Reader poll write-up: You Can’t Get Away with Murder

With a title like You Can’t Get Away with Murder (1939), you pretty much know what to expect. Subtle, this movie is not. It doesn’t stand out much from the kind of dime-a-dozen prison and crime dramas Warner Bros. was churning out in the ’30s and ’40s, but there’s also a kind of comfort in that.

Reel Librarians  | Menu and DVD cover from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

The film is based on a play co-written by Lewis E. Lawes, who was prison warden of Sing Sing Correctional Facility at the time. Lawes actually wrote a few books and plays about the prison experience (as he saw it); his most famous, and most popular, work was Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing, which was made into a movie in 1932 starring Spencer Tracy, and remade as Castle on the Hudson in 1940. (By the way, Lawes wrote these while he was still warden of Sing Sing — no worries about conflict of interest, huh???) One user review on noted that the play this film is based on, “Chalked Out,” was a huge flop when it premiered in 1937, closing after only 12 performances!

Humphrey Bogart gets top billing, but he isn’t really the main character; in fact, Bogart had played this kind of character so often by this point, that his performance and role as baddie and minor crime boss Frank Wilson are practically paint-by-numbers. But Bogart’s facial expressions are always compelling, as seen below.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

The real lead is Billy Halop, who plays Johnnie Stone, a young man who gets in over his head by helping Frank on a couple of jobs — and gets thrown in prison along with Frank for his efforts. Halop was well-known by 1939 as one of the leaders of the “Dead End Kids,” characters in a series of plays and films that featured young actors as tough street kids. Even though Halop, like Bogart, had also played this kind of character many times by this point, his acting… I’ll be nice and just say he’s not as compelling as Bogart. It’s almost like Halop is acting as if he were on stage, using overly broad gestures, facial expressions, and shouting a lot, while everyone else is acting in a movie.

Poor Johnnie, he’s just not cut out for prison. He’s scared of Frank — Bogart always played menacing really well, even in a mediocre film like this one — and he’s holding in a dark secret that’s giving him the shakes. No spoilers here, I promise.

Eventually, almost 30 minutes in the film, Johnnie gets transferred from the shoe-making shop to… you guessed it, the library!

And guess who’s NOT happy about it?

Pop, the prison librarian!

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

Guard:  Pop, this is your new assistant, Johnnie Stone. This is Pop, your new boss. 

Pop:  How much time has he got?

Guard: You’re doing 5 to 10, ain’t you, Johnnie?

Pop: Five? That means in 3 years and 4 months, the parole board will yank him out. It takes me 2 years to break a man in on this job. I told the warden nothing less than 10 years, lifers preferred. [Turns to Johnnie] Know anything about books?

Johnnie:  Nuttin’.

Pop:  I thought I was getting an assistant.

Guard:  Johnnie’s all right, as long as he keeps away from this big-shot pals. This ought to keep him busy. All in the line of duty, Pop.

Pop:  Duty.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

I felt both delight and chagrin at this brief scene. Delight that the film highlights the time it takes to thoroughly train someone in a library (by the way, a master’s degree in library science usually takes two years… coincidence?). Chagrin that administration doesn’t really care much about having qualified people in the library — and kind of sees the library, and Pop, useful only as “babysitters” for youth. Two attitudes that still plague libraries today… :(

Where this film also sets itself apart a bit from other, run-of-the-mill prison dramas is in the strength of its supporting cast. If you’re a fan of old movies like I am, then you will recognize a lot of these character actors. Henry Travers is one of those character actors — if he looks familiar, that’s because he played Clarence, the angel who helps Jimmy Stewart out in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). In fact, in that classic film, Travers was the one who revealed that Mary turned into a spinster librarian!

