The Professor of Design at the university where I ended my career began his inaugural lecture with a clip from the classic Hitchcock film North by Northwest. You may know it. It’s the scene where Eva Marie Saint has arranged a meeting in the train restaurant car with the fugitive Cary Grant intending to seduce him for dodgy reasons that needn’t bother us here. In the initial flirting she explains that she is an industrial designer. It is, claimed the professor, the only instance of an industrial designer featuring in the cinema. The incident stuck in my mind because North by North West is one of my favourite films but it appeared relevant here for a couple of reasons. First of all in a scene where the beguiling Eva Marie Saint has switched on the come to bed eyes and turned sultry seduction up to 11, enough to arouse any heterosexual male still showing a pulse, it is reassuring to know that it is not just librarians who are more interested in what job she does. Secondly if it is indeed the only appearance of an industrial designer in cinema I now know that librarians can do a whole lot better than that.
The other film my research brought to mind was Groundhog Day. Many of you will know of and some of you will be fans of the Bill Murray, Andie McDowell film as it is the hugely popular kind of film that people watch over and over again often oblivious to the irony of that. Fans of the film may also be racking your brains now trying to work out how you missed the librarian in the film and it may take some time because there isn’t one but bear with me. You will recall from our discussions about books earlier in the blog that I knew of a handful of titles I thought would make a good start for this project and that was also true of films. Like all good librarians I was aware of Peter Sellers playing a librarian in Only Two Can Play, the book version of That Uncertain Feeling, which I have already explored at length elsewhere so I won’t bore you here, but Sellers is excellent, of the film version of The Name of the Rose, likewise and of the Ghostbusters wreaking havoc in New York Public Library . I had also become aware, later of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Desk Set and came across the reference to Goldie Hawn’s withdrawn librarian, “you used to show some cleavage” her friend reminds her, in Foul Play whilst half-heartedly scanning the TV schedules several years ago ; a film of which one critic said “not a bad film but everything about it screams mediocre” which was reason enough to skip it. Further research on books then revealed a source listing twenty odd further book titles that with my initial list made the project seem viable and so it was with films. I discovered an article referencing around 30 films from which the authors draw the usual conclusion about how librarians have been portrayed in the cinema; badly usually. That was fine not too many to be frightening and just enough to fill a few blank as yet unwritten pages. But you will also recall that smug satisfaction soon turned to alarm and despair when I discovered that the neatly sized collection of book titles which I had accumulated was merely the tip of a Titanic sized iceberg causing many weeks of agonised swearing, editing filtering, discarding and more wearing. This was where Groundhog Day comes in because despite having plenty of film material I thought I would do just one more bit of research and came across Martin Raish, a Librarian from Idaho who has an impressive website (well impressive if you are interested in librarians and libraries in the movies anyway) which lists 550 film titles. I had hit another iceberg.
Thankfully the creator has now retired and no longer updates the site so at least I know there will be no more but that still leaves 550.
Thanks to this website I also made the astonishing discovery that he lists more than 300 actors who have played librarians. Yes I said 300. I didn’t know whether to feel daunted or proud as the list included some of the top rank of international film stars across several decades including, Judi Dench, Katherine Hepburn, Jason Robards, Bette Davis, Peter Sellers, Hayley Mills, Derek Jacobi, Bob Newhart and Goldie Hawn, not to mention sisters Natasha and Joely Richardson. And indeed I know now that even Eva Marie Saint herself plays an eccentric but inspiring mid-west librarian, her sultry days long past in the children’s film Because of Winn Dixie In 2005 which is either “heart-warming” or schmaltzy according to how much of an old grouch you are!
As I looked down the list of librarians I intended to filter out a long list of what appeared to be obscure B movie nobodies about which I didn’t need to worry. Take the first two references picked almost at random from that list of 300 actors Ruang Rak Noi Nid Mahasan starring Tabanobu Asano as librarian and Dominique Labourier’s librarian in Phantom Ladies over Paris which I intended to jettison without a second thought because neither the films nor the names meant anything to me. Out of curiosity, though I followed both up. Oops? Unlike my first impression that from its title it was going to be some dubious third rate porn film, Phantom Ladies over Paris is in fact director Jacques Rivette’s greatest film and a French classic prompting comparisons to Proust, Henry James and Lewis Carroll. Dominique Labourier is a well-known much admired star of more than 40 films and not some Gallic nobody! So despite my pretensions to being a man of culture I discovered in fact I am really a cultural moron. Tabanobu Asano has been called a cross between Johnny Depp and Toshirô Mifune and is considered to be one of the hottest properties in the Japanese film market, referred to by IMDb as “certainly the hippest, if not the single most important, Japanese film actor working today”, and Ruang Rak Noi Nid Mahasan (The Last Life in the Universe) was a highly praised and award winning film. Who knew? So, not just a cultural moron then, an Anglo-centric cultural moron.
Having said that they have still been discarded. Apart from the director using librarian as shorthand for sad and lonely in Ruang Rak Noi Nid Mahasan the fact that the protagonist is a librarian is far less important to the film that the fact that he is a suicidal and obsessive-compulsive neatness freak in a strange country forced to live with a messy woman in her shabby house. It is a familiar tale of ill-matched-couple-thrown-together-in-jeopardy-who-fall-for-each-other but nothing at all to do with libraries. Oh and being an arty film there is a gecko that keeps appearing meaningful in camera shots but as he is unlikely to be a librarian, he’s far too colourful, I didn’t bother to follow. Likewise the casting of Dominique Labourier as a librarian in Phantom Ladies over Paris also rather bafflingly titled Celine and Julie go Boating is also merely to establish as quickly as possible that the character is lonely, and the character summary is pointedly prefixed by the word “bespectacled” just to make sure you get the message.
I have also spared you all those other films where as so often the librarian character is a handy label that signals sad, lonely, loser, timid, unassuming, domineering, officious or any words like that in any particular order. Clearly referring to someone as a librarian is in the hands of some directors a more modern but equally demeaning if less obvious device to that used in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to cruelly brand someone. As evidence I invite the jury to consider It’s a Wonderful Life where it is the dreadful realisation of how his wife would have ended up if he had never been born which finally convinces James Stewart not to end it all. “She’s an old maid she never married…” he is told “She’s just about to close up the library!”. Thank goodness there are no beautiful and sociable librarians in the world; how on earth would we spot sad and lonely characters in the cinema.
The annotations in Martin Raish’s wonderful resource were invaluable in enabling me to edit out all the references where the library or librarian is seen only fleetingly and often with no impact on the plot. So I was able to ignore any film that boast “brief scene in the library” as well as other equally marginal appearance including “standing in the background whilst Clark Gable kisses his wife in a library” or “seen stamping books” and even “doing a little light shelving” and there is of course plenty of “shushing” and so those films won’t detain us. No, not even the ones where a librarian gets the odd line of inconsequential dialogue, like the Librarian of the Library of Alexandria pleading for Julius Caesar to help save the burning Library in the 1946 Caesar and Cleopatra or the special guest appearance of the Library of Congress when Peter Ustinov has to explain what a library was in Logan’s Run, and definitely not the bizarre case of a librarian wound up by a mischievous invisible man in Don’t look under the bed (1999).
As well as all those examples of “shushing” there are more than a few disapproving glances and several obstructive and callous librarians in the cinema which we can get out of the way quite quickly. Billy Elliot in the film of that title steals a book on ballet from the mobile library because the librarian won’t allow him to borrow it because it is an adult book and he isn’t and in Kes the title
character is turned away because he is scruffy and dirty and not at all the sort we want in our library. The gold medallist in this category though must be John Rothman as the obnoxious librarian in the Sophie’s Choice whose sneering bullying at her perceived ignorance drives Meryl Streep to collapse. They are the old-school librarians for whom the potentially redemptive possibilities of libraries not to mention the occasional smile matter rather less than sticking doggedly to the rules or showing contempt at the ignorance of the customers. Today those attitudes are disappearing fast, as fast in fact as all the libraries but they still thrive in other customer services. Like the Department for Work and Pensions Job Centres where customer care is no longer required because desperate jobless customers have been re-designated shiftless scroungers or in airlines, train operating companies and most mobile phone providers where what were once customers are now viewed merely as human cash dispensers. But I am getting off the point.
There is the occasional sympathetic librarian, well sympathetic up to a point. Mary in the spoof slasher film Wacko is allowed to sleep in the library but gets in trouble from the librarian for screaming after another of her mightmares about killer lawnmowers and like the one in Ironweed who, confronted again by Meryl Streep asleep in one of her chairs kindly says that she is welcome to stay but sleep isn’t allowed, which isn’t as kind as it seems as sleep is all poor old Meryl is looking for as she is terminally ill and homeless. Still it’s not bad for a Depression era librarian and a lot better than the treatment dished out to Meryl by the rest of the town. After that and Sophie’s Choice you can see why she decided to give comedy a go can’t you?
So they are some of the many films I won’t be inflicting on you over the next few weeks but that still leaves quite a lot of that 550 with which to try and entertain you. And if you really want to go into this in proper serious detail rather than the glib nonsense I serve up here are a few other sources that are considerably more serious and exhaustive