Reel Substance: A look at Classes I and II

Shining a spotlight on the “Reel Substance” portion of my Reel Librarians site.

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 Substance section
Reel Substance section

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:

  • 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

Class II:

  • Films in which the protagonist or other major characters are librarians
  • 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.

Class I description
Class I description

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.

Class II description
Class II description

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!


Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

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