Saturday, November 22, 2008

One of the Invisible Professions

It occurred to me recently that some jobs are woefully under-represented in movies. As you can see below, this unscientific pie chart that sprang from my brow is meant to represent how the world of work seems to break down in classic movies, at least to me. I suspect that many of us--at least in classic movie terms, might fall into that netherworld of 2%, marked "Other." Please click on the thumbnail pie chart below to see the division of labor--at least according to old movies:
Free Image Hosting at

I've probably forgotten some jobs in my "for entertainment purposes only" schematic that you might feel are germane to any discussion of classic movies or what is laughingly known as "the real world". I hope that you'll let me know some that ought to be there, as I briefly discuss one profession that deserves a better rap in classic and more recent movies. It seems that if you used classic movies as a yardstick, policemen, reporters, gangsters, doctors, lawyers and cowboys are occupations simply teeming with the really important activity in the movies.

While pondering the dearth of many real world jobs depicted on film, those that seemingly don't exist, and the amusing (if not entirely accurate) stereotypes that are shown in many jobs; I realized that all grocers must be played with a spurious Italian accent, and usually by J. Carroll Naish; restaurateurs are usually Viennese, and gemütlich, as portrayed by scene-stealer S.J. Sakall, though an occasional waiter, (played nimbly by Fritz Feld) may condescend to serve you; and most bartenders are very stagey Irish-Americans, often personified by a triumvirate of William Bendix, William Frawley or Irving Bacon, depending on who the casting office might have tracked down that day.

This rumination on work in the movies began while I was reading the new memoir, Quiet Please, (Da Capo Press). The author offers a look at the experiences of a young, male, very contemporary librarian named Scott Douglas from the other side of the reference desk. As he struggled with the issues of his demanding profession, his wry comments on his life as a librarian working in a neighborhood branch in Anaheim, CA enliven the often laugh-out-loud funny illustrations of his job description, which are also sometimes quite moving and worrisome. His mordant descriptions include coping with confusing bouts of self-doubt, bureaucracies, the changing needs of communities, a lack of funding, and, as anyone who's ever worked directly with the public can attest, the sometimes more than slightly demented and surprisingly needy clients and co-workers. Since I love libraries, and the people who keep them alive, here's a few library moments on film that I'd like to share.

One amusing section of the book concerned the fact that Douglas felt that there was a serious dearth of librarians as role models in the movies. Sure, to the average person, "Marian the Librarian" in The Music Man (1964) may be the quintessential movie librarian, (seen at right as Shirley Jones played her, escaping the stale confines of her River City library with her spirit's liberator, Robert Preston). You know the type, frosty on the outside, potentially a molten hottie and closet romantic on the inside, all the while that "Prof. Harold Hill" is hoping she's really that "sadder but wiser girl" he's hoping to find in the hinterlands of Iowa during his travels. Of course, other than shushing people and looking as though she just smelled some overripe fish, Marian on the job doesn't seem particularly jolly or interested in promoting literacy. After she gets into a dispute with the mayor's wife for allowing her daughter to peruse an alleged "smutty book" like the racy The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam, things begin to change for Marian. Eventually she not only refuses to ban certain books, but she even goes so far as to deface library property to protect that rascal, Robert Preston. Not a great role model as a librarian, eh?

Except for Noah Wyle's three made-for-tv excursions as...(dramatic pause)...the nebbishy but dashing "Flynn Carsen" in The Librarian movies, there do seem to be paltry few positive images of librarians in the movies, especially for males. There was a deeply humane male figure of a librarian (Jason Robards, Jr.) as the guardian of light over darkness in Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983). This sometimes hypnotic blend of imagined and real horrors that come to a bucolic Illinois town in October in the form of an unusual carnival, is memorably led by a compellingly malevolent Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce).

Jason Robards as a librarian in Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

A step off the beaten path of recent Disney movies of that period celebrating love bugs, darn cats and the cheery world of tomorrowland, this dark film was adapted from a deeply felt 1962 novel and a screenplay by the masterful Ray Bradbury, (who provided a commentary track on the laserdisc of this film, but unfortunately, not on the current dvd. Bradbury, as most know, also wrote one of the most famous stories about the absence of libraries from the world, Fahrenheit 451 was later filmed in 1966 by Truffaut). This more adult-oriented film does best, I think, when it concentrates on the efforts of the uncertain Robards to be a worthy father and a good librarian, even though he feels vulnerable and filled with trepidation about the world outside his repository of knowledge.

