An affair between a cabana boy and the young wife of a sinister politician triggers a 16-year vendetta between the two men.
When a one-line plot summary includes the words cabana boy, sinister politician, and 16-year vendetta, you just KNOW it’s going to be bad. And it IS bad. But not awesomely bad. It’s just run-of-the-mill terrible, complete with bad acting, wavering accents, fake-o scar makeup, and the worst of ’70s and ’80s fashions. Joseph Fiennes plays not only the cabana boy, Alan, but also the Cubano boy Manuel Esquema; Gretchen Mol plays the young wife, Ella; and Ray Liotta plays the sinister politician, Mark.
At first, scanning through the credits, listing Catherine Hayos as Librarian, I was thinking the librarian would flash by in a short scene 2/3 through the film. In one respect, I was right — about the timing. That’s about when a library is first mentioned. However, that’s when we find out that Ella — one of the main characters! — has been volunteering at the library. At this point, I had to stop the movie, because (a) it was so terrible, and (b) I had to gear up for paying more attention to Ella and considering the entire movie in her role. Sigh. This is another of those times that I watch bad movies so you don’t have to.
So how do we find out Ella works at the library? Alan/Manuel comes back years later to Ella and Mark’s house — without either of them recognizing him or wondering about the fake-makeup scar running down his face — and their conversation turns to her work. (It’s already been mentioned that she has no children; is her volunteer work considered a substitute?). Here’s a bit of their after-dinner conversation:
Mark: She has her home, her work.
Alan/Manuel: I didn’t know you worked.
Ella: Well, in a manner of speaking.
Mark: She reads.
Ella: I work for the Westchester Library System. It’s volunteer work. Mostly paperwork, and I read for the elderly. It started when Mark was a councilman. I liked it, so I kept doing it.
We also learn that Ella is rereading Madame Bovary (!) to senior citizens, and almost an hour and a half into the film, we are treated (?!) to a scene of this.
What an odd choice, Madame Bovary, but director Paul Schrader is none-too-subtle on the correlation of the novel’s plotline with this movie’s story:
Remembering the ball became an occupation for her. Every Wednesday morning she said to herself as she woke, Ah, a week ago, two weeks ago, three weeks ago, I was there! And little by little, the faces became confused in her memory. […] Some of the details vanished, but her longing remained.
The scene then cuts to an outside shot of a library, with red brick and high arched glass. Inside at the Circulation counter, Ella gathers books and places them on a cart behind the desk (see below).
Another female librarian — no doubt the Librarian listed in the credits and your basic Information Provider — is also there, as well as another unidentified female shelving in the back shelves.
Librarian: You better hurry if you’re going to the city with your husband. [grabs a big stack of books]
Ella: Oh, I decided not to. Mark’s all right on his own. Besides, I’ve got to catch up on my paperwork.
Using her volunteer job at the library as cover (!), out of sight of her controlling-yet-clueless husband, Ella uses the library phone to call Manuel/Alan (see below).
You can bet this is NOT going to end well.
And in the end, Ella’s dabbling into librarianship doesn’t mean much to the film, landing it into the Class II category of films. Her (non)occupation is simply a means to an end, in an attempt to demonstrate some kind of depth to her character (too little, too late). Also, the library provides another set piece to the film. But her character’s motivation — she was a bored housewife who dabbled in different charities and classes — actually ends up pretty condescending to real librarians. I think Paul Schrader, also the film’s screenwriter, was trying to provide some kind of arc for Ella, as a woman who finds herself within all the melodrama, so in that sense, she does (marginally) fulfill the Liberated Librarian character type. But it’s all surface, as slight as the rest of this less-than-mediocre film.
You know by the exclamation point in the title that this is a classy movie, right?! Oh, how I wish that were true. Actually, that’s not true. I did not enjoy this movie, not even for the camp factor of a raunchy comedy as only the ’80s could make ’em. Waitress! (aka Soup to Nuts, 1981) is a film by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Hertz of Troma Entertainment, the creators of those craptastic “Toxic Avenger” B-movie series. I remember reading a few years ago how “Toxie” keeps intoxicating Cannes (see what I did there?!). This movie even premiered at Cannes in 1981, with its American release over a year later, in September 1982 (hence the discrepancy in release dates).
My Facebook status documenting my personal reaction to this movie? “I feel violated.”
