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 IMDb.com 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!

Within the law

‘Within the Law’ movie poster

In the drama Within the Law (1939), store clerk Mary Turner (Ruth Hussey) gets framed for theft, wrongly accused by her employer Edward Gilder (Samuel Hinds), and sentenced to three years in prison. All within the first 10 minutes of the film! After serving her sentence (which is 5 years in the play by Bayard Veiller), Mary gets revenge on her former employer by orchestrating schemes that “tak[e] advantage of every loophole in the law” — hence the title “Within the Law,” a phrase often repeated throughout the film.

Where did she get this idea? From the prison librarian! In an uncredited role, Claire Du Brey plays the Prison Librarian, in a short scene almost 15 minutes into the film. Although the scene lasts little more than a minute, it is a pivotal one. (By the way, there seems to be no prison librarian in the play. Kudos to screenwriters Charles Lederer and Edith Fitzgerald for adding one in!)

WithinTheLawLibrary1

The prison library set in ‘Within the Law’

WithinTheLawRefInterview

Ruth Hussy as Mary (left) and Claire Du Brey as the Prison Librarian (seated)

Here’s how the prison library scene plays out:

Mary:  Good afternoon.

Prison librarian:  Good afternoon. Well, what’s it going to be?

Mary:  I want a book.

Prison librarian:  Couldn’t you be a little more precise? Do you want a green book? A yellow book? A thin one? A thick one?

Mary:  I think I’d like a thick one.

Prison librarian:  How long you in for?

Mary: 3 years.

Prison librarian:  All right. I’ll get you Gone With the Wind.

Mary:  No. I’d like something to study.

Prison librarian:  What is it you want to know, child?

Mary:  I’d like to know how it could happen…

Prison librarian:  How what could happen?

Mary:  My being in jail for nothing!

Prison librarian:  You don’t keep out of jail by being innocent, kid. You keep off by being smart. You can’t do anything against the law. You can do everything within the law. Yes, kid, you’re talking to somebody who found that out… a little too late. I’m in from now on. And if I’d read a 100 pages out of any of those law books, right now I’d be free as a bird. Happy, rich, and guilty.

Mary: I’ll take one.

WithinTheLawStack2

“And if I’d read a 100 pages out of any of those law books, right now I’d be free as a bird.”

WithinTheLawHandoff

“I’ll take one.”

One minute long, and uncredited, but this librarian’s role is quite important. She sets up the premise of the film — getting revenge WITHIN the law — as well as the title! Most definitely an Information Provider, this prison librarian delivers her lines in a matter-of-fact manner, showcasing her character as smart, incisive, and thoughtful. The prison librarian also exhibits a cool, detached persona that Mary adopts after her prison release.

A montage follows, including shots of Mary studying and shelving law books.

WithinTheLawMontage

This film was really interesting to me as it’s the first female prison librarian I’ve seen — all the others I’ve seen are male. Often, prison librarians work in the prison library because of good behavior. This prison librarian is obviously in for life, readily admitting her own guilt, but is willing to help others out when provided the opportunity.

Other prison librarians, all male, include:

A borstal kind of librarian

Borstal Boy (2000) is based upon the autobiography of (in)famous Irish writer and activist Brendan Behan, and it focuses on his time in a borstal (a kind of youth prison/labor camp in the UK) during WWII. I didn’t personally know anything about Behan before watching this film… and after watching the film? I still didn’t know much about him. So I looked up a little bit about him on the interwebs. His works are Irish classics, as are his spirited appearances on talk shows. He died of alcohol poisoning at the age of 41. None of this is apparent in this tame-by-numbers biopic.

Inviting, no?

About twenty-three minutes into the film, we spy the prison library. Which looks like, from the outside, a combination of outhouse and shed (see right).

The camera quickly cuts to a male librarian (Arthur Riordan), sitting down behind a makeshift Circulation desk. He wearily asks two young lads, including Behan (Shawn Hatosy), “What are you looking for?” The boys mumble something about pictures, so the librarian points and says, “Comic books over there.” He looks puzzled as the boys scurry off. (And he has reason to be puzzled — the boys are trying to find resources to help plot an escape.)

He’s a white, middle-aged male, with thinning brownish grey hair, no glasses. He dresses quite well, although conservatively, with a dark blazer, tan waistcoat, white button-down. The only bit of flash about him is his polka-dot bow tie.

