Reel Substance: A look at Classes III and IV

Continuing the spotlight on “Reel Substance“… Why the reason for this mini-series? Because I also use this website as a repository for my lifelong research of librarians in film, so this mini-series of posts highlight the research behind the blog.

One way I analyze and categorize films is according to the importance of the librarian role to the film overall. I do this through the “Reel Substance” section of this site, which is currently divided into 5 categories.

Reel Librarians  |  Reel Substance screenshot

Last week, I started by taking a look at the differences between Class I and Class II films. This week, let’s look at Class III and Class IV films.

The basics:

Class III

Class IV

These are films in which the librarian(s) plays a secondary role. Films in which the librarian(s) plays a cameo role.
These secondary roles range from supporting characters in several scenes to minor characters with a few lines in a memorable or significant scene. These cameo roles are seen only briefly with little or no dialogue.

What are some examples?

Class III

Class IV

  • 2 Brothers and a Bride, aka A Foreign Affair (2003)
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
  • Citizen Kane (1941)
  • Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
  • Ghostbusters (1984)
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
  • My Week with Marilyn (2011)
  • The Night Strangler (TV, 1973)
  • The Philadelphia Story (1940)
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)
  • Soylent Green (1973)
  • Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
  • That Touch of Mink (1962)
  • The Time Machine (2002)
  • UHF (1989)
  • The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
  • Awakenings (1990)
  • Beautiful Girls (1996)
  • Brief Encounter (1945)
  • City of Angels (1998)
  • Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)
  • Ever After (1998)
  • Finding Forrester (2000)
  • Gods and Monsters (1998)
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
  • Marathon Man (1976)
  • Old Gringo (1989)
  • Scream Blacula Scream (1973)
  • WarGames (1983)

The above lists are only selected samples — 15 titles apiece; you can view more titles and synopses in the Class III and Class IV pages.

You caught me dialoguing

One of the main differences between reel librarians in Class III vs. Class IV is in the amount of dialogue the reel librarian character has. Some Class III reel librarian characters are fully supporting characters — like Vox in The Time Machine (2002), Mr. Berry in The Night Strangler (TV, 1973) and English in Escape from Alcatraz (1979). These characters, therefore, have several scenes of dialogue throughout the film.

Other reel librarian characters in Class III have one memorable scene, like in the opening library scene in Ghostbusters (1984), or in the motel room scene toward the end of That Touch of Mink (1962), as seen below and as analyzed in this post.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'That Touch of Mink' (1962)

Screenshot from ‘That Touch of Mink’ (1962)

Contrast that with the majority of Class IV reel librarian characters, who have little or no dialogue. In some films — Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), for one — they literally only get to point. In other films, like Ever After (1998) or Marathon Man (1976), they’re only seen in the background, never heard. The lucky few get a line or two of dialogue. Sophia Wu got to say, “We have 24 copies. But I’m sorry, they’re all checked out” in Finding Forrester (2000), while Sybil Scotford grabbed a few more words (“Let’s see. This is it. This whole shelf. Black arts, occult. That should keep you busy for awhile”) during her few seconds of screen time in Scream Blacula Scream (1973), as seen below.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Scream Blacula Scream' (1973)

Screenshot from ‘Scream Blacula Scream’ (1973)

Providing information in Class III films

A majority of the reel librarian roles in Class III and Class IV consist of Information Providers and Comic Relief character types, with the odd Spinster Librarian thrown in the mix for good measure. (Interested in knowing more about those character types? Visit the “Role Call” section of the site.) But the reel librarians provide information in different ways.

In Class III films, Information Providers usually relay info essential to the plot, helping advance the plot. Again, this goes to WHY a librarian is in the film. Having librarians provide essential information to a main character is a shortcut for the audience to then trust that information.

For example, there are multiple reel librarian characters in All the President’s Men (1976) — none of them onscreen for all that long, but collectively, they are enough of a presence to merit Class III. After several attempts by the reporters to locate information — even being rebuffed by one librarian over the phone — their investigation breaks wide open after one (unwitting) library clerk provides them circulation records.