On that positive note ;)… The plot revolves around different young women working as waitresses, including one woman trying to make it as an actress and another trying to make it as a writer in New York City. Both work at the WORST restaurant ever, which was filmed after hours at an actual restaurant in Manhattan called Marty’s (the worst advertising I can think of, really, as the sign is clearly visible throughout the restaurant scenes). The “comedy” bits include sight gags, vaudeville schtick, slapstick comedy, anything to elicit a laugh… or a groan. There are also tons of cameos and bit parts, including Chris Noth (!) and Anthony John Denison, who plays Lt. Flynn on The Closer TV series.
Almost a half-hour into the film, Jennifer (Carol Bevar), the girl who wants to be a writer, goes to the library to follow the advice of a teen magazine article on how to find guys. The narration illuminates her mission:
Remember, the mature teen goes for a man with a mind not just a body. Do some browsing at the public library. That’s where you’ll find your cosmopolitan intellectual.
She immediately heads on over to the wall o’ card catalogs, and meets a boy with a finger up his nose. (NOT kidding, see below). There’s your typical “cosmopolitan intellectual” at the library, eh? Sigh.
Jennifer starts asking him questions, which irritates the guy — until the light bulb comes on — and he asks if she’s making a pass at him. “I can’t believe it! I’ve never had a lady come up to me before!” Of course, all of this highly excitable babbling occurs right underneath the sign atop the card catalog, with “QUIET” in huge black letters (see above). He’s so loud that the other patrons start shushing him and telling him to be quiet, and we see Jennifer booking it out of there (I am on fire with the puns today!). And you guessed it… here comes the librarian, played by Lola Ross.
Librarian: Young man , you should be more quiet.
Dorky guy: I know, I’m just very happy. This young lady she just made a pass at me.
Librarian: What young lady? [puts on huge glasses handing on a lanyard and pokes his shoulder with her pencil]
Dorky guy: What do you mean what young lady? This young lady. Oh my god, I’ve lost her! Wait!
And turning in panic, the guy runs into a book cart (supplied by the librarian, no doubt), flips over it in spectacular gymnastic fashion, then runs straight into another patron. He scampers off as the librarian puts a hand to her chest. This is obviously the most excitement she’s seen in the library in a long time!
So Jennifer the wannabe writer was NOT successful in finding a cosmopolitan intellectual guy at the library. Sigh.
And Lola Ross, the actress playing the librarian — in stereotypically buttoned-up, lanyard-wearing fashion — looked so similar to the librarian in The Last American Virgin (1982) that I had to look both movies up again. Don’t they look similar at first glance, right down to the extreme winged collars?
The Last American Virgin:
As the librarian character is used to contrast with the younger woman and to set up the slapstick comedy in this scene, I would argue she best fulfills a combination of the Spinster Librarian and Comic Relief character types. She, her lanyard, and her pencil also join the other librarians in bit part roles over in the Class IV listing of films.
Below are the opening credits, which is pretty much all you EVER need to watch from Waitress! (1981):
Waitress! Dir. Michael Herz, Lloyd Kaufman. Perf. Jim Harris, Carol Drake, Carol Bevar. Troma Entertainment, 1981.
The plot of the movie hinges on this two-minute library scene.
In 2 Brothers and a Bride (aka A Foreign Affair, 2003), two brothers (Tim Blake Nelson and David Arquette) run a farm. After their mother dies, they travel to Russia in search of a bride to help cook and clean for them. It’s an odd film, and I think the filmmakers were going for quirky. Real-life clients and would-be brides appeared as extras as the film, and scenes were shot during an actual “romance tour” in St. Petersburg, Russia. You can feel the desperation from both the male suitors and the mail-order brides.
And that desperation also comes through in the library scene. In an early scene — just ten minutes into the film — the elder brother, Jake (Nelson), goes to the public library to look at newspaper ads, where he spots the ad for mail-order brides. The plot of the movie hinges on this two-minute library scene.
After spotting the ad, which includes a web site address, Jake looks over his shoulder at the librarian, seen stamping books in the background. This small gesture reveals his nervousness.
He braves the reference desk and asks the librarian (Allyce Beasley as Library Lady) for help.
Jake: I want to go on the Internet.
Library Lady: Ok. You may.
[He just stands there, unsure.]
Library Lady: You need help. Go ahead. You can say it. I really need help. [putting fist to her chest, see below]
Jake: I need help.
