Reel Substance: A look at Classes III and IV

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

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 Substance section
Reel Substance section

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:

  • These are films in which the librarian(s) plays a secondary role.
  • These secondary roles range from supporting characters in several scenes to minor characters with a few lines in a memorable or significant scene.

Class IV:

  • Films in which the librarian(s) plays a cameo role.
  • These cameo roles are seen only briefly with little or no dialogue.

What are some examples?

Class III:

  • 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)

Class IV:

  • 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 librarian in That Touch of Mink (1962)
Reel librarian in 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 librarian in Scream Blacula Scream (1973)
Reel librarian in 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.

Jedi librarian in Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
Jedi librarian in 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).

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.

Librarian in The Night Strangler (TV, 1973)
Librarian in 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!

Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

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