skirt and brown flats, but without her glasses. She’s waving a large bell, a not-so-subtle way to signify closing time. Seeing no reaction from two kids right beside her, she waves the bell right in their faces (see above). Still no words, just crude gestures. After putting the bell back on the desk, she turns to a book cart, then taps impatiently to the man standing on the other side of the cart. He moves quickly (fearing worse her bite or her bark?), and she hurriedly pushes the cart in front of him.

Disaster strikes! Eric turns into a dog at the library. Roy leaves his duffel bag of the library table, where it catches the ire of the librarian, who is busy pushing the cart and clearing up books. When she spies the offensive bag, she rolls her eyes, gives it a glare, huffs, and throws the bag on the cart. While Eric’s friend is trying to figure out a way to get them out of the library without the librarian seeing, the director cuts to the librarian back at the Circulation desk. (Side note: we see the electronic scanner, but no computer. Hmmmm…..)  Up to this point, the librarian has been more of the “Actions speak louder than words” type, but she finally speaks up — albeit in a whispering tone — in the presence of an adult (her perceived equal?), a schoolteacher. The teacher, who is also the cricket coach, invites the librarian — and even calls her by her first name, Marjorie, although she is listed only as “Librarian” in the credits — out to the cricket match. The librarian seems horrified at this idea. The teacher, giving no notice to the librarian’s obvious social discomfort, leaves by trilling, “Till this evening.” This prompts the librarian to finally raise her voice, shouting out, “NO! I — ” before breaking off. She seems quite embarrassed at her outburst — breaking her own rules, tsk tsk — and looks around guiltily while biting her nails (see below).

Librarian bites her nails in Woof!
Librarian bites her nails in Woof!

When Roy braves his life to ask the librarian about the missing duffel bag, we see the librarian glare at the boy with pursed lips. She shows no concern, airily telling him that the teacher took the bag. She shows much more concern about getting out of there, as she is in the process of putting her glasses up in a case. The boy, not getting the message from the librarian’s first dismissive smile, earns a scathing warning, “We are CLOSED now, actually” and another dismissive nod. Roy then walks slowly away, carrying out Eric-turned-dog in his other bag. Eric lets out a bark — what a mischief-maker! — which causes a look of confusion on the librarian’s face (in yet another close-up). She purses her lips again, raises her eyebrows, and looks around in confusion, as if she’s hearing things. She puts on her wide-brimmed black hat (which is NOT shaped like a witch’s hat), and that is that.

So what’s the point of the library scenes? Eric thinks of the library first when it comes to research — yay! — and seems to find more info at the public library than at the woefully understocked school library. But the kids are definitely on their own, either way. No help from this librarian. She appears quite dowdy, with a dismissive attitude when it comes to children or library users in general. She is not social — the idea of going out in public to a cricket match scares her into a shout! — and her mannerisms betray this social awkwardness. The only library tasks depicted are checking out books, pushing a cart, picking up books, and telling people to go home.

The public librarian serves as yet another authority figure who presents obstacles for the kids and delivers more rules. She is another guard dog — mirroring the big, scary black dog the boys have to confront every morning on their paper route. But her bark — or glare, in this case — is decidedly worse than her bite. Not a flattering portrait. She serves as both a Spinster Librarian (an uptight rule-monger) and Comic Relief (the target of derision and laughter in socially awkward situations).

Eric succinctly sums up his experience with the public librarian. At the end of the movie, he says, “Anyway, I’m glad it’s over. Remember the swimming baths, the telephone box, getting trapped in that library? Tell you, Roy, I still have nightmares about that!”


Sources used:


  • Woof! Dir. David Cobham. Perf. Liza Goddard, John Ringham, Edward Fidoe. Miramax, 1989.

Moving mountains — all in a day’s work in ‘Dear Frankie’

“Pick any book, and if we don’t have it here, I will move mountains to get it for you.”

The 2004 film Dear Frankie is one that I visit time and again — it’s a beautiful, touching film that never gets treacly or sentimental. The bracing Scottish backdrop helps, of course. Plus, it boasts a quietly stellar cast, including a young(er) Gerard Butler and the always intriguing Emily Mortimer.

The Frankie of the title is a deaf boy (Jack McElhone) who receives a lot of letters from his seafaring dad — but all those letters have actually come from his mom (Mortimer). His dad’s (fictional) ship is about to come into town, so his mom hires a stranger (Butler) to pose as Frankie’s father.

In one early scene, his mom composes a letter in what appears to be a library — or perhaps an archives room or historical society. No librarian in sight, but there looks to be the standard library prop of a shelving cart stacked with folders and boxes.

Frankie's mom writing a letter in Dear Frankie
Frankie’s mom writing a letter

In another scene about fifteen minutes into the film, Frankie visits the local library — it’s called the “lending library” by the sign on the glass door — which has a light, cheerful atmosphere with its stained-glass windows.

Frankie browses the shelves and catches the attention of the librarian.  The librarian (Elaine Mackenzie Ellis) is a white female, with short dark hair, and a shorter, rounder frame. She wears glasses, modest clothing (a light blue top and matching cardigan), and minimal jewelry (small earrings and silver necklace). She’s also holding a book, the most obvious prop to mark a reel librarian!