I think they were going for funny here — and it may be funny, I’m probably just too close to it — but the librarian’s actions in this scene seem VERY condescending to me. I said out loud at the screen, “You’re not making us look good here, lady… “
The scene cuts to Jake seated at a computer carrel, with the librarian leaning over his shoulder and giving him directions.
Library Lady: See, move the arrow like this, then you click, to go to…
[Looks at Jake, he looks back]
Library Lady: Where? Name of the web site. You got to type it.
Jake [quietly]: Loveme.com
The librarian’s reaction? She stares straight ahead, her expression hardly changing, and then a little sigh escapes. “There’s a 20-minute time limit. You got 16 left.” She then whispers to him, “I’m watching you, buddy”.
Here’s a side-by-side comparison of her facial expression before and after he tells her the web address URL.
She’s on porn alert. You can tell. And he can tell. After he looks around the site a bit, he looks up and finds the librarian standing and stacking books and watching him, a weary expression on her face.
As he is shown preparing for the trip in the next few scenes, he obviously got what he needed at the library. The Library Lady character serves in an Information Provider role in a variety of ways: she provides info to Jake about computers and library use policies, and she provides info to the audience as an example of the obstacles these brothers face, as well as reflecting the social attitude toward mail-order brides.
In many ways, this is a pretty realistic scene. I’ve dealt with this kind of situation in real life, especially back when I started out in public libraries. I taught computer classes and helped people learn how to use computers and the Internet and what a computer mouse was used for. There was a regular male user who would come in to look at these kinds of “international dating” sites — heck, it might have even been the actual site used in this movie! — who wasn’t very good with computers. So I get it. I get the weariness this librarian must be feeling, with all that stamping and book processing and showing people how to use computers and having to be on the lookout for porn use in public spaces like the library. But the understandable weariness of this reel librarian gets turned into condescension in this film, which isn’t very flattering to our profession. And her look isn’t very flattering, with her drab colors and buttoned-up clothing and I-give-up hairstyle. And she has given up. She’s jaded. That’s what makes this portrayal a little too close for comfort. (Sigh.)
2 Brothers and a Bride, aka A Foreign Affair. Dir. Helmut Schleppi. Perf. Tim Blake Nelson, David Arquette, Emily Mortimer. Screen Media Films, 2003.
One year ago tomorrow, I began this Reel Librarians blog, and it’s been so. much. fun. As my mom (and fellow librarian) likes to say, “It’s an adventure!” And I definitely plan on continuing this adventure.
Having spent over a decade researching librarians in film and pop culture, this site has reenergized my focus. Although the bulk of my research is available in the links above, I have found the home page blog feature to be invaluable in keeping this topic fresh — hopefully, not only for me, but also for you, dear reader — and I like that this blog also makes use of both my English and Library Science degrees. 🙂
Whether a new fan or not, family member or not, passerby or what-have-you, what have YOU enjoyed so far from Reel Librarians? Please let me know and leave a comment while you’re here.
Showcasing librarian films that have been presumed lost
Last week, I highlighted films I have not been able to locate yet. This week, I’m showcasing librarian films that have been presumed lost; not surprisingly, these are films from the early decades of filmmaking. Most of these titles, and description details, come from the invaluable reference book The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999 by Ray & Brenda Tevis.
You might be wondering, if these films are presumed lost, how do we know anything about them? Research, of course! From primary sources such as movie reviews, screenplays, publicity stills, film library archives, etc. I have arranged the following titles below by order of release year.
BTW, the earliest film that I’ve personally been able to watch is the 1921 silent film, The Blot. For more on that film, and the significance of director Lois Weber, click here.
The Librarian (1912):
A dramatic short film, starring Mary Fuller as Betty Gibbs, who I’m assuming plays the title character.
This short film is not mentioned in The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999 book, but I unearthed it via IMDb.com.
I haven’t been able to find out much at all about the film itself, and Mary Fuller herself (1888-1973) is also an enigma. Born and raised in Washington, DC, she began as a stage actress and signed with the Edison Film Company in 1910. However, after starring in the first movie serial, What Happened to Mary (1912), and making it to Hollywood and signing with Universal Pictures, she left the movie industry behind in 1917, essentially disappearing from any kind of public life. That movie serial’s title turned out true to life, eh?
