Love in the stacks in ‘I Love You to Death’

Love hurts.

In this oddball of a film, I Love You to Death (1990), loyal Italian-American Rosalie (Tracey Ullman) blinds herself at first to the philandering ways of her husband, Joey (Kevin Kline). No spoiler alerts here, as the whole premise of the film is about how — and how many times — Rosalie tries to kill Joey after finding out about the cheating. I Love You to Death is one of those black comedies that hasn’t quite got the right balance of comedy and fearlessness necessary to pull the whole thing off. And it’s an ensemble with some really big names (River Phoenix, William Hurt, Keanu Reeves) in throwaway parts.

And how does Rosalie find out about Joey’s cheating? Ooh, boy, in the least expected place, of course: the library. Cue the violins.

About a half-hour into the film, Rosalie walks into a local public library branch with a stack of children’s books under her arm. After putting the books on the front counter, she says to the librarian on duty, “I’m returning these,” receiving a pleasant smile and standard response of “Ok, thanks.” The reel librarian, a young white female (Audrey Rapoport), is dressed conservatively, albeit colorfully, in a zipped-up red dress and pastel blue cardigan encrusted with flowers. Her brownish hair is pulled back, and her minimal jewelry consists of small pearl drop earrings and a ring.

Reel librarians in I Love You to Death
Reel librarians in I Love You to Death

There appears to be another reel librarian toward the back of the shot, talking to a couple of patrons. From the angle of the shot, she looks to be behind the counter, so I’m also including her as a reel librarian. This female (uncredited), also white but middle-aged, wears a cardigan/sweater (of course), along with a bright orange scarf. Two Information Providers in the Class IV category.

The camera quickly ditches the lumpy sweaters and follows Rosalie as she wanders through the library stacks. Soon enough, she overhears her husband’s distinctive voice (and terrible Italian accent) and spies the two soon-to-be-lovers kissing inbetween the rows of books.

Library love in I Love You to Death
Looking for love in all the wrong places

Obviously, these two are NOT conducting the usual kind of reference interview.

Woman: “What am I doing in a library?”

Joey: “What’s that perfume? You smell so good. What?”

Woman: “Not here. They’re gonna throw us out.”

Joey:  “Good. Get your book and let’s get out of here.”

Woman:  “Where are we gonna go?”

Joey:  “I say we go to your place, have a good time.”

Woman:  “What about your wife?”

Joey:  “No, she can’t come. All set? Come on. I gotta get back to work soon.”

Here is Rosalie’s devastated reaction:

Library scene from I Love You to Death
Love hurts

As the camera reveals both the infidelity and the wife’s reaction through the rows of books, we, the audience, are voyeurs on both sides. We are participants in both the passion and the pain.

Poor Rosalie. She was just looking for books, but her husband was looking for love in all the wrong places.

Sources used:

  • I Love You to Death. Dir. Lawrence Kasdan. Perf. Kevin Kline, Tracey Ullman, Joan Plowright, River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, William Hurt. TriStar, 1990.

Calling all the ‘beautiful girls’

Is it coincidence that a librarian provides the backdrop for a breakup scene?

I caught Beautiful Girls (1996) on Hulu recently. For a movie that explores different versions of masculine ambivalence on the eve of a high school reunion (a reunion in winter? huh?), it comes as no surprise that it’s hard to feel anything but ambivalence toward the movie itself. I had seen it once before, years ago, and it was memorable only in my memory for featuring a young Natalie Portman (albeit in a slightly creepy subplot). It’s the kind of movie that substitutes songs for character development.

So about a half hour into the film, hapless girlfriend Sharon (Mira Sorvino) commiserates with her girlfriends about her cheating boyfriend Tommy (Matt Dillon).

Her friend Gina (Rosie O’Donnell) cheers her up by painting this scenario:

You’re going to have to break up with him, and you’re going to have to break up with him now. Now getting over him, that’s going to be the hard part. I know. Believe me, I know. It’s true. At first, after the breakup, you’ll have these visions. Of you alone, 57, 58, walking around wearing a nightgown, your hair in a bun. Maybe you’re a librarian, heating up a can of soup for one and worrying about the cobwebs that are growing in your womb.

Again, the specter of the Spinster Librarian nightmare. Gee, thanks.

At this point, I thought, ok, it’s going to be a Class V film, one that mentions a librarian but doesn’t include an actual librarian. But I was wrong.