Borstal Boy librarian

We then see a wider shot of the library, a small room with faded white painted walls, with a few low shelves and pieces of furniture with books stacked up. There’s a hexagonal table in the middle — looks like a card table — with some chairs. Most of the windows are painted over or blocked in some way (because of blackout regulations during the war?), so the light inside the room is relatively dim. In one wide angle, a large ledger is visible on the shelf behind the librarian, most likely the ledger where he records what’s checked out. There are a few bookcases filed with books behind the Circulation desk. Despite the bookcases, it still looks like a converted store room.

A borstal library

At this point, I thought this was going to be it for the prison librarian. I was thinking he would turn out to be your standard Male Librarian as a Failure character type (who else would work in this makeshift prison library?). But I was wrong! Surprise to me, the librarian continues to pop up throughout the film.

In this first library scene, he starts a conversation with Behan:

“And you are an Irish rebel, am I right?” the librarian asks as he stands up

“Only one, as far as I know.”

“Very thing for you.” The librarian turns to a tall bookcase beside his desk. “Life of Oscar Wilde, by Frank Harris.” (Note: The Life and Confessions of Oscar Wilde by Frank Harris was published in 1914)

“Not interested in Oscar Wilde.”

The librarian responds: “Blasphemy. A fellow Irishman, a fellow jailbird and rebel.”

“You know what he was down for, don’t you?”

“He was put in jail for buggering the son of the Marquis of Queensbury. Shocking.”

“No Irishman if he was a black caper.” (Aside: Is this a reference to The Black Cap, a famous gay pub in London, dating back to the 1700s?)

What is the librarian’s aim in this exchange? He was definitely smirking at Behan during this little talk (see screenshot below). The issue of homosexuality — and Behan’s evolving response to it — is a theme explored throughout the film.

Borstal Boy librarian

Behan then starts putting his escape plan into action and asks the librarian, “What do you got in local history?” The librarian tosses his head, “Ah… let’s see” and turns back to the shelves.

A few minutes later, Behan is using a book about local history to trace a map for an escape route. Using a flashlight to shine down on the book, he’s obviously doing this in secret, after lights out.

The warden’s daughter makes a stir upon her arrival — and Behan immediately sets his sights on her. When the girl quotes Oscar Wilde to him and recommends, “You should read it,” Behan immediately (!) gets a copy of the book. This is, of course, based on the girl’s suggestion, NOT the librarian’s. He even steals lines from the librarian:  “He’s a jailbird like myself.”

Apparently, bonding with the fellow Irish jailbird agrees with him, as he decides to put on an Oscar Wilde play for the benefit of the camp. The play in question? The Importance of Being Earnest, of course! The film then cuts to the auditions. And who is there? The librarian, of course! He’s there to provide copies of the play, most likely, but he’s also the one Behan confers with about casting. Behan asks who they’re going to get to play the girls.

The librarian — maroon bow tie quite erect and legs crossed — gives him a sidelong glance. “Well, frankly, I’ve always felt I was born to play a great lady… So perhaps I could be your Lady Bracknell.”

Dude looks like a lady

We then are treated to a close-up of the librarian in drag (see left), along with a fellow gay Borstal boy playing the role of Gwendolyn. When introduced, the audience members laugh uproariously. The librarian — indeed, born to play a great lady — talks in a suitably high-pitched voice and properly haughty demeanor.

Apparently, the play is a hit. And in the joyous after-party, the librarian is seen complimenting the boy who played the butler.

Toward the end of film, about an hour and fifteen minutes in, another scene takes place in the library. Behan (obviously reformed, by the looks of his turtleneck sweater and earnest expression, which has replaced his usual sullen expression) is helping another boy read. The book in question is about “the man that I loved” (another Oscar Wilde tome?). The boy asks how a man can love another man.

A lasting impression of the Borstal librarian

The librarian, standing behind them at the tall bookcase, turns to join the conversation.

“You love your father?”

“I love my wee brother.”

“You love a man then, don’t you?” the librarian sums up, hands on hips, with a scornful gaze. He then turns back to reshelving books.

This reel librarian ultimately serves two main roles, primarily as an Information Provider, and in the play scene, as Comic Relief.

At the end of this film — which feels much longer than its 93 minutes — Behan seems to be on his way to being a writer. All due to Oscar Wilde’s — and the librarian’s — influence!