Breakin’ the rules

Sometimes, librarians on film fulfill the role of rule-breakers, and are all the more memorable for it

Reel librarians almost always seem synonymous with rules. Librarians = rule-mongers. But sometimes, librarians on film fulfill the role of rule-breakers, and are all the more memorable for it. 😉

Breakin' the rules collage

Archangel (TV, 2005):

There are two library/archives scenes in this TV film, and both scenes involve two Information Providers:  one restrictive and focused on rules (the rule-monger) and the other obliging and helpful (the rule-breaker, or rather, rule-bender). In the first scene early in the film, the rule-monger is the Older Librarian; in the second scene, the younger Clerk tries to crack that whip. And in both cases, the rule-benders prevail. Hmmm….

Both scenes are also pivotal in propelling the plot forward, as the rule-bending librarian/archivist provides a crucial bit of info. One scene is set in a massive state library in Russia, while the other takes place in a humble, small-town archives room.

Flight of the Intruder (1991):

Set during the Vietnam War, a young pilot questions bombing missions after his partner is killed. In one short scene, a young officer in the ship’s library allows the pilot to check out a non-circulating issue of National Geographic (rule-breaker!) that contains maps of North Vietnam.

The Seventh Victim (1943):

The reel librarian in this film, Miss Gottschalk (Sarah Shelby in an uncredited role), is in only one scene that lasts under a minute. But in that minute, she sells her soul for a few cheap compliments and half-hearted flirting, breaking the rules to provide a random male patron with restricted book culled from the private records of library patrons. This portrayal also has the distinction of being in the first horror film to feature a reel librarians.

And, of course, there are the reel librarians who are determined to punish rule-breakers, such as our resident serial killer, Miss Sally, the title character in the horror film Chainsaw Sally (2004).

But that’s another story … 😉

Sources used:

  • Archangel (TV movie). Dir. Jon Jones. Perf. Daniel Craig, Ekaterina Rednikova, Gabriel Macht. BBC, 2005.
  • Flight of the Intruder. Dir. John Milius. Perf. Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe, Brad Johnson, Rosanna Arquette. Paramount, 1991.
  • The Seventh Victim. Dir. Mark Robson. Perf. Kim Hunter, Jean Brooks, Tom Conway, Isabel Jewell, Erford Gage. RKO, 1943.

Smelling a rat in ‘Homicide’

Oooh, I smell research!

I have tried, I really have, but oh, David Mamet, I just am not one of your fans. But if you do happen to be a fan of Mamet’s patented staccato speech patterns and twisty-turny plots and self-important awareness, that’s cool with me. We’ll just agree to disagree and not talk about Mamet when we meet up at dinner parties, ok? 🙂

The Mamet in question is the 1991 film Homicide, starring Joe Mantegna as conflicted Jewish cop Bobby Gold, and the other usual suspects of a Mamet film. Yeah, I’m probably going to get all kinds of cranky and all-capsy with this one. Fair warning. But bear with me, because there is an interesting library scene in this one.


So I won’t get too much into the plot, because really, what’s the point? It’s all a mirage, anyway. It’s a David Mamet film. The puzzle-within-the-puzzle-within-the-other-puzzle-you-didn’t-see-coming IS the point. Suffice to say, Detective Gold is investigating a minor case and gets involved with a secretive Jewish group, which makes him question his faith and self-worth, yada yada yada. Along the way, Gold finds a piece of paper with the word Grofaz scrawled across it, and later, about an hour in, some random Jewish shopkeeper tells him the word was another name for Hitler. Oooh, I smell research!

Librarian in Homicide
What? I’m a librarian. Sweater vests are awesome.

The camera immediately cuts to a man, a young white male, all buttoned-up, writing out what Grofaz means on a chalkboard (see above). At first, I was thinking, “Teacher?” But it turns out he’s the head librarian at a special library for Jewish studies, listed in the credits simply as Librarian (Steven Goldstein). The librarian reveals that Grofaz is an acronym for Größter Feldherr aller Zeiten, translating roughly to “the greatest strategist of all time.” I was intrigued.

But then the camera revealed a cigarette in the librarian’s hands. A cigarette! A smoldering flame around archival posters and propaganda ephemera. Dude, I know this is a Mamet film and all that, but seriously?! A cigarette in a modern library full of priceless archives? Nuh-uh. Not buying it. SMELLING A RAT #1.