An hour and ten minutes in, right after another inspiring soliloquy, this one by actor Michael Rappaport about the allure of supermodels (“A beautiful girl can make you dizzy, like you’ve been drinking Jack and Coke all morning”) we cut to a scene in the public library, where Tommy is trying to end his affair with Darian (Lauren Hutton). Is it merely coincidence that a librarian — this time an actual one — provides the backdrop for yet another breakup scene? Methinks perhaps not.

The librarian in Beautiful Girls
The librarian in Beautiful Girls

The older female librarian (uncredited) is standing up behind the circulation desk, checking out books to a couple of young boys. Her grey bobbed hair and bangs match her grey blazer, and her glasses sit low on her nose. No lanyard or bun in sight, thank goodness. She sits down as the camera pans to the back of the library toward Tommy and Darian. The bit of the desk visible reveals the standard movie props for libraries:  stacks of books, a globe, a carousel of book stamps, a small card file, a bookstand, and in a nod to modern technology, a computer and scanner. Your average Information Provider, elevating the film into the Class IV category.

This scene was filmed at Franklin Library, a branch library of the Minneapolis Public Library system. This site provides a very thorough exploration of the filming location, plus more recent photos of this beautiful Carnegie library.

Sources used:

  • Beautiful Girls. Dir. Ted Demme. Perf. Matt Dillon, Timothy Hutton, Michael Rapaport, Mira Sorvino, Rosie O’Donnell, Uma Thurman, Natalie Portman. Miramax, 1996.

I got your Information Provider right here, in ‘Gods and Monsters’ and ‘Caroline?’

The films themselves are not similar, but the librarians are.

While watching a couple of films the other day, I realized the similarity of the reel librarians in both. The films themselves are not similar, but the librarians are. Let’s take a look.

Gods and Monsters:

First up is Gods and Monsters (1998), the intriguing fictionalized account of James Whale, the famed director of such horror classics as Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and The Invisible Man (1933). The film is based off of Christopher Bram’s novel, Father of Frankenstein, which was published in 1995. Ian McKellen gives a tour de force performance as Whale (and should have received the Best Actor Oscar for that year, IMHO), and the cast in general is top-notch.

In one brief scene about 25 minutes into the film, we see the hunky gardener Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser) walking down the steps to the Santa Monica library. He wants to find out more about James Whale… and where else to go first but your local public library? Good boy.

Santa Monica public library, Gods and Monsters library exterior
Santa Monica public library, Gods and Monsters library exterior

The next scene cuts to him sitting down, surrounded by large volumes. We see low shelves of books behind him, with murals on the walls. The scene is stylized, with everything really flat and long, with strong horizontal lines cutting across the frame.

The reel librarian — a young white female, with dark hair pulled back in a french twist or bun, no glasses — appears on screen for a few seconds only. She’s dressed in basic 1950s style, in a black-and-white, polka-dotted shirtdress and a string of pearls.

Gods and Monsters library interior and reel librarian
Gods and Monsters library interior and reel librarian

She carries in three large volumes of bound newspapers (a large volume labeled Daily Herald is visible in the foreground) and says, “Here are the trade papers you wanted.” She smiles at Boone and briskly walks away. The film then cuts to a close-up of newspaper articles about Frank Whale (just in case you didn’t get what he’s looking for).


Second stop, the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie, Caroline? (1990). I was excited to finally get my hands on a copy of this TV movie; I requested it through my local community college reciprocal borrowing service. TV movies are harder to get copies of, in general, but this one had won multiple Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Directing and Outstanding Drama. Strange, then, that it isn’t more readily available. I enjoyed Caroline? — it’s well-acted and well done in every aspect, a hallmark of the Hallmark Hall of Fame series.

The TV movie, adapted from E. L. Konigsburg’s book Father’s Arcane Daughter, focuses on a mysterious woman (Stephanie Zimbalist, always reliable) who claims to be a rich man’s daughter, Caroline Carmichael, long presumed to have been killed in a plane crash fourteen years earlier. Is she really Caroline? The film explores that question, but goes to some unexpected places, including the education of handicapped children.

So where does the library come in?

About fifteen minutes in, Caroline’s younger half-brother, Winston, and half-sister, Heidi, are being packed off to the library. During their absence, a family conference will be held to investigate the mysterious woman and her true identity.