Robards withVidal Peterson & Shawn Carson in Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

When Robards's son in the film, Will Halloway, (endearingly bespectacled Vidal Peterson), and his best friend Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson) find out more than they wanted to know one night while spying on the mysterious carnival denizens, a confrontation between Pryce and Robards is inevitable. It takes place, appropriately enough, in the stacks of the library in a magical scene in which Robards' mortality is brought home to him in a unique fashion as Pryce rips pages from a book, (an act of wanton library vandalism on a par that is one step up from writing notes in the margins). Though I recommend reading the book before the movie, (since Bradbury's scenario seems to suffer from having had many fingers in the pie), the rich cinematography of Stephen Burum in blazing Autumn, with beautifully detailed 1930s America touches, and Robards' singular, rueful presence gives this library-themed story great resonance and a worthy male hero.

Donna Reed in the nightmare sequence of It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Still, that 1983 movie may seem like ancient history to modern library science students. Think about it. How many cool librarians do you recall from the movies? There was that segment of It's a Wonderful Life (1946) when Jimmy Stewart finds that without his love to nurture her, Donna Reed (right) has turned into a human raisin, becoming an old maid scared of her own shadow, who doesn't recognize Jimmy when he approaches her as she locks up the library. Her reaction is so extreme, a near riot breaks out as Donna raises an alarm about the "masher" who has accosted her.

Library Science teacher Ann Robinson pausing for a reflective smoke with Gene Barry before the destruction of the human race proceeds in The War of the Worlds (1953).
Even science fiction in the form of War of the Worlds (1953), doesn't cut librarians much slack or endow them with too many smarts. Leading lady Ann Robinson, playing a library science teacher named Sylvia Van Buren (great librarian name!), spends most of the movie shrieking and losing her composure while Gene Barry, (looking very bright and fetching in his horn rims, as shown at left), keeps trying to figure out some way to put the kibosh on those pesky aliens, (that is, in between pitching woo Miss Robinson's way). I don't think the librarian in her ever voices any concern about trying to preserve thousands of years of human knowledge that is rapidly being incinerated by the invaders, (along with a billion or so earthlings). Of course, Sylvia the Librarian does show some skill driving a truck in a pinch. I guess she must've had a few minutes to peruse the Truck Driver's Manual back when things were slow at Library School. This fast-paced, entertainingly scary 85 minute movie doesn't give her or the audience much time to reflect on what's being lost in this clash of species, though thank goodness, Sylvia Van Buren is one of the survivors who can start cataloging once again among the debris of civilization.

Eily Malyon as the librarian in Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

The clichéd view of librarians as repressed, rigid old biddies is reinforced by Hitchcock in one of his best American movies, Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Teresa Wright's character is turned away by an officious, bun-wearing librarian, because she's arrived a bit late to do research at her small town library. As a guardian of culture and information in the small, idyllic town of Santa Rosa, the cranky librarian (Eily Malyon) reinforces the underlying restrictive feeling that permeates the superficial peace of this movie, even though the old bat grants Young Charlie (Wright) a few minutes access, (after she endures one more lecture).  Interestingly, Hitchcock is said to have been parodying Thornton Wilder's already classic play of small time life, Our Town, by giving the prim, officious librarian the name of "Miss Cochran", a reference to a minor character's name in that play.

Occasionally, the movies redeemed themselves a tad by softening the persnickety image of librarians. In Clarence Brown's interpretation of William Saroyan's The Human Comedy (1943), there is a lovely scene in the admittedly sentimental movie in which the "worldly" Darryl Hickman and Jackie "Butch" Jenkins* , filled with awe, explore their local library. Unlike in so many other movies, the librarian, (Adeline De Walt Reynolds) tries to help the two lonely little boys who wander into the cool, dark stacks of their idyllic town's library, filled with an inarticulate reverence for the words and stories found there. Coming across the barely literate older boy (Darryl Hickman) and the easily confused younger one, (Butch), the librarian lets them know the rules, but doesn't try to crush the wonder and awe the naïve youngsters have for the library. She does point out that the books in the children's section might be of more interest to them, (though actually reading something doesn't seem to be the point, alas).

