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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Two-Hour Greeting Cards: Hallmark Hall of Fame (slate.com)
- DOM: Frankenstein (Whale,US, 1931) (dirkmalcolm.wordpress.com)
- Elsa Lanchester on the set of Bride of Frankenstein (1935, dir. James Whale) (sgtr.wordpress.com)
- Hall of Fame (reel-librarians.com)