Sounds scandalous, no? This is the first silent film included in The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999, and is based off the 1915 bestselling novel The Rose-Garden Husband by Margaret Widdemer. The leading female role, Phyllis Narcissa Braithwaite (Mignon Anderson), is a children’s librarian who dreams of a rose garden. She ends up leaving her position to marry and care for a young man, Allan, who has been paralyzed. As the Tevises write:
A Wife on Trial portrays Phyllis as a poorly paid, hardworking librarian with a work ethic that continues in marriage; she showers her attention upon Allan instead of the children who enjoyed her stories. (p. 5)
It seems odd to me that the film title was changed, especially since it was based on a bestseller! The film’s title sounds more like a courtroom drama than an inspirational love story. And bonus, the original novel is available as a Kindle e-book download.
The Wishing Ring Man (1919):
A sequel to A Wife on Trial and based on Widdemer’s bestselling novel of the same name. This film follows the romantic adventures of Allan’s friend, Dr. John Hewitt.
Allan and Phyllis — this go-around played by a different actress, Dorothy Hagan — as well as their two children, play supporting roles in this sequel. I agree with the Tevises, it is highly unlikely that Phyllis’s prior occupation as children’s librarian gets a mention in this film (p. 5)
However, this film is significant as the first sequel to feature a reel librarian. Yay? 😉
A Very Good Young Man (1919):
Bryant Washburn plays LeRoy Sylvester, a public librarian and the title role. In fact, in a decidedly rare occurrence, the leading man’s occupation was changed from a brass bed factory worker in the original stage play to a librarian in the film! LeRoy’s fiancee, Ruth, refuses to marry him because he is TOO good, his moral character TOO spotless. So he is too good of a librarian, eh?
It is interesting to note that this first male reel librarian demonstrates ineptitude in social situations outside the library. Also, his ultimate goal is marriage. Does he ultimately get the girl? Of course! Ruth finally agrees to marry him even though he fails at being a thief, gambler, and flirt. (What an odd sentence to write.)
And as the Tevises point out, this seems to be the first film to feature a male librarian (p. 5-6).
The Broken Gate (1920 & 1927 versions):
This film — made twice! — was based on Emerson Hough’s 1917 novel of the same name, which you can read online at Project Gutenberg. I’m not sure why it was remade, as the Tevises share snippets of reviews ranging from tepid (“lacking in real dramatic strength” for the 1920 version) to pretty harsh (“It will have to be a pretty dumb fan clientele that will take the picture seriously” for the 1927 remake, p. 6).
The storyline is pure soap opera, involving an illegitimate child, self-sacrifice, and false accusations of murder. In both movie versions, the librarian, Julia, is a supporting role, played as a spinsterish, poorly paid, physically handicapped, and self-sacrificing town librarian. The character of reel librarian Julia was played by Evelyn Selbie in the 1920 version, and by Florence Turner in the 1927 version. Julia poses as the illegitimate son’s aunt (her friend, Aurora, is the boy’s real mother), and sends her salary, such as it is, to help pay for the son’s education. Apparently, she is “treated as contemptuously by Aurora as by the residents” of the town (Tevis & Tevis, p. 7). Sigh.
This cinematic depiction, however, seems to be quite different from how Julia is described in the book:
These many years “Miss Julia,” as she was known to all, had held her place as ‘city librarian,’ in which quasi-public capacity she was known of all, and loved of all as well.
The Freeze Out (1921):
This one’s interesting… a Western (!) directed by legendary director John Ford. And the librarian is also the town drunk (!!).
Let’s break it down. Harry Carey plays “The Stranger,” breezes into a Western town called “Broken Buckle” and establishes a school and library (rather than yet another gambling house). He also recruits the town drunk (Bobtail McGuire as played by J. Farrell MacDonald) to be the librarian. Wow! That’s ballsy.
And this is only the 2nd male librarian onscreen — and such a completely different kind of role than LeRoy in A Very Good Young Man (1919)! And so interesting that to combat the “criminal element” in this rough town, The Stranger elevates the social standing of the town drunk. While reading out this plot, I thought it sounded familiar to films like Destry Rides Again (the town drunk becoming deputy sheriff), and indeed, this comedic device was often used in the Western film genre (Tevis & Tevis, p. 7).
And apparently, MacDonald earned the only bit of praise in movie reviews — mostly for his comedic chops playing a drunk — one of which deemed the movie as having “no excuse in a picture theatre accustomed to program features of merit.” Ouch.
The Lost Romance (1921):
This lost film, starring Lois Wilson as public librarian Sylvia Hayes, also sounds pretty soapy. It involves Sylvia deciding between two proposals, a child’s disappearance, a meddling aunt, and rekindled love. And of course, Sylvia promptly ends her librarian career at the prospect of marriage.