A similar plot point arises in Curse of the Demon, aka Night of the Demon (1957). Psychologist John Holden (Dana Andrews) investigates a colleague’s death; in one scene, Holden investigates his colleague’s research at the British Museum and gets help from an older male librarian. (And that librarian gets gold stars for going above and beyond his duty to track down a copy of a rare book.) It’s that research that propels the rest of the film.

Reel Librarians: Star Wars Library Scene

Screenshot from Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

Sometimes, the reel librarian is there to provide misinformation, like Jocasta Nu in Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002), as seen above. In one short scene, analyzed here in this post, Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) cannot find any information about a mysterious planet at the Jedi Archives, and the librarian insists that “if an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist.” (Sighhhhhhh.)

Providing information in Class IV films

In Class IV, there are also a super-majority of reel librarian characters who are Information Providers. But instead of relaying actual information or research to characters, like in Class III films, Information Providers in Class IV films usually relay information about the setting to the audience. They are almost always there to help establish the library setting in scenes that occur in libraries. This is also a shortcut for the audience — but a shortcut more about place, rather than purpose.

That begs the question:  Why set a scene in a library? Sometimes, a library makes sense in the overall academic setting of a Class IV film (With Honors, Threesome, Rudy, Finding Forrester, Dangerous Minds, and more). Other times, a library is used as a “safe” and public space for the main characters to “meet cute” (Marathon Man, Ever After, City of Angels, and so on).

Reel Librarians | Screenshot of 'With Honors'

Screenshot of ‘With Honors’ (1994), where librarians are as much decoration as the actual holiday decorations

More often than not, reel librarians in Class IV films are seen in the background of a library scene or setting. Librarians as decoration? One could do worse… ;)

No-name librarians

I’ve written before, as in my “Librarian is a librarian is a librarian” post, about how most reel librarians who are title characters end up in Classes I and II. For Classes III and IV, a majority of the reel librarian characters are either credited simply as “Librarian” (or a similar title, like “Library Clerk”) or, even worse, uncredited — earning no name at all. This makes a kind of sense, given the lesser screen time given these portrayals.

Screenshot from credits of 'The Night Strangler' (TV, 1973)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from credits of ‘The Night Strangler’ (TV, 1973)

There are more named reel librarian characters in Class III films, like Wally Cox as Mr. Berry in The Night Strangler (TV, 1973), while there are more uncredited roles in Class IV films.

Final thoughts

I fully admit, there is no exact science for how I analyze and categorize films and their reel librarian characters. For me — admittedly viewing these films through my librarian lenses — everything boils down to context and purpose. Some of the questions I ask myself:

  • Does the librarian have any dialogue in the film? If not, then I start with Class IV and see how the rest of the film goes.
  • Does the librarian serve a clear purpose in the film, beyond just establishing a library setting? If yes, then I start with Class III and go up from there, if needed.
  • Is the librarian a main character? Then I think about the importance of that role in the context of plot, to distinguish between Class I and Class II.

And I do sometimes agonize over these decisions. I’m probably the only one who does… ;) But if I’m going to do something, I want to do it well. Sometimes, I go back and forth between Class III and Class IV (What does “significant” mean? Is this too long for a “cameo”?), sometimes between Class I and Class II (Would this be considered “integral”?).

But in the end, I do my best and hope that it’s useful for others. One of the major reasons I categorize the films into “Reel Substance” categories is to help provide interested readers a shortcut to those who want the “most bang for their buck” — if you want to watch a film in which a librarian plays a key role, I’ve got you covered.

Next week, I’ll take a deeper look at Class V… and a possible Class VI… stay tuned!

Reel Substance: A look at Classes I and II

If you’re a regular reader of Reel Librarians (thank you), you know that I write and publish one post a week. Most of those posts focus on analyzing portrayals of librarians on film; when relevant, I delve into related subjects of library roles in TV or in books. I am also fond of listmaking, like when I round up themed lists of librarian films or portrayals. That describes the focus of the blog part of this website.