In the world of camp cinema brought to us by producer Ross Hunter and Douglas Sirk, there are also some references in the 1959 remake of Fannie Hurst's Imitation of Life to working in a library. Susan Kohner, playing the light-skinned daughter of African American Juanita Moore in this glitzy version of the story, tells her mother that she, uh, works nights, in...a, uh, "respectable" job cataloging books. The filmmakers' concept of a library in the '50s remake seems a bit confused.

Could it be that Susan Kohner is on a work-study program in that nightclub to help pay for her study of library science in this scene from Imitation of Life (1959)?

Not only does Ms. Kohner, (whose heartfelt performance helped elevate this 1959 soap opera), tell Mom that she's working at what appears to be an "all-night" library nights parking books on shelves, but when we catch a glimpse of this temple of learning, it is teeming with productive nerds at midnight, none of whom act as though they know the whereabouts of Moore's daughter, who is down the street shaking her (ahem) moneymaker in a strip club! It's almost as though the people who made this movie see poor Susan's character as having only two choices in life, spinsterhood in a pink collar profession surrounded by drones and eunuchs, or being a bimbo doffing her glad rags while emotionally turning her back on her mother and her heritage. Hmmm...I must try to suspend my disbelief more effectively next time I snuggle in for a viewing of this "classic."

My favorite villainess in library-themed stories on film is truly a very guilty pleasure. In another movie that borders, nay, soundly treads on the border, between camp and cinema, in Return to Peyton Place (1961).

Taking off where Grace Metalious' lurid novel left off, the filmmakers recast all the original actors for this sequel, retaining only the Franz Waxman music and the hint of hidden sleaze. This version, directed by Jose Ferrer in a bad career move, starred the sullen yet sexy Carol Lynley as Allison, the budding authoress of a steamy roman à clef about her New England hometown. While Allison enjoys the bright glare of publicity accompanying the publication and the attentions of her married but hunky publisher (Jeff Chandler) in New York City, Mom (a heavy breathing Eleanor Parker, replacing Lana Turner in the overwrought role), and her husband, the school principal Mike Rossi (perennial "nice guy" Robert Sterling), must contend with the brouhaha that ensues back in podunkville as a result of the scandalous book. Leading the pack of outraged citizens is Mary Astor herself, (a lady who knew something about scandal first hand, thanks to some events in her not too private life during a divorce in the thirties).

Mary Astor spreading her repressive venom & banning books from the library in Return to Peyton Place (1960).

In an absolutely superb turn as a queen bee of this burg who refuses to allow such "smut" as Allison's tome to be placed on the shelves of the Peyton Place school library, she deigns to lead the charge against the encroachment of reality and those "people from away." Imperious and seemingly without a moment of self-doubt, Astor's character, as the "Friend of the Library" from hell, presides over the best scene in this turkey, a classic New England Town Meeting, complete with lifelong residents, lively democratic exchanges and just a few hints that the attendees might have had a few convivial snorts before the proceedings. Though little attention is focused on actual academic librarians in this scene, Sterling, Lynley, outsider Chandler and even outcast Tuesday Weld, of all people, form an impromptu tag team rising to the defense of free speech and darling Allison's seamy stroll through Peyton Place's scandals. Despite the indefensibility of the autocratic character's stance as she spouts off about "slippery slopes" and "precedents", Ms. Astor, (above, looking imperious with Tuesday Weld & Eleanor Parker), remarkably, is able to be the most sympathetic person in the scene, since she seems so crestfallen and suddenly human as she tries to leave the meeting with her dignity, her somewhat fascistic yet prescient comments still hanging in the air. Maybe it was a good day in Peyton Place for free speech, but it was a better day for aging character actresses who knew their stuff--even if she was only fourth billed.