As Winston walks down the front steps to the car, we overhear the maid telling Heidi, “You have your coloring book, in case you get tired at the library.”

The mother asks Winston, “Did you remember your library card?” (Of course he does. Winston is a very efficient young man.)

Heidi, who is handicapped and presumed to be mentally slow by her parents, receives a light warning by her mother:  “Heidi, the library is a special place. You can’t talk loud.” The poor girl gets shushed even BEFORE she sets foot in the library.

The next shot cuts to the library, with a reel librarian (Laura Whyte as Librarian, the last one listed in the credits) visible in the foreground. She is a middle-aged, white female with shoulder-length brown hair. She wears thick black glasses and a bright blue suit. The conservative cut of the suit is quite typical for reel librarians — and in style for the 1950s — but the bright color is a bit unexpected.

Library card scene in Caroline?
I got your library card right here

Winston, ever efficient and practical, immediately steps up to the librarian behind the Circulation desk. Visible library props in evidence: Messy stack of books? Check. Box full of filing cards? Check. Stamp and stamp pad? Check.

Winston: “Excuse me please. I was wondering where we could find old newspapers. I’m looking for an obituary.”

Librarian: “How long ago?”

Winston: “About 14 years ago. But I’m not sure of the exact date. I’ll have to look through them. But I have a library card.”

Librarian: “I’ll show you where they are. But you sure have your work cut out for you, son.”

We then cut to a close-up of newspapers — just to make sure we know what he’s looking for, the same cinematic shortcut used in Gods and Monsters — and then a wider shot of Winston and Heidi at a table, with the library in the background as well as the librarian in the bright blue suit, who is filing alongside a large wall of card catalog drawers.

The library appears quite cheerful, with lots of light and windows and light yellow walls. The bright atmosphere of the library contrasts with Winston discovering dark secrets, information kept from both children.

Caroline? library interior
Caroline? library interior

Poor Heidi — totally bored with her coloring books — gets shushed again. But not by a librarian. This time, her brother tells her to “be quiet for a few minutes” when she asks him what he’s looking for.

“Clues, Heidi. Information.”

And he does find the information he’s seeking about the plane crash, and the mysterious death of her mother later — an apparent suicide — but it is HE who finds it, not the librarian. After all, the librarian made it clear that he was on his own when it came to finding what he wanted. And the kids are LITERALLY on their own, chaperoned only by their driver.

It seems that the library, with its world of books and information, made a lasting impression on Heidi. At the end of this TV movie, Heidi has become the head of Caroline Carmichael’s School for handicapped children and proudly shows off the school library to Winston. The school library is quite busy, with special computers for disabled children, bookcases, and tables.

The school library in Caroline?
The school library in Caroline?

Although it is not apparent if the adults in this scene are librarians or teachers (or both), there is a brief close-up of one woman helping a child (far left in screenshot above). A white middle-aged female with short brown hair, she wears a dark blue shirtdress. It’s interesting to contrast her with the earlier librarian in the bright blue suit.

Both films, Gods and Monsters and Caroline?, include female Information Providers seen onscreen for a few seconds each. They are both classified under the Class IV lists, for films with librarians who are seen only briefly with little or no dialogue. The librarians are more props, rather than characters, which kinds of fits the 1950s time period of both scenes. Both reel librarians help locating newspaper archives — but they help by providing the materials only. It is the actions of the characters that unearth the needed information, in their quests to seek out newspaper accounts of past incidents and mysterious figures.

Sources used:

  • Caroline? (TV movie). Dir. Joseph Sargent. Perf. Stephanie Zimbalist, Pamela Reed, George Grizzard, Patricia Neal. Hallmark Hall of Fame, 1990.
  • Gods and Monsters. Dir. Bill Condon. Perf. Ian McKellan, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave. Lions Gate, 1998.

Closing time in ‘Shadow of a Doubt’

Charlie’s whole world falls to pieces in that library … but order struggles to win in the end.

The 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt, reportedly one of Hitchcock’s personal favorites of his own films, is a clever suspense story. He smartly cast Teresa Wright as Charlotte “Young Charlie” Newton, the moral center of the story, who begins to wonder if her beloved Uncle Charlie is the notorious “Merry Widow Murderer.” And Joseph Cotten, as her namesake uncle, gets to show off some of his best acting skills in this film, in a role that requires him to be quite charming in a way that lets you know there’s more beneath the surface.