I also use this website as a repository for my lifelong research of librarians in film, so sometimes it’s good to highlight the research behind the blog. Therefore, for the next few upcoming posts, I would like to shine a spotlight on the “Reel Substance” portion of my Reel Librarians site.

Reel Librarians  |  Reel Substance screenshot

When I watch and analyze reel librarian films, I categorize them in different ways. (I am a librarian, after all — organization is as natural as breathing!) One way I categorize films is according to the importance of the librarian role to the film overall. I like to think of it as providing shortcuts to those who want the “most bang for their buck” — e.g. if you want to watch a film in which a librarian plays a key role, there’s a list of starting points to choose from. ;)

Right now, my “Reel Substance” section is divided into 5 sections. For this first post, I’d like to take a look at Class I and Class II. What is the difference between these two categories? Why should one care?

First, the basics:

Class I

Class II

Films in which the protagonist or other major characters are librarians Films in which the protagonist or other major characters are librarians
The librarian’s occupation serves as catalyst or is otherwise integral to the plot The librarian’s occupation does not directly affect the plot

So the main difference is how important is the librarian occupation to the plot? For me, this then naturally feeds into the purpose of having a character in the film who is a librarian. I am not particularly interested in having a librarian character on film just for the sake of having a librarian. Does it matter that there’s a librarian in the film, and if so, why?

What are some examples?

Class I

Class II

The above lists are only selected samples; you can view more titles and synopses in the Class I and Class II pages.

The library setting

Sometimes in Class I films, the library itself plays a big role in addition to the librarian character, like in Desk Set and Party Girl, but that’s not always a given. For example, we only see the exterior of a library — and then only very briefly — in It’s a Wonderful Life, and there is a particularly memorable library scene early on in The Mummy. A library setting is not featured at all in Rome Adventure; rather, the library is only referred to at the beginning of the film.

In Class II films, there may be one or several scenes actually set in a library, but usually, the setting is seen only long enough to introduce the character as a librarian, as in Chances Are and Love Story.

A closer look at Class I

You’ll note that I’ve included two ways in my Class I description in which a librarian’s occupation is important to the plot:  either as a catalyst or otherwise integral to the plot. These depictions manifest themselves in different ways.

Reel Librarians  |  Class I films

For example, in Desk Set, the essence of the plot itself is inextricably linked to librarianship. The major conflict — manifested in the main characters Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn), the head librarian of a TV research library, and the efficiency expert played by Spencer Tracy — boils down to technology vs. the human mind. This is a central conflict in librarianship even today (Do librarians matter in the age of Google? Spoiler alert:  YES), and the conclusion of the film is still relevant for modern librarians.

But what about the librarian characters in Rome Adventure or It’s a Wonderful Life? In the former, the film starts with librarian Prudence Bell (Suzanne Pleshette) quitting her job at Briarcroft College for Women after the board reprimands her for recommending a “too adult” book to a student. She goes to Italy in search of adventure and love, and the rest of the film takes place in Italy. So how does this qualify as a Class I film? In her role as a librarian, Prudence quite literally sets off the rest of the film’s plot — and exemplifies the virtues of standing up for what she believes in. But there’s a little something deeper, as well. In my post analyzing Rome Adventure, here’s how I put it:

[Why] a librarian? I think a young woman in that profession lends an air of intelligence and, let’s be honest, respectability — which she might need as support once she goes traipsing on long weekends in Italy! And […] being a librarian provides a more solid contrast to the idea of “liberation” — that without this chance of a “Rome Adventure” to broaden her horizons, she will have to face a future of spinsterhood (and overbearing would-be censors, a sad fate indeed). There just isn’t the same kind of contrast if she had simply been a salesclerk or a young lady with no profession. So when Prudence does explore her sexuality in the film, the audience might even be relieved for her, instead of condemning her more liberated escapades (perhaps a more serious issue in 1962, when the film was released?). Ahhh, the specter of the Spinster Librarian!