So the reel librarian continues to puff on that cigarette, telling us all about the Grofaz strategy, which apparently was “an interesting attempt” by a special division of the Propaganda Ministry that “didn’t particularly take.” This mini-lecture takes us through most of the special library, where we get vistas of dark wood paneling, rows of tall bookcases, study tables, books piled up, etc. Plus, we get a split-second glimpse of another assistant in a white coat back in the maps room, listed as Library Technician (Andrew Potok).

Looking at archival posters in Homicide
Looking at archival posters

Finally, head librarian stubs out the cigarette before reading from a “very rare” poster that highlights the Grofaz (see above).

Bobby Gold:  What do you have on the use of this word? Currently. Particularly in conjunction with anti-Semitic acts.

Librarian:  As I said, it’s an arcane usage, but we’ll look. We’ll take a look.

The librarian calls out to a colleague in the stacks. An older, grey-haired lady dressed all in grey (Charlotte Potok as Assistant Librarian) comes out of the stacks, carrying a clipboard and looking very serious (see below). The head librarian rattles off some directions, finally instructing her to “Bring it all,” and also instructs Gold to wait.

Assistant librarian in Homicide
Assistant librarian in Homicide

So while Gold is waiting (impatiently, I might add), he encounters some additional attitude from a Hasidic Jewish scholar, who basically ridicules him for not being able to read Hebrew. As he gets up, the scholar asks Gold to replace a book for him on the shelf. WTF?! Nuh-uh. (Side note:  We librarians generally prefer it if you don’t reshelve materials on your own. We are better able to make sure that items are placed back in the right locations, no offense, plus we also get to collect browsing stats. It’s a win-win for us, trust me. And don’t ask other patrons to shelve stuff for you. That’s just rude.)

And OF COURSE, while Gold is placing the book high on a shelf, he just happens to overhear a suspicious conversation between the head librarian and the grey lady assistant. SMELLING A RAT #2. 

Assistant Librarian:  The material on anti-Semitic acts.

Librarian:  Yes. I thought we had quite a file of current —

Assistant Librarian:  It was requested by 212.

Librarian:  212 wants it? [looks at envelope on clipboard]

Assistant Librarian:  Yes.

Librarian:  Loaned to 212 now? Fine. Then just pull the file.

Gold steps out as the grey lady steps away, and the librarian tells him, nope, they got nothing on the anti-Semitic acts in relation to Grofaz

Gold:  Nothing?

Librarian:  No.

Gold:  This is official police business.

Librarian:  Officer, you know I’d help you if I could, but as I said, it was rather arcane material. I’m sorry.

Gold:  Well, if there’s nothing you can do, there’s nothing you can do. Thank you.

Librarian:  Not at all. If there’s anything else I can help you with, let me know.

The librarian — after lighting up yet ANOTHER cigarette — walks down some stairs, leaving the clipboard and file out in the open. Yeah. Sure. SMELLING A RAT #3.

Librarian smokes in the library in Homicide
You know what you can do for me? You can take that cigarette out of your mouth.

So, OF COURSE, Gold leafs through the oh-so-conveniently-placed clipboard (see above), and spots an address with “212” in it. The next shot cuts to him at that location, and the plot continues to twist from there.

I’m sure you can tell by now how much this brief scene in this Class III film irritated me. The smug and dismissive attitude of this (mis)Information Provider librarian. The way he waved off his assistant. The clunky scene where the scholar tells him to shelve the book. Leaving the clipboard out. The cigarettes. The way the library is portrayed as yet another establishment — like the boys in blue? — insulated by its own rules and reasons and secrets, too easily influenced by outside pressures.

At the very end of the film, where Gold has lost everything, he gets handed a file. The final close-up reveals a newspaper advertisement for Grofazt, a type of pigeon feed. Was it all a set-up? That gotcha! moment so typical of Mamet. But what’s the point?

Looking for clues on how to answer that question, I did watch the other special features on this Criterion Collection disc, and I also rewatched the library scene with commentary by Mamet himself and co-star William H. Macy. The writer/director highlights Goldstein as the “go to Jew” in the Mamet acting company, and he calls out the “great Charlotte” who played the Assistant Librarian. Although Mamet states that the library scene is pivotal in the transition of Gold’s character (where does the hero belong? etc.), he also refers to the reel librarian as “head of the Jewish whatever-it-is.” Sigh.

And he addresses the smoking, too, in this commentary:  “That’s why I used to do a lot of writing in law libraries around the country, because they let you smoke in them. And also they didn’t ask you for any identification, because you know, who would pretend to be a lawyer?” How long ago did Mamet write in law libraries? The 1960s? The 1970s? Surely that has changed by now. And by the way, law libraries are NOT the same thing as special archives libraries. No smoking allowed!