Hitchcock shot most of the film on location in Santa Rosa, California, and there is a brief library scene. The old library — a Carnegie library built in 1904 — was torn down in 1964. The library, in quintessential Carnegie style, is made of brick and covered with ivy, with a large sign proclaiming it a “Free Public Library.”

Santa Rosa Carnegie Library, as seen in 1905 (public domain)
Ivy-covered exterior of the Santa Rose Carnegie library, 1943, as seen in 'Shadow of a Doubt'
Ivy-covered exterior of the Santa Rose Carnegie library, 1943, as seen in ‘Shadow of a Doubt’

Charlie hurries out to the library to look up a newspaper clipping — a vital  clue to the mystery of the “Merry Widow” murders. We see her hurry through town, spliced with quick shots of the town hall clock, almost colliding with a car while trying to cross a busy street. The lights in the library switch off (helping to set the tone of suspense and shadows) and the bells begin to ring just as Charlie scrambles up the front steps. Finding the doors already locked — this is one efficient librarian! —  Charlie doesn’t give up; she  knocks several times on the front glass door (which prominently displays the opening and closing times) until the librarian, Mrs. Cochran, reluctantly lets her in.

Screenshot from 'Shadow of a Doubt'
Closing time

Played by Eily Malyon in an uncredited role, the reel librarian is an older woman with her white and grey hair pulled back in a bun. She does not wear glasses but is dressed quite sensibly with a long-sleeved dark shirtdress that hits below her knees. Her makeup, if any, is minimal, but she does wear a classic pair of pearl earrings. Of course, she is also wearing a watch!

Mrs. Cochran loses no time in reprimanding Charlotte:

Really, you know as well as I do the library closes at 9. If I make one exception, I’ll have to make a thousand. I’m surprised at you, Charlie, no consideration. You’ve got all day to come here…  I’ll give you just 3 minutes!

Charlie apologizes quite profusely but wastes no time herself in bee-lining it to the (quite impressively large) newspaper section. She quickly locates a back issue and finds the article she’s looking for about the Merry Widow murders.

Shocked and disoriented, Charlie stands up; visually reflecting her emotions, the camera then reels up to a bird’s-eye view of the library’s main floor. We then get to see a more expansive view of the library (thank you Hitchcock!), with its large, wooden Circulation desk, multiple tables and chairs, classical columns, and glimpses of adjoining rooms. The camera work is impressive; as Jim McDevitt and Eric San Juan write in their interesting work, A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks with the Master of Suspense, “The dramatic pullback shot in the library, when realization first dawns on her, punctuates the isolation she must feel at that moment” (p. 158).

Charlie’s whole world falls to pieces in that library, based on the info she finds in that newspaper — but order struggles to win in the end. As Hitchcock visually demonstrates, the columns stand tall, the wooden doors and panels seem solid — but they’re half-obscured in shadow. Despite Charlie’s internal confusion, the walls of her outside world are still standing. But is it all just surface, a mirage, a public room almost empty? (I totally get symbolism. ;))

So what is the point of the reel librarian in this short, but important, library scene? Mrs. Cochran serves to intensify the tension and suspense, an obstacle Charlie must overcome in a race against time to find out if her uncle is a serial killer or not.  The librarian provides another layer to the tension caused by the conflict between order and chaos. Mrs. Cochran is also the gatekeeper — in a literal sense — of information vital to the mystery. In this way, Mrs. Cochran fulfills the Information Provider role.

She also exhibits some characteristics of the Spinster Librarian, albeit a less severe one. Uptight, no-nonsense personality? Check. Focused more on rules than people? Check. Hair in a bun? Check. Sensible, nondescript clothing? Check.

Sources used:

  • McDevitt, Jim, and Eric San Juan. A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks with the Master of Suspense. Scarecrow Press, 2011.
  • Shadow of a Doubt. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotton, Henry Travers, Hume Cronyn, Patricia Collinge. Universal, 1943.

Silence is golden in the silent film ‘The Blot’

Women who work in respectable professions have better opportunities of meeting respectable young men, with the aim of marrying and eventually leaving the profession — a classic plot for many reel librarians.

The title of this silent film, The Blot (1921), refers not to the librarian profession (thank goodness), but rather the blot of poverty, as well as societal disregard for intellectuals. Most definitely a message film — one whose message is, unfortunately, not blunted by modern times — it was directed and co-written by Lois Weber, one of the first major female directors.