This specter of the Spinster Librarian links back to the ultimate Spinster Librarian portrayal in the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) falls on hard times, tries to commit suicide, and an angel grants him the wish to experience life as if he’d never been born. This set ups the alternate reality/nightmare played out in the second half of the film, in which his lovely wife, Mary (Donna Reed), has become an old maid librarian. The short scene in which George sees Mary as a librarian — a scene only 30 seconds long! — serves as the catalyst for the rest of the film. No longer desperate to end his life, George is now desperate to return to his real life.

In my post analyzing It’s a Wonderful Life, here’s how I summed it up:

What’s so disturbing about this scene — again, only about 30 seconds long! — is the uncomfortable undertones of this scene (at least for librarians). That without men in our lives, the ultimate nightmare for women is… to become “old maid” librarians?! That if we get married, we are spared from this oh-so-terrible fate? Again, sigh.

I know this scene is taken to extremes for the sake of the plot. George is near breaking point, and he needs a shock to get him to appreciate life again. And Mary becoming an “old maid” highlights the point that they are each other’s true loves — that without the other, they are not truly whole. Plot-wise, this scene makes sense. But emotionally, as a librarian, it is hard to swallow.

A closer look at Class II

In contrast to the myriad ways a librarian are shown to be integral or function as a catalyst for the plot in Class I films, many of the films in the Class II films follow a similar plot structure: Girl meets boy in a library in a “Meet Cute” kind of scene to set up the film’s plot/setting. Sometimes, the two leads have some kind of confrontation or otherwise dramatic scene in a library. Otherwise, the library — and the librarian’s occupation — are not major factors for the rest of the film.

Reel Librarians  |  Class II film

Variations of this structure play out in Class II films such as Major LeagueLove StoryMen of HonorMirandaThe BlotChances AreThe FBI StoryPump Up the Volume, Strike Up the Band, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and on and on. The librarian — usually a younger female — in these Class II films still continues to be a major character in the film, but the profession itself is really no more important than a placeholder.

For example, in the film The Time Traveler’s Wife, the two romantic leads “meet cute” in the library where he works as a “special collections librarian.” But as I said in my analysis post of the film:

Truthfully, it is not important to the plot that Henry is a librarian — except that it allows him to time travel, which IS the plot — so this film winds up in the Class II category.

Final thoughts

This post is not meant to say that Class II films are bad, or that Class I films are better. I don’t categorize these films in this way as a mark of quality. There are some Class II films I love — hello, Major League (I ♥ Rene Russo’s reel librarian character and her “READ” license plate!) — and other films I don’t. (Cough, Forever Mine, cough.) Same goes for Class I films. Party Girl and Desk Set? Two thumbs up! Adventure and Bookies? Not so much. But it is interesting to me to view films through the lens of evaluating how important or purposeful the librarian characters and roles are to the films.

Have you ever wondered about the “Reel Substance” categories on this site? If so, you’re in luck… next week, I’ll delve deeper into Class III and Class IV. Stay tuned!


Lego library land

This past week, my husband stumbled upon this Book Riot post that is a “roundup of some of the coolest Lego libraries and bookstores from around the bookternet.” Although the post is from 2013, it’s still AWESOME. (Is it too soon to call a 2013 post on the interwebs an “oldie but goodie”? ;) ) Seriously, pause in reading this post and experience it for yourself!

Screenshot of LEGO Libraries and Bookstores post

Also, check out this “Lego Library” Pinterest board!

Screenshot of Lego Library Pinterest board

Last but not least, if you’re up for more Lego library fun, then you might also be interested in my own Lego library-themed posts from a couple of years ago, including my search for my very own Lego Librarian mini-figure (see below):

Reel Librarians | Lego Librarian giveaway winner

See y’all next week!

When a librarian reads ‘Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians’…

So what happens when a real librarian (yep, referring to myself) reads the book Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians? The real librarian (yep, still me)… laughs and enjoys the equal-opportunity humor, of course!

