For the month of February, I will focus on love stories and reel librarians. A match made in heaven? ♥
First up is a movie my husband and I recently rewatched, the cult classic romance, Somewhere in Time (1980), starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour as crossed-in-time lovers. The film was a flop at the time it was released, with Reeve fresh off his Superman fame; at the time, his 180-degree turn in a time-traveling romance was not appreciated. Now, of course, the film has reached cult classic status — even inspiring an international fan club, INSITE (International Network of Somewhere in Time Enthusiasts), whose members frequently revisit the Grand Hotel in Mackinac Island, Michigan, where the movie was filmed.
Based on the Richard Matheson novel Bid Time Return (1975), Somewhere in Time (1980) is a genre film, one that is totally committed to its central romance. I respect genre films that revel in their chosen genre, and this is a Romance with a capital R. And if you go into the film knowing that, you will enjoy it. (I did.) It also shows off Christopher Reeve’s under-appreciated acting range, a gorgeous award-winning score inspired by Rachmaninoff, and undeniable chemistry between the two leads. I also appreciate that this film presents time travel as a totally mental construct; there are no flashy special effects, and the resulting simplicity actually works in the film’s favor.
I also loved reading that author Matheson was inspired to write the story after seeing a portrait of Maude Adams, an early American stage actress who originated the role of Peter Pan on Broadway. (And yes, I totally Googled her name and sifted through portrait galleries, fantasizing about which portrait stirred Matheson’s imagination. HELLO, I’m a librarian and self-confessed romantic. ♥ )
So what does this film itself have to do with librarians? Once again, a reel librarian helps provide vital information that keeps the plot moving.
But first, a little backstory. Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve) is in college, basking in the success of a play he’s written. In the middle of the adoring crowd — which includes William H. Macy and George Wendt in their screen debuts! — an old woman glides in, gives Richard a gold pocket watch, and urges him to “Come back to me.” He’s never seen her before. Flash forward eight years, and Richard is drawn to the Grand Hotel, where he falls in love with a portrait of a stunning young woman (Jane Seymour). An old caretaker of the hotel, Arthur (veteran character actor Bill Erwin), reveals the name of the woman in the portrait, Elise McKenna, and that she was a famous actress. Richard becomes obsessed with finding out more about Elise.
And where does he think to go first to find out more information? The library, of course! Smart man. 🙂
About fifteen minutes into the film, Richard asks Arthur where the nearest library is. Arthur responds, “In town, right past the church.”
The next few frames reveal Richard rifling through reference books on early American theatre, along with closeups of brief entries he comes across.
Finally, he asks the librarian, an African-American woman with a short ‘do and MAJOR glasses, for help:
Richard: Excuse me. Do you have any theater biographies … that aren’t in the racks under the rare books or magazines?
Librarian: Well, we do have some magazines. But they’re in the back, and I’d have to find them, and…
Richard: Oh. Could you do that for me, please?
She’s in the middle of organizing cards in the card catalog, and clearly is reluctant as she checks her watch and sighs. But OF COURSE she agrees to go to the back and retrieve the magazines. (If you had Christopher Reeve in his prime smiling at you and turning on the charm, wouldn’t you?!)
One magazine issue has a cover story of Elise McKenna’s later years and reveals the final photograph ever made of her … which drops a primary piece into the puzzle for Richard. This is the woman who came to the college theatre that night eight years ago and urged him to come back to her. He now understands why he has been drawn to the Grand Hotel and to her portrait. This key piece of information, provided to him by the public librarian, helps Richard on the path to his long-lost-but-not-yet-found love.
This reel librarian, played by Noreen Walker, is on screen for less than a minute, and is listed in the credits simply as Librarian. She is an Information Provider in a Class IV film. However, her role is essential in setting up the central plot, and it is a relatively rare portrayal of a reel librarian of color. According to IMDb.com, this is Noreen Walker’s sole film credit. This movie was filmed on location in Chicago and on Mackinac Island … perhaps this scene was filmed in the island’s actual public library and with its real-life staff at the time?
The answer lies somewhere in time, I’m sure. 😉
- “Maude Adams Photographs.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections, n.d.
- “Maude Adams” via Wikipedia is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license
- “Noreen Walker.” Internet Movie Database, n.d.
- Somewhere in Time. Dir. Jeannot Szwarc. Perf. Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, Christopher Plummer, Teresa Wright. Universal, 1980.