Weber, who directed over 100 films, was the first woman inducted into the Motion Picture Directors Association, which was basically reformed into the Directors Guild in 1936. She and her husband, Phillips Smalley, had formed their own production company, Lois Weber Productions in 1917 (see the logo in poster, below). After signing a $250,000 deal with Paramount Studios in 1920, the year before The Blot was released, Weber was the highest-paid director in Hollywood.

Advertisement for The Blot, highlighting director Lois Weber (public domain)
Advertisement for The Blot, highlighting director Lois Weber (public domain)

This socially conscious film — shot in sequence and mostly on location in the Boyle Heights neighborhood and the old University of California campus in Los Angeles — contrasts a poor college professor’s family with their more affluent neighbors, immigrant shoemakers. The professor’s daughter, Amelia Griggs (played by Claire Windsor), works at the public library. Throughout the film, Amelia attracts three potential suitors: one of her father’s students, a rich and rowdy young man called Phil West (Louis Calhern); the quiet, serious Reverend Gates; and the eldest son of their neighbors.

We first meet Amelia behind the Circulation desk counter, and she is quite pretty, with long, curly dark hair pinned back. A sign warning SILENCE is visible behind her. (And it’s in a SILENT film, hah!)

Claire Windsor in The Blot (public domain)
Claire Windsor in The Blot (public domain)

Amelia’s co-worker (uncredited) is an older female librarian, also seen behind the Circulation counter. Generally nondescript, she appears middle-aged, with her brunette hair pulled back in a bun. Although the two woman dress similarly — high-necked blouses, cardigans, hair pulled back in buns — Amelia seems much more stylish. The older librarian is obviously well on her way to spinsterhood.

Overall, from the few scenes set in the library, the ladies seem efficient, pleasant, and well-liked by community members. They display a variety of library-related tasks: answering the telephone, helping users in the stacks, shelving books, checking out books, and answering reference questions.

Phil comes to see Amelia at the library — unbeknownst to his friends, of course — but Amelia is suspicious of his attentions. She even catches him in a lie about reading books! However, she’s more worried about ruining her sensible heels by walking home; therefore, she rides home with the prospective suitor. She is later impressed by the flowers the rich boy gives her, but also displays a quiet pride when the young man brings up her father’s poverty.

The young man describes her as a “working girl”, but she is also referred to as “stuck up” by their neighbors. This is because the Griggs family tries desperately to conceal their financial plight. The movie’s plot turns when Amelia’s mother steals food. Amelia is appalled by her mother’s behavior and wishes “if only she had the courage” to force her mother to return the stolen food. Amelia seems happier at work, going back even when she becomes ill from a combination of malnutrition and severe exhaustion. Amelia is quite admirable — winning the affections of many throughout the film — even if she does come off a little too saintly. She does the honorable thing by finally admitting to their poverty and talking to their neighbors about her mother stealing food. Amelia fulfills the Spirited Young Girl character type:  a young, stylish woman who works in the library — a temporary job — who meets the leading man while working. She is not a Liberated Librarian, because she doesn’t really change throughout the film; rather, Amelia’s strength of character and innate goodness changes others.

Click to view film clips from The Blot
Click to view film clips from The Blot

The film is quite unusual, especially in its theme of examining the poverty of professionals — educators, ministers,  librarians, etc. — which is also a (surprisingly?) timely subject for modern times. There is also an underlying message of how the love of a good woman can change a man to good works.

So why a librarian? I’ve categorized the film as Class II, in which a major character is a reel librarian, but the profession has no direct effect on the film. After all, Amelia’s wages as a librarian are so low that she makes no apparent contribution to the family’s income; there is no mention at all about her salary in a movie about poverty (!), which is quite revealing in and of itself. But by this time, the early 1920s, librarianship was an established profession for women — a respectable profession for respectable young (and older) ladies. And, of course, women who work in respectable professions have better opportunities of meeting respectable young men, with the aim of marrying and eventually leaving the profession — a classic plot for many reel librarians.

Sources used:

  • The Blot. Dir. Phillips Smalley & Lois Weber. Perf. Philip Hubbard, Margaret McWade, Claire Windsor. Lois Weber Productions, 1921.
  • Lois Weber” via Wikipedia is licensed under CC BY SA 3.0
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