Greer Garson & Joan Blondell as captivating librarians in Adventure (1946)
While most librarians are portrayed as rather stuffy, repressed types, hellbent on enforcing the rules and naive about the real world, one of my favorite librarians on film, believe it or not, is Joan Blondell. The movie Adventure (1945), an MGM feature directed by Victor Fleming, is probably best remembered as the vehicle in which the newly returned veteran who was also the "king of movies", Clark Gable, teamed with the elegant Greer Garson, (even though Gable was said to dislike his leading lady). Garson, who is crisply charming as a librarian irked to have two drunken sailors (Gable and Thomas Mitchell) invade her sanctum sanctorum to ask after the whereabouts of Mr. Mitchell's soul, bravely follows the dictates of the sometimes fey, sometimes plodding yet occasionally lyrical script. Thank goodness for Joan Blondell, who shows up as a fellow librarian who knows her stuff, but is always ready for a good time as well.

While Hollywood star power dictated that Gable and Garson be fated to marry, Ms. Blondell's genuine sweetness and conviviality--not to mention those saucer-sized blue eyes and curves, make her a much more logical choice for Clark's spouse than the role of "gal pal to the heroine". Some observers, myself included, feel much more of a current running from Joan Blondell to Clark Gable, especially in the scenes when she appreciatively takes in his appealing form at the library and snuggles up to him at a nearby bar, where they both go to work trying to chip the ice off Greer's personality.

Clark Gable & Carole Lombard,  looking for love in the stacks, and finding the Legion of Decency.

Of course, Gable may not have been enthused about this film project for another reason. He'd previously trawled the library for another girl earlier in his screen career, as a con man who met a beauteous small town librarian, (and real life future wife) Carole Lombard in the Wesley Ruggles' movie, No Man of Her Own (1932). I haven't seen this movie in a very long time, but I don't recall anything all that daring in it. Reportedly, the pre-code frolicking on screen between the pair helped to give impetus to the formation of the National Legion of Decency. This Catholic Bishop's and Laymen group tried to let people know about near occasions of sin on screen for the next forty years--despite the fact, that in true Hollywood fashion, the movie in question--after showing audiences all the fascinating sin, the con man is reformed by love. Oddly, off screen, neither Gable nor Lombard seem to have had made any sparks fly at that stage.

The librarians who compete with a computer in Desk Set (1957)

Even though her salty tongue became a bit more honest 13 years later and her figure had bloomed a bit more, in Desk Set (1957), a slightly anemic Tracy-Hepburn vehicle about a team of crack research librarians at a major magazine (such as Time, Inc.) being threatened by a computer, it is once again Joan Blondell who catches the eye. While I am a great fan of Katharine Hepburn's style and some of her acting, every time I've watched the rather somnolent Spencer Tracy in this film, I find myself wondering why he can't look sassy Joanie's way too. Both ladies are very bright, very funny, and good company. Blondell, "a sadder but wiser girl" if ever there was one, also doesn't seem to have as many illusions as Hepburn still harbors as she gently fends off her unimaginative suitor, Gig Young.

Despite the often trite, and dismissive way that movies sometimes sought to treat libraries and librarians, a few films address real life issues facing libraries in a non-stereotyped way. One of the best and least seen is Storm Center (1956), directed by Daniel Taradash for Columbia. Starring Bette Davis**, whose career at the time was in a serious downturn, it addressed the place of the public library in the life of the community, even when that community is uncomfortable with the ideas fostered by an institution. The story of Storm Center was written by Taradash and Elick Moll in 1951 at the height of the period when McCarthyism and such off-shoots as the publication, Red Channels sought to suppress politically unpopular material in the arts, especially movies. When the completed film of Storm Center was shown to the American Library Association in 1956, most of the responses were positive, many commenting that Bette Davis' movie might "encourage people to look at librarians in a new light after viewing it". Still unavailable commercially on dvd or vhs, and rarely broadcast, this finely made film, beginning with a vivid Saul Bass sequence showing books burning under the main credits and featuring a subtle George Duning score, might just be the best library movie--ever.