Librarian look in Dear Frankie
We know that look…

The librarian — unnamed in this film and listed only as “Librarian” in the credits — starts speaking to him, not realizing he’s deaf. “Yes? Can I help you? Hello? Hello, I’m talking to you.”

Obviously offended at the boy’s seemingly defiant inattention, she steps out around the desk. “Come back here, please. I’m talking to you. Cheeky wee devil, you!”

So she tracks the boy down and says, “I am well aware that a wee boy your age should be at school at this time of day.”

Getting ready to move mountains, librarian in Dear Frankie
Ready to move mountains

Frankie then puts in his hearing aid. When she realizes he’s deaf, the librarian’s tone and demeanor completely change. “I didn’t realize. I’m so sorry.” Her tone becomes encouraging, her facial expression quickly softens, and she starts exaggerating and over-enunciating her words.

“Pick a book. Pick any book, and if we don’t have it here, I will move mountains to get it for you.”

The next shot cuts to Frankie leaving the library, holding an armful of books (and a slight smirk on his face).

Leaving the library with a mountain of books in Dear Frankie
Leaving the library with a mountain of books

Surely he’s pulled this kind of trick before? Frankie must find it a bit amusing to see how people’s reactions change after they realize his handicap. The librarian here fulfills the role of the Information Provider — no surprise there — as she helps Frankie find books he wants. She also serves as a typical example for how a majority of the public treats Frankie and other children with physical handicaps.


Sources used:


  • Dear Frankie. Dir. Shona Auerbach. Perf. Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone, Gerard Butler, Sharon Small. Miramax, 2004.

The shush heard ’round the world in ‘The Good Companions’

The first occurrence of a reel librarian uttering, “Shush!” onscreen

The 1933 film The Good Companions, adapted from J. B. Priestley’s novel of the same name, tells a story of three wayward souls finding their way to a variety troupe called the “Dinky Doos” (no, I do not make this stuff up). Thankfully, they change the name straightaway to “The Good Companions,” hence the film’s title. This decidedly minor film, remade in 1957, takes its time setting up the characters and the plot.

The Good Companions (1933) clip” video uploaded by films411 is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

The librarian (Hugh E. Wright) shows up for less than a minute, and we never see his face — only the back of his head (see below). His appearance is notable only because it appears to be the first occurrence of a reel librarian uttering, “Shush!” (as determined by Ray & Brenda Tevis in their book, The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999). The Tevises also take note at how the low camera angle — revealing only the back of the librarian’s head — visually de-emphasizes the reel librarian.

The reel librarian is a white male, older, and quite thin. He is wearing a black coat, and his hair is short, grey, and appears to be thinning. We see a glimpse of spectacles as he turns slightly to the side at one point.

View over the reel librarian's shoulder, in The Good Companions (1933)
View over the reel librarian’s shoulder, in The Good Companions (1933)

The library scene occurs one hour and 17 minutes into the film (the 113-minute UK version, NOT the 95-minute US version). Right before the library scene, the two female leads, Miss Elizabeth Trant (Mary Glynne) and Susie Dean (Jessie Matthews) enjoy a picnic; the older woman laments a long-lost love, and Susie schemes to bring the two former lovers back together. The gentleman in question is a doctor, and the Susie muses that “there’s a medical register at any public library.” Next, we see a shot of Susie looking up the medical register and finds the name she’s seeking and the town where the doctor lives, Dingley. She then asks in a loud voice, “How far’s Dingley?”

Immediately, we hear a “Shush!”, then the camera pans back to reveal the library and the back of the reel librarian, who then answers “20 miles” to her question. Susie, quite unconcerned at her mild reprimand, tosses off a quick thanks. She then brings the big book back to the Circulation desk and asks the librarian what kind of illness would bring a doctor in from 20 miles away. He seems puzzled — who wouldn’t be? — and replies, “Well, I don’t know. Heart attack?” Susie seems quite pleased with his response, thanks him, and leaves. He fulfills the basic Information Provider role, one punctuated by the inaugural and soon-to-be-infamous (and oft-repeated) “Shush!”

The back of the reel librarian in The Good Companions (1933)
The back of the reel librarian in The Good Companions (1933)

We see one wide shot of the library itself, with the reel librarian perched on the edge of the stool at the far right. Anybody else visualizing Ebenezer Scrooge?! The long, wooden Circulation desk spans the bottom part of the frame, and the obligatory card files flank both sides of the librarian — another visual barrier. The left side of the frame reveals a fairly populated reading room, most likely for newspapers and other periodicals, while the larger space to the right is empty except for the girl. Is it just me, or does the library backdrop almost look painted? There are tall stacks of books, and we spy a second floor with more bookshelves, tables, and library lamps; in the close-up, we see thick velvet ropes — yet another visual barrier — curtaining off the tall stacks.


Sources used:


  • The Good Companions. Dir. Victor Saville. Perf. Jessie Matthews, Edmund Gwenn, John Gielgud, Mary Glynne. Gaumont British Picture Corporation, 1933.
  • Tevis, Ray, and Brenda Tevis. The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999. McFarland, 2005.