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

And in this film, he gets to play the male version of a spinster librarian, a self-confessed “old timer” who has found his life’s meaning in the prison library. He takes pride in his library — “I’m the boss of this library!” — and won’t stand for any shenanigans in his domain. He breaks up several heated arguments that take place in the library. In one scene, a weasel-y prisoner is trying to get something out of Johnnie, so Pop comes to the rescue by hitting him over the head with a book!

Take your books and get out, or I’ll knock the bottom right out of your filthy little racket.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

Pop has earned respect from both his fellow prisoners as well as the prison guards. Pop also has a heart condition, and several times, different people express concern about his failing health. One prisoner even knits Pop a sweater!

I figured the old man could use it, what with the cold weather setting in. You know he’s been kinda slipping lately, Johnnie. He’s a great guy, kid.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

That’s not something you see in every prison drama! ;)

Henry Travers is quite touching in this role, and displays a lot of patience, understanding, and wisdom. After his initial skepticism of Johnnie, he takes the boy under his wing. Fast forward two years, and we see Johnnie, typing up a storm, stamping books, and earning this praise from another prisoner:

Gee, Johnny, you get to know more about the library than Pop does.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

Johnnie has grown up a bit under the protection and tutelage of Pop, but with added pressure (and let’s face it, because reasons of PLOT), he soon cracks again. Almost an hour into the film, in a pivotal scene between Pop, Johnnie, and Frank that takes place in the library, Pop gets to deliver a big emotional speech, trying to convince Johnnie to go straight.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

I won’t spoil anything here, but I will say that Johnnie does find his own kind of peace in the end of the film. In this way, Johnnie fulfills the Liberated Librarian character type. Initially seen as a failure, the male Liberated Librarian eventually breaks free (even in a metaphorical sense); this type usually needs outside force or action to instigate “liberation,” as is the case here. Liberated Librarians are also usually central characters, and in this film it’s Johnnie’s story, and personal arc, that fuel the entire plot.

Pop fulfills both the Information Provider role, as well as a version of the Male Librarian as a Failure character type. I maintain there is a special subset of the Male Librarian as a Failure character type carved out for prison librarians — the “failure” in this sense is often a social construct, like a prison. Prison librarians, who fit into this category as societal “failures,” often get their positions because of good behavior while in prison. It’s an interesting contrast, a “failure” on the outside of those prison walls —  but a “success” on the inside.

There’s also a telling moment about Pop’s real name that ties in with this character type.

Guard:  He’s forgotten his real name.

Pop:  Pop will do. I’ll never need another name.

He’s been there so long, it doesn’t matter. He won’t need his real name, because he’s never going back to the “real world.”

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

Overall, You Can’t Get Away with Murder (1939) lands in the Class II category, films in which the protagonist or other major characters are librarians, but the librarian’s occupation does not directly affect the plot. It doesn’t really matter that Pop and Johnnie work in the prison library — it’s just being used as a shortcut for someplace “safe” within an unstable and often violent environment. And a librarian character onscreen brings immediate trust, and we, along with Johnnie, need someone to trust in this movie full of untrustworthy characters. It would have been a Class III film, if we had seen only Pop in the library, but because Johnnie gets to be the library assistant, he upgrades the film to Class II.

And what of the prison library itself? It’s a quite spacious set, with several tables and chairs. There are also quite a few tall metal bookcases, which create some interesting shadow effects and lighting. A long counter separates the “closed stacks” of the library and the open seating area. The main set-up seems to be that runners from different areas of the prison go to the library to drop off books and pick up new titles (as opposed to Pop taking books out of the library to different parts of the prison).

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshots from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

There are also a few signs dotting the library, including one along the back of a magazine stand that proclaims, “Attention:  Magazine Must be Returned to Rack. Do not Leave Books or Magazines on tables.” (The capitalization is haphazardly applied.)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

And last but not least, a moment that made me laugh. When Pop starts training Johnnie, he starts off with a task to “get acquainted,” a task to “study this catalog.” He hands him a thin sheaf of papers — the prison library’s card catalog!