William H. Macy’s reaction to the smoking? “It is an odd choice. Took poor Stevie about 10 years to quit smoking.” Because of this film?! Poor guy. And thank you, William H. Macy, for also thinking all that smoking in the library was weird. Also, you’re the best thing in this movie. Bless. ♥

Misspelling in the Homicide gag reel
Spelling matters, y’all

One last side note: In the gag reel in the Criterion Collection dvd, Goldstein initially misspelled Grofaz as Grozaz (see above). Woopsie. 😉

Sources used:

  • Homicide. Dir. David Mamet. Perf. Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy and Vincent Guastaferro. Triumph Releasing Corp., 1991.

Closing time in ‘Shadow of a Doubt’

Charlie’s whole world falls to pieces in that library … but order struggles to win in the end.

The 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt, reportedly one of Hitchcock’s personal favorites of his own films, is a clever suspense story. He smartly cast Teresa Wright as Charlotte “Young Charlie” Newton, the moral center of the story, who begins to wonder if her beloved Uncle Charlie is the notorious “Merry Widow Murderer.” And Joseph Cotten, as her namesake uncle, gets to show off some of his best acting skills in this film, in a role that requires him to be quite charming in a way that lets you know there’s more beneath the surface.

Hitchcock shot most of the film on location in Santa Rosa, California, and there is a brief library scene. The old library — a Carnegie library built in 1904 — was torn down in 1964. The library, in quintessential Carnegie style, is made of brick and covered with ivy, with a large sign proclaiming it a “Free Public Library.”

Santa Rosa Carnegie Library, as seen in 1905 (public domain)
Ivy-covered exterior of the Santa Rose Carnegie library, 1943, as seen in 'Shadow of a Doubt'
Ivy-covered exterior of the Santa Rose Carnegie library, 1943, as seen in ‘Shadow of a Doubt’

Charlie hurries out to the library to look up a newspaper clipping — a vital  clue to the mystery of the “Merry Widow” murders. We see her hurry through town, spliced with quick shots of the town hall clock, almost colliding with a car while trying to cross a busy street. The lights in the library switch off (helping to set the tone of suspense and shadows) and the bells begin to ring just as Charlie scrambles up the front steps. Finding the doors already locked — this is one efficient librarian! —  Charlie doesn’t give up; she  knocks several times on the front glass door (which prominently displays the opening and closing times) until the librarian, Mrs. Cochran, reluctantly lets her in.

Screenshot from 'Shadow of a Doubt'
Closing time

Played by Eily Malyon in an uncredited role, the reel librarian is an older woman with her white and grey hair pulled back in a bun. She does not wear glasses but is dressed quite sensibly with a long-sleeved dark shirtdress that hits below her knees. Her makeup, if any, is minimal, but she does wear a classic pair of pearl earrings. Of course, she is also wearing a watch!

Mrs. Cochran loses no time in reprimanding Charlotte:

Really, you know as well as I do the library closes at 9. If I make one exception, I’ll have to make a thousand. I’m surprised at you, Charlie, no consideration. You’ve got all day to come here…  I’ll give you just 3 minutes!

Charlie apologizes quite profusely but wastes no time herself in bee-lining it to the (quite impressively large) newspaper section. She quickly locates a back issue and finds the article she’s looking for about the Merry Widow murders.

Shocked and disoriented, Charlie stands up; visually reflecting her emotions, the camera then reels up to a bird’s-eye view of the library’s main floor. We then get to see a more expansive view of the library (thank you Hitchcock!), with its large, wooden Circulation desk, multiple tables and chairs, classical columns, and glimpses of adjoining rooms. The camera work is impressive; as Jim McDevitt and Eric San Juan write in their interesting work, A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks with the Master of Suspense, “The dramatic pullback shot in the library, when realization first dawns on her, punctuates the isolation she must feel at that moment” (p. 158).

Charlie’s whole world falls to pieces in that library, based on the info she finds in that newspaper — but order struggles to win in the end. As Hitchcock visually demonstrates, the columns stand tall, the wooden doors and panels seem solid — but they’re half-obscured in shadow. Despite Charlie’s internal confusion, the walls of her outside world are still standing. But is it all just surface, a mirage, a public room almost empty? (I totally get symbolism. ;))

So what is the point of the reel librarian in this short, but important, library scene? Mrs. Cochran serves to intensify the tension and suspense, an obstacle Charlie must overcome in a race against time to find out if her uncle is a serial killer or not.  The librarian provides another layer to the tension caused by the conflict between order and chaos. Mrs. Cochran is also the gatekeeper — in a literal sense — of information vital to the mystery. In this way, Mrs. Cochran fulfills the Information Provider role.