Davis played an intelligent, hard-working woman, (neither too dowdy, repressed nor a radical--though she does sport a bun, and likes things "just so"), who has worked quietly as a librarian for 25 years in a small town. Her greatest hope is to add a children's wing to her library, and her care for the minds of the people she serves is embodied in her relationship with a troubled boy, (Kevin Coughlin), whose apparent only solace from a disastrous home life, complete with proudly anti-intellectual father (Joe Mantell), is found inside the walls of the library, where Davis takes the time to encourage his curiosity. Despite her years of service, Davis' character finds herself ostracized by her community when she uncharacteristically refuses to remove a book from the library shelves called The Communist Dream. While fellow librarian Kim Hunter quavers in her support of the ideals of her soon former co-worker, others attempt to help Davis. Among the friends put to a test by the principles in this movie are the excellent, under-appreciated Brian Keith.

Miss Davis, who gave one of her best late career performances in this movie, (just before making The Catered Affair, which also featured a good, restrained performance from the actress), is aided most of all by screen veteran Paul Kelly, whose fine, nuanced portrayal of a judge, in one of his last performances, creates an unforgettable, conflicted character. The film, which culminates in a fire that finally restores the town to some sort of sanity after the storm of controversy over books in the library, has a message, certainly, but one that avoids being simplistically presented. I hope that someday this movie might emerge from whatever vault it is languishing in unseen. The issues it deals with so intelligently are still relevant in a post September 11th world.
While I've enjoyed exploring the funny stereotypes associated with American popular movies, I can't possibly encompass them all here. I hope that if you're aware of other, librarian-themed movies to ponder and be amused by here, you'll add them to our list. See you at the library.

* Sometimes I think that Jackie "Butch" Jenkins' sole presence in a movie was to make 98% of the kids in the audience feel superior in their grasp of the world around them. In The Human Comedy, his first film, Mr. Jenkins (1937-2001), who, fortunately had his childhood savings invested wisely for him, allowing him his dignity and some material comfort later in life, gives the film some wonderful moments, notably, with Darryl Hickman in the library, and in the scene when he becomes fascinated with a "mechanical man" in a window display. No one could play a mixture of naïveté and stubbornness like Jenkins.

**Originally optioned by Stanley Kramer, actresses Irene Dunne & Mary Pickford were tested for the librarian role in 1952. Miss Pickford, whose appearance in Storm Center would have been a major comeback for the silent film star, is reported by some sources as having backed out of the film just before filming at Columbia began, handing Davis another plum role.
Arant, Wendi & Benefiel, Candace R.,
The Image and Role of the Librarian, Haworth Press, 2003.
Chandler, Charlotte,
The Girl Who Walked Home Alone, Simon & Schuster, 2006.
Douglas, Scott,
Quiet, Please, Da Capo Press, 2008.
Kennedy, Matthew,
Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory, Terrace Books, 2004.
Loukides, Paul, Fuller, Linda K.,
Beyond the Stars: Themes and Ideologies in American Popular Film, Popular Press, 1996.

(Originally published by me at, on July 9, 2008. Reprinted here with the kind permission of Turner Classic Movies.)


Laura said...

Loved this essay. Glad I caught up with it, as I missed it at TCM last summer. Every time I thought of another "librarian movie," I scrolled down and there it was. :)

Best wishes,
Laura (daughter of a librarian!)

Moira Finnie said...

Hey, thanks for dropping by, Laura.

Your conscientious example at your blog has prompted me to start catching up with some postings here on this neglected stab at learning to put together a personal blog. Librarians are among those people who hold up what is laughingly called our civilization--even when we don't appreciate it.

After I started ruminating on how well or poorly librarians were portrayed in classic movies I started to cherish them more.
Your friendly cliché spotter,

Christian Esquevin said...

Thanks for the very informative and positive review of the image of librarians on film. As a librarian that writes about Hollywood films and costume design, I've usually closed myself off to the negative sterotypes. Your blog post made me feel better about the subject.

Moira Finnie said...

I'm delighted that my light-hearted review of the sometimes odd impressions left on movie-goers about the vital work of librarians gave you some pleasure, Christian. Now, more than ever, we need libraries and the caring people who keep them alive.

Thanks so much for taking the time to post a comment and for devoting your time to this splendid profession.

Anonymous said...

The most common profession for glamorous women in old movies seems to be "Nightclub Singer", 95% of the time, a sympathetic character.
Correspondingly, the movie land nightclub singer's biggest nemesis is usually the "Nightclub Owner", a man who might be a gangster and is usually rather oily and predatory like Robert Alda in "The Man I Love".


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