If only it were that simple:D

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

I mentioned in last week’s “Reader poll winner” post that the plot of the film reminded me of 1994’s classic prison drama The Shawshank Redemption. There are actually quite a few similarities between the two films — including a character named “Red” — and I think there’s enough there for another post in the future…

Stay tuned!

Reader poll winner

The votes are in… and y’all chose You Can’t Get Away with Murder (1939) as your next adventure! Gotta admit, y’all keep surprising me with your reader poll choices! (Also see here and here for previous reader poll winners.) Wonder Man (1945) came in second, with 4 votes.

Reel Librarians  |  Reader poll winner screenshot

So next week I will be back with a film analysis post about You Can’t Get Away with Murder.

Looking back at the film’s description (“When a young man goes to prison, he becomes friends with the old timer who runs the prison library”), it reads very similar to The Shawshank Redemption, doesn’t it? Interesting…

Stay tuned!


Reader poll: Choose your next adventure

It’s been over 6 months since my last reader poll, when I asked readers to vote for a film for me to analyze.

If you’re a regular reader, then you’ll know that the overall mission of this website is to explore portrayals of librarians in film and what these reel librarians represent. I do that on a weekly basis through various kinds of posts, including film analyses. It’s a lifelong research quest to review and analyze librarians film on my Master List, and I have selected 5 more films for you to vote on.

Choose your next adventure!

Reel Librarians  |  Choose your next adventure

The following titles are from my personal collection, and I’ve tried to select a range of genres for you to choose from.

  • Matilda (1996) — children’s movie (comedy)
    • Super-smart Matilda (Mara Wilson) is misunderstood and mistreated by her parents (Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman). She teaches herself to read, and walks to the library to check out some classic titles.
  • Return to Peyton Place (1961) — drama
    • The school principal (Robert Sterling) is fired when he refuses to remove his stepdaughter’s revealing and scandalous novel from the school library. (Sounds similar to the plot of Rome Adventure, which came out the following year, in 1962!) The sequel to the 1957 classic Peyton Place.
  • Strike Up the Band (1940) — musical
    • High schooler Jimmy Connors (Mickey Rooney) wants to start a dance orchestra band to compete in a national radio contest. Best gal pal Mary (Judy Garland) sings along for the ride. We learn later in the film that Mary works part-time at the local library, and she sings a song while working at the library.
  • Wonder Man (1945) — comedy/musical
    • Nightclub singer Buster Dingle (Danny Kaye) gets killed by a mob boss, and his spirit enters his identical twin, Edwin (also played by Kaye). Edwin, a bookworm writing a history book, gets involved with a young and attractive librarian (Virginia Mayo).
  • You Can’t Get Away with Murder (1939) — prison drama
    • When a young man goes to prison, he becomes friends with the old timer who runs the prison library.

What should I watch next? You decide!

The poll will stay open through this week, and I will reveal the winner next week. Click here if you’d like an insider’s look at what goes into a film analysis post. Interested in the winners of past reader polls I’ve done? Click here and here.

No reel librarian, no biggie

Big (1988), starring Tom Hanks in his first Oscar-nominated role, is a modern classic. Such a simple premise:  A boy’s wish to be big comes true — literally. And the film, anchored by Hanks’s luminous, all-in performance, still holds up (even if the technology featured in the film does not).

It’s also a film that has been mistakenly identified as one that features a reel librarian. On the “Librarians in the Movies” site by Martin Raish, Big is included in the Group B films. Raish describes Group B as films in which “A library is used for research, for study, to meet someone or for some other purpose, but any librarian that might be visible is essentially no more important than a piece of furniture that helps to identify the setting.” (By the way, Martin Raish’s site is still a great place to start on this topic, even if the site is no longer maintained.)

This is Raish’s synopsis of Big itself in relation to libraries:

Screenshot of 'Big' movie on Librarians in the Movies site

The first part of this synopsis is correct — until the part about going to a reference desk in a library.