She also exhibits some characteristics of the Spinster Librarian, albeit a less severe one. Uptight, no-nonsense personality? Check. Focused more on rules than people? Check. Hair in a bun? Check. Sensible, nondescript clothing? Check.

Sources used:

  • McDevitt, Jim, and Eric San Juan. A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks with the Master of Suspense. Scarecrow Press, 2011.
  • Shadow of a Doubt. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotton, Henry Travers, Hume Cronyn, Patricia Collinge. Universal, 1943.

‘Woof!’ Beware of librarian

“Remember getting trapped in that library? I still have nightmares about that!”

The 1989 film Woof! details the comic adventures of an English boy, Eric (played by Edward Fidoe), who turns into a dog — a Norfolk terrier, to be exact — whenever his nose starts twitching. The movie, although a bit dull and hokey to me, is connected to a long-running (!) British TV series.

Stereotypes abound in this movie. There is the stuffy, child-hating teacher who yells at students to keep off the grass; the absent-minded and slightly buffoonish father; and, of course, the glasses-wearing, sour-faced librarian. This movie seems harmless enough, but I got an overwhelming sense of rules, rules, RULES. There are rules about not walking on the school lawn, no toys in the pool, no dogs allowed, no talking, and so on. Perhaps the boy (subconsciously) simply wants to escape!

The boy becomes determined to figure out why he keeps turning into a dog and tells his parents he’ll be going to the library later. His mother’s reaction? To feel his forehead and ask if he’s all right. It seems in this household, going to the library is odd behavior and cause for concern. Brushing away his mom’s concern, he tells his not-so-bright friend, Roy, at school that they must start by collecting data. Roy sees a light bulb, “Oh, that’s why you asked about the library tickets!”

Their first stop is the school library, a small room with few books available. There doesn’t appear to be any school librarian. The room is filled with older wood-and-metal tables and chairs, a chalkboard, a bulletin board covered with pictures, and a few low bookcases. From one angle, we see a large window along the back wall with a view of trees. There are a few books haphazardly stacked up on one bookcase, and a small 6-drawer card catalog on top of another. Overall, the look is very cluttered and disorganized.

Screenshot from 'Woof!' movie
The school library from the Woof! movie – no school librarian to be seen
Screenshot from the 'Woof!" TV series
The school library in the TV series seems to be better stocked – did they finally get a librarian?

Although the scene is only two minutes long, the message of RULES gets hammered again. Two girls come in and immediately ask, “Have you got permission to be in here?” Then a teacher — the same one who had yelled at them about walking on the grass — bursts in and yells again. “What are you up to?!” The fact that he’s holding a gun in his hand is commented on but never explained. Decidedly odd.

“It’s not easy is it, research?” Eric muses, on their way to the public library. This five-minute scene takes place toward the end of the first hour of the movie. The public library looks cheerful from the outside, with its traditional red brick and gold lettering; it seems quite busy and popular with lots of people going in and out. No “beware of librarian” signs to be seen.

The next shot showcases the main librarian (Sheila Steafel), checking out books with a scanner at the Circulation desk. She appears to be middle-aged, with short blondish hair, glasses perched low on her nose. She wears a tan cardigan and a light blue/grey blouse with an undone bow at the neckline. She wags her finger at two girls, who promptly move to the other side of the librarian’s right side (again, RULES alert!). After the girls have moved to the proper place, the librarian then motions for their library card. There is another librarian, uncredited, with her back to the camera. We see glimpses of her later on; she is of African descent, and she also wears rather conservative clothing (a black cardigan, white button-up shirt, long black-and-white polka-dotted skirt).

We get to see more of the public library, which has many bookcases, light-colored walls, and several informational signs. A character even mentions a second floor. There are several dark wood tables and comfy chairs visible.

Librarian rings a bell in Woof!
Actions speak louder than words

The boys apparently find more books, judging by the stack on their table, but their research is cut short. Next, we see the librarian standing in the middle of the floor, in a light tan, calf-length skirt and brown flats, but without her glasses. She’s waving a large bell, a not-so-subtle way to signify closing time. Seeing no reaction from two kids right beside her, she waves the bell right in their faces (see above). Still no words, just crude gestures. After putting the bell back on the desk, she turns to a book cart, then taps impatiently to the man standing on the other side of the cart. He moves quickly (fearing worse her bite or her bark?), and she hurriedly pushes the cart in front of him.