(I suppose that means I’m not an evil librarian myself? Or am I just double-bluffing… ;) )

Reel Librarians  |  Title page of 'The Complete Alcatraz'

I had read a few reviews of Brandon Sanderson’s book when it first came out in 2007 — including a rave review and recommendation on NPR by Nancy Pearl, a legendary librarian in her own right (she of the Book Lust fame and model for the shushing librarian “action figure,” as seen here). Sanderson has since penned three additional titles in the series.

The first book, with its irresistible title, had been on the fringes of my radar, but I had never gotten around to reading it. Until recently, that is, when a work colleague at our library loaned me her copy of The Complete Alcatraz, an omnibus of the four titles (thus far) in the Alcatraz series. She thought I’d get a kick out of it — and she was right!

Reel Librarians  |  Book cover of 'The Complete Alcatraz'

The first title in the series, Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians, definitely starts out with a bang, with this opening line:

Reel Librarians  |  First page of 'Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians'

Turns out, this opening sentence was what inspired Sanderson to write the whole book! As he reveals on his personal website:

The book began, essentially, as a free-write based on what became the first line: “So, there I was, tied to an altar made from out-dated encyclopedias, about to get sacrificed to the dark powers by a cult of evil Librarians.”

So what’s the book all about? Alcatraz Smedry has grown up in Libraria — the United States, Canada, and England, countries controlled by librarians — often referred to as the Hushlands. (Ha!) On his 13th birthday, Alcatraz receives a mysterious package full of sand… and is quickly thrust into an adventure involving oculator lenses, self-driving cars, talking dinosaurs who also love reading, and of course, evil librarians.

It’s a fun, quick tale, overflowing with magic and adventure and snarky humor. The first-person narrator style took me some getting use to, and I can imagine future tales getting a bit formulaic in that Lemony Snicket kind of way. But overall, I quite enjoyed the book, and I liked the twist on so-called “flaws” turning out to be heroic talents (the power to “break things” is a powerful talent, for example, as is the talent for arriving late to things as well as the talent for tripping).

Side note:  I myself am a dropper — if only dropping things were a talent to be admired… ;)

Reel Librarians  |  Title page from 'The Complete Alcatraz'

Here are some choice bon mots about those evil librarians and their dastardly deeds:

He was accompanied by a large group of Librarians — not the skinny, robe-wearing kind but the bulky, overmuscled kind in the bow ties and sunglasses, as well as a couple of sword-wielding women wearing skirts, their hair in buns.

Bastille shuddered. “Papercuts,” she said. “The worst form of torture.”

I looked up at the dungeon guard, who had walked over to watch me. He wore the clothing one might have expected of a Librarian — an unfashionable knit vest pulled tight over a buttoned pink shirt, matched by a slightly darker pink bow tie. His glasses even had a bit of tape on them.

–“Somewhere in this room, the Master Librarians have placed one misfiled volume. The apprentices have to find it.”
–I eyed the nearly endless rows of tightly packed bookshelves. “That could take years!” I whispered.
–Sing nodded. “Some go insane from the pressure. They’re usually the ones who get promoted first.”

— “Why do the Librarians work so hard to keep everything quiet?” I asked. “Why go to all that trouble? What’s the point?”
— “Do you have to have a point if you’re an evil sect of Librarians?”

Of course, the Librarians in this story are “evil” because they are trying to control information. And while this story is firmly tongue-in-cheek (a cheek that stings from a strategically placed papercut, no doubt), there is something underlying that image of librarians “hoarding” or “controlling” information, resources, access, etc.

If you dare, I’ve written about that tension that exists between order and chaos within a librarian’s world in my “Between perfect order and perfect chaos” post, and I’ve also explored the “Librarian as nightmare” image. I’ve even delved into darker territory in my “Killer librarians” post… now there are some truly evil librarian portrayals!

Last, but not least, a shout-out of thanks goes to my colleague for lending me her copy of this fun series. I couldn’t resist sharing it on this blog — a side sojourn worthy of interest, surely, for the Reel Librarian reader.

Has anyone else read this series? If not, are you interested in reading about Alcatraz and his adventures fighting the Evil Librarians? What’s your own hidden “talent”? Please leave a comment and let me know!

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!