As the Tevises describe, the film opens with a library scene with Sylvia dreaming of a vacation — which, as a side note, reminded me of the opening scene in 1932’s Forbidden. While listening to the children’s storytime hour (daydreaming of her own future?), Sylvia gets reprimanded by the library supervisor, who also reminds her that her vacation doesn’t start until the next day (p. 7-8).
This also appears to the first film to feature a ladder in the library, a prop to establish librarian roles and library settings that will become a familiar sight in future films. Mayme Kelso plays the elder librarian-in-charge, following another frequently used device of pairing, and contrasting, a younger librarian with an older (and presumably single) librarian.
It’s interesting to note that the film’s director, William C. deMille, was the elder brother of director Cecil B. DeMille and father of choreographer Agnes de Mille. William C. deMille also co-hosted the 1st Academy Awards in 1929!
Only 38 (1923):
Out of all the lost films on this list, this one intrigues me the most.
Again, director William C. deMille chooses actress Lois Wilson (a former schoolteacher before turning to stage and screen) to play the lead role, Mrs. Stanley, an “aging” housewife at 38 (!) who wants to assert her independence after sending her 18-year-old twins off to college. The route of this independence? Employment at the college library, of course. This leads to a more youthful appearance (the time-honored cinematic makeover), romance (of course) with an English professor, and confrontations with her outraged children. Sounds very much like a Liberated Librarian story arc.
Apparently, the film follows the original 1921 stage play by A. E. Thomas pretty closely — even adding library scenes! — and earned good reviews. Interesting, in a film ostensibly all about a woman’s independence, she is known only by her married name. Hmmm…. Also interesting that Lois Wilson, herself only 29 at the time, plays a role almost a decade older.
The Tevises also use the film’s title to describe a common reel librarian role, which they refer to throughout the rest of their book. Here’s how they describe it (p. 11):
Throughout the twentieth century, the majority of reel librarians, especially those in supporting roles, will be afflicted with this “only 38” characteristic. These reel librarians are portrayed as middle-aged or older, a stigmatization of librarians that begins the first time individuals, when as children, enter a library and encounter a librarian, an “only 38” person.
For some reason, this film title makes me think of silent film star Lillian Gish (probably because of her 1919 film Broken Blossoms), but the film actually stars Pola Negri, a Polish film star who also made a big name for herself in Hollywood.
In this film, she plays Lily, a beautiful young librarian — those eyes! — working in German village where an army garrison is also stationed. Local interest in reading sure goes up after Lily joins the library! She marries an army colonel (Noah Beery), who becomes jealous of the attention Lily receives from other male admirers. The girl can’t help it, eh? 😉
This is another example, as the Tevises point out, of a young reel librarian who “is not hesitant about marriage as a means to improve her social and economic position” (p. 14).
The source of this film has an interesting timeline. It’s based on a 1914 stage play, The Song of Songs, by Edward Sheldon from a 1908 novel by Hermann Sudermann, Das Hohe Lied (you can read the 1909 English translation here on Google eBooks). An original film version was released in 1918, under the original English title and starring Elsie Ferguson, and remade once more in 1933, the only sound version and again titled as The Song of Songs, starring Marlene Dietrich. Hmmm… I wonder if they kept the librarian angle in the original and subsequent screen adaptations? Methinks I need to add these possibilities to the Master List. 🙂
The Spirit of Youth (1929):
This film, based on a screenplay and story by Elmer Harris and Eve Unsell and directed by Walter Lang, features a small-town librarian, Betty Grant (played by Dorothy Sebastian) who falls for Jim, a roustabout sailor and boxer (played by Larry Kent). Through various dramatic scenarios, do you think Jim finally recognizes the true heart and love of the local librarian? No points for correct guesses. 😉
Elements of this time-worn plot have been recycled through the years, like in 1945’s Adventure (featuring a sailor and long-suffering librarian love) and in 1978’s Movie Movie (a 1930s spoof featuring a boxer and, again, his long-suffering librarian love).
The actress, Dorothy Sebastian, playing the reel librarian has a colorful past of her own. A former Ziegfeld girl and stage actress, Sebastian had a romance with legendary silent star Buster Keaton, and later married (and divorced) Hopalong Cassidy star William Boyd.
This lost film, as mentioned by the Tevises in their book The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999 (p. 14), also merits a mention as the final silent film to feature a reel librarian.