Disaster strikes! Eric turns into a dog at the library. Roy leaves his duffel bag of the library table, where it catches the ire of the librarian, who is busy pushing the cart and clearing up books. When she spies the offensive bag, she rolls her eyes, gives it a glare, huffs, and throws the bag on the cart. While Eric’s friend is trying to figure out a way to get them out of the library without the librarian seeing, the director cuts to the librarian back at the Circulation desk. (Side note: we see the electronic scanner, but no computer. Hmmmm…..)  Up to this point, the librarian has been more of the “Actions speak louder than words” type, but she finally speaks up — albeit in a whispering tone — in the presence of an adult (her perceived equal?), a schoolteacher. The teacher, who is also the cricket coach, invites the librarian — and even calls her by her first name, Marjorie, although she is listed only as “Librarian” in the credits — out to the cricket match. The librarian seems horrified at this idea. The teacher, giving no notice to the librarian’s obvious social discomfort, leaves by trilling, “Till this evening.” This prompts the librarian to finally raise her voice, shouting out, “NO! I — ” before breaking off. She seems quite embarrassed at her outburst — breaking her own rules, tsk tsk — and looks around guiltily while biting her nails (see below).

Librarian bites her nails in Woof!
Librarian bites her nails in Woof!

When Roy braves his life to ask the librarian about the missing duffel bag, we see the librarian glare at the boy with pursed lips. She shows no concern, airily telling him that the teacher took the bag. She shows much more concern about getting out of there, as she is in the process of putting her glasses up in a case. The boy, not getting the message from the librarian’s first dismissive smile, earns a scathing warning, “We are CLOSED now, actually” and another dismissive nod. Roy then walks slowly away, carrying out Eric-turned-dog in his other bag. Eric lets out a bark — what a mischief-maker! — which causes a look of confusion on the librarian’s face (in yet another close-up). She purses her lips again, raises her eyebrows, and looks around in confusion, as if she’s hearing things. She puts on her wide-brimmed black hat (which is NOT shaped like a witch’s hat), and that is that.

So what’s the point of the library scenes? Eric thinks of the library first when it comes to research — yay! — and seems to find more info at the public library than at the woefully understocked school library. But the kids are definitely on their own, either way. No help from this librarian. She appears quite dowdy, with a dismissive attitude when it comes to children or library users in general. She is not social — the idea of going out in public to a cricket match scares her into a shout! — and her mannerisms betray this social awkwardness. The only library tasks depicted are checking out books, pushing a cart, picking up books, and telling people to go home.

The public librarian serves as yet another authority figure who presents obstacles for the kids and delivers more rules. She is another guard dog — mirroring the big, scary black dog the boys have to confront every morning on their paper route. But her bark — or glare, in this case — is decidedly worse than her bite. Not a flattering portrait. She serves as both a Spinster Librarian (an uptight rule-monger) and Comic Relief (the target of derision and laughter in socially awkward situations).

Eric succinctly sums up his experience with the public librarian. At the end of the movie, he says, “Anyway, I’m glad it’s over. Remember the swimming baths, the telephone box, getting trapped in that library? Tell you, Roy, I still have nightmares about that!”

Sources used:

  • Woof! Dir. David Cobham. Perf. Liza Goddard, John Ringham, Edward Fidoe. Miramax, 1989.

The horror of an unethical librarian in ‘The Seventh Victim’

The librarian sells her soul for a few cheap compliments

In honor of Halloween, I’m exploring the first horror film (at least, the first one I have been able to find) that features a librarian. The Seventh Victim (1943) is a creepy thriller about a woman, Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter), who is desperate to find out more about her sister’s (Jean Brooks) disappearance and mysterious involvement with a cult. For me, the scariest thing is probably Jean Brook’s hairstyle in the film (which you can see in the image, at left, and in the trailer below).

Jason Hoag (Erford Gage) is a book clerk by day, poet by night. He wrote a bestseller 10 years ago, but now has nothing much to his name. Following a lead in an effort to impress Mary, he tries to gather clues from the circulation records of suspected cult members. (By the way, do NOT try this at home. This is highly unethical and illegal behavior. Library circulation records are private, even concerning members of a mysterious cult.)

Reel librarian in The Seventh Victim
Reel librarian in The Seventh