A little after 20 minutes into the film, Josh and his best friend are trying to find their way back to Zoltar, the fortune teller machine that made Josh “big.” They first visit a video game store, with no success, and the next scene sees them walking up steps to some kind of City Hall building (or perhaps a Public Works building — but not a library).

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Big' (1988)

Josh is not optimistic:  “They’re not going to have it.” His friend, however, is unfailingly positive:  “They’ll have it.”

Their first stop in the building — again, very clearly NOT a library — is to ask an Administrative Clerk (Jordan Thaler) for a list of all carnivals and fairs and arcades in the city. The clerk, who is standing in a glass Information Booth, directs them to Consumer Affairs, down the hall.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Big' (1988)

The film then cuts to a young woman (Nancy Giles), who snaps out directions as quickly as she snaps her gum.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Big' (1988)

Administrative Woman:  Fill this out in triplicate, $5 filing charge. One month to process, you’ll get it in 6 weeks.

Josh:  6 weeks?

Administrative Woman:  Sometimes longer, but you could get lucky. Next, please.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Big' (1988)

And there you have it! No reel librarian, but this short research scene sets up the rest of the movie’s plot, as Tom Hanks is stuck being an adult for the next six weeks, waiting for the info about where Zoltar is.

And that info does arrive, almost an hour later into the film, when his friend receives a manilla envelope in the mail… stamped with the logo for The City of New York and the Department of Consumer Affairs. (By the way, there is a real NYC Department of Consumer Affairs. Y’all knew I would look that up, right? ;) )

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Big' (1988)

Final evidence that there was no reel librarian or library in Big (1988) — but in the end, it’s no biggie. ;)

Ultimately, this classic film lands in the Class V category of films, films with no identifiable librarians, although they might mention librarians or have scenes set in libraries. This is one of the Class V films that has been mistakenly listed on other sites or lists of reel librarians.

Preview of ‘A Bone to Pick: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery’

One of my favorite byproducts about this site and research project is when friends and family send new reel librarian titles my way. It’s like I’ve got a network out there, looking out for me and my research interest of librarian portrayals in film. Thank you all, and please keep those titles and suggestions coming!

Last week, a colleague sent me the name of a new TV movie that she received word about through a cataloging list-serv. The TV movie in question is from the Hallmark channel (more specifically, in my area, the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries channel) called “A Bone to Pick:  An Aurora Teagarden Mystery,” starring Candice Cameron Bure as the title character — who happens to be a young librarian!

Screenshot of Aurora Teagarden Mystery series

I love the write-up on the Hallmark site:

A librarian with a sharp mind for murder, Aurora Teagarden is known around her small town as a master sleuth.

Remember this post about Nancy Drew, in which I opined that she would have been an AWESOME librarian?! It’s so meta… ;)

It turns out that this TV movie is an adaptation of a book series by Charlaine Harris, who also wrote the Sookie Stackhouse books (which were adapted into the True Blood TV series)! Harris wrote eight mystery novels in the Aurora Teagarden series from 1990 to 2003. Here’s how the series is described on its Wikipedia page:

In the first book of the series, twenty-eight-year-old Aurora (Roe) Teagarden is a professional librarian and belongs to the Real Murders club, a group of 12 enthusiasts who gather monthly to study famous baffling or unsolved crimes.

Sounds like fun! I haven’t been able to watch the TV movie yet, but I was able to record it during one of its repeated showings. So this means I will have a follow-up analysis post for you soon!

In the meantime, there’s a couple of videos on the Hallmark site for the Aurora Teagarden TV movies, as well as more info, photos, and upcoming showtimes.

Preview of the Aurora Teagarden Mystery

Have you watched this TV movie and/or read the books? Please leave a comment and let me know!

Guest post: Century Film Project

A special treat for y’all today:  a guest post from Michael at the Century Film Project blog! I met Michael recently at the ACRL Conference, and we realized we had a lot in common — after all, we’re both librarians in Oregon with film blogs. Hope you enjoy the guest post! 

Hello, gentle readers. Jennifer kindly asked me to post a little bit about myself and my blog here, and I’m honored to do so, even if I scarcely know where to begin.

Century Film Project header

My blog is called the Century Film Project, and it is a place where I post the reviews I write of century films. “What is a century film?” you may well ask. In my About page, I state:

“[c]entury films are movies that have been in existence for at least 100 years. As we move into the 21st Century, we have a unique opportunity to connect with a past period that no longer lives in human memory. The cinema connects us with the images and the dreamscapes of other eras.”

Screenshot from A Trip to the Moon (1902)

Screenshot from A Trip to the Moon (1902)

I have always felt that the most interesting thing about film is that it is a form of shared dreaming. We get to see into the minds of people who are distant from us and often very different, yet we find things there that we recognize as part of ourselves. From a historical point of view, this makes them a very strange kind of source – not a reflection of reality, but of wishes, hopes, and fears.

I originally had the idea of watching century films as a project of my own about 2012, and I started posting brief thoughts about them on my Facebook wall. In 2014, a couple of people I worked with told me they’d like to see these reviews moved to somewhere more permanent/navigable, like a website or blog. Hence, I launched the Century Film Project as a WordPress blog in March 2014. Since then, I have to admit, it’s kind of taken over my free time. The blog itself consists mostly of capsulized reviews of the movies I’m watching, along with occasional posts for context, about the news in the world of 1915, or the early film industry, or a specific filmmaker’s career. The other major part is the Century Awards! I give awards paralleling the Academy Awards on awards night to movies released 100 years earlier. Last year’s big winner was the Italian spectacle, Cabiria (1915).

Screenshot from Cabiria (1915)

Screenshot from Cabiria (1915)

There are a lot of neat things about looking at movies from 100 years ago, one of which is the way in which dates line up. We can think about how people then understood the Civil War in terms of how people of today remember the 1960s. Or we can think about inventions that became popularized in the mid-90s (internet, anyone?) and compare them with the development of film.

Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance in Burlesque on Carmen (1915)

Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance in Burlesque on Carmen (1915)

I have a checkered background that includes going to film school and working in film for a brief time, but I’m a professional librarian these days. Some of my first experience with information retrieval, searches, and organizing information came when I was a clerk at Movie Madness, a video store in Portland, Oregon. I still use what I learned there every day.

Jennifer and I met in Portand at the ACRL conference, which she blogged about a bit [here and here]. There were supposed to be informal lunches for people with different (non-library) interests, and we both showed up for one about movies. I know I was relieved to find people who didn’t only want to talk about the newest releases. And now I’ve gotten to write for her blog! You never know where networking will lead you…

Jennifer’s ACRL 2015 photo memories


Remember I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I was attending the big national conference for ACRL, which came to Portland this year? I thought it would be nice to let y’all know how that went… Enjoy! :)

Originally posted on ACRL-Oregon/OLA Academic Division Blog:

We are posting a series of personal posts from ACRL-Oregon board members, highlighting personal experiences and perspectives of attending the ACRL 2015 Conference. Why? To help celebrate the national conference that took place in our state, to personalize the national conference experience for our local ACRL members, as well as to showcase the diversity of professional development and networking opportunities available through ACRL.

Would you like to add your own conference experience and/or photos to the ACRL-Oregon blog? Please contact us!

Next in our series…  photo memories from ACRL-Oregon Communications Coordinator Jennifer Snoek-Brown.

This was a conference of firsts for me:  my first time attending a national ACRL conference and my first time of living in the same city hosting a national conference. I took quite a few photos with my camera phone during the conference, so I thought a kind of photo essay would help me personally reflect on this experience.

ACRL 2015 Conference sign info

ACRL makes the…

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