Monday, 31 January 2011


'Once you permit those who are convinced of their own superior rightness to censor and silence and suppress those who hold contrary opinions, just at that moment the citadel has been surrendered.' Archibald Macleish

'To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries.' Virginia Woolf

'I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.' Jorge Luis Borges

A librarian, Josie Werner (Barbara Stanwyck) dedicates her life to the flourishing and development of a library in a small town called Queen of All Souls, Texas. It is 1954. Despite efforts to censor and diminish the library by several successive mayors and various townsfolk, the shack-like construct survives all winds. The collection, due to the work of Werner, swells, and begins to receive national attention as a bastion of liberal learning.

The attacks on Werner grow however; her relationship with a black man (Titus Chambers) is examined, and her past as a young unmarried woman with a series of romances is repeatedly held up as evidence of the impropriety of her books. The fact that she is played by Stanwyck means that we both believe that any story about her may be true, and love her for it.

And just when we seem set on a path of anguishing town politics and individual bravery (shown, perhaps in the form of impassioned speeches in a courtroom setting, or a defiant entrance into (or exit from) a town meeting), an apocalyptic plot twist sets us on our bums, the deus ex machina being an actual nuclear apocalypse. The Russians and Americans set on a path of mutual destruction, and those above ground have only hours of unburnt air left. All recriminations are deemed petty, and the town pulls together to begin the evacuation.

The film thus folds back on itself, and breaks at the middle. The second half of the film bears little relation to the first. The constant is Josie and her bloodymindedness. As convoys leave the town, heading for potentially safer mountains and bunkers, she refuses to go. She shows no panic, but slips into a quiet silence as she organizes her books. When asked why, she doesn't explain. Weeping relatives come to try and persuade her to join them in one of the protective areas. Mankind needs people like you. We need you. She refuses, saying that someone must tidy the books. Stanwyck's natural defiance here rings like huge deep bell, no trace of trebly spite, just true and low.

If Josie's reasons are unclear to us, they are to her too; indeed, McCarey seems to be attempting to figure out the meaning of a life's work during these slow minutes, in the increasingly empty town and near-silent library. The examination is a clear-minded one that still comes up with no answers, as if McCarey knows that his own position as a credible and brilliant artist might be secure (a director of Duck Soup and The Awful Truth bends and scrapes to no-one in any just celestial Hollywood cafeteria; if such artful shepherding of Marxes and Cary Grants and Irene Dunnes is not a karmic get-out-of-jail-free card, one wonders what might be), but also that this means absolutely nothing.

Nearing the end, Josie writes a letter:

'I don't believe that good people make the world better. And often times they make the world worse, despite themselves. Isn't that why the planet is dying? Good people making mistakes? But you should still try. One bad person can do so much damage that it takes generations to repair. But all the good people in the world I think keep the world afloat. And they shouldn't have ever worried about betterment or evolution because- what's changed? In 10000 years? Textural things. That's all. But human nature seems to be the same. Self-destructive.'

She then rips it up with a laugh so dismissive that we, the audience, feel ridiculousness at the weight with which we might have received her words. They are meant for us, there is no-one else left for Josie to talk to. But they are hollow, mere platitudes (perhaps even stolen, half-remembered from another production); an attempt at making retrospective sense of a decision (and many other decisions, millions of them across a life) that needs no explanation. Because there is none. McCarey spares us the fiery end we know is due, cutting away from Stanwyck as she smiles into the distance, dreaming of the twenty-four (and more) variations of the note that she could have written, all plausible but too pat, somehow; no line is big enough to suffice, to be more than a scratch in the dirt.

The Library At The Queen Of All Souls Directed by Leo McCarey Produced by Leo McCarey, Jerry Wald Written by Mildred Cram, Leo McCarey Starring Barbary Stanwyck, James Earl-Jones, Ray Milland 20th-Century Fox Release Date US: March 1955/ UK: Aug 1955 102 mins Tagline: 'Just Because You Didn't See It Coming Doesn't Mean You Don't Have To See'

1 comment:

  1. Loved the first half. Was hoping for more library! Gotta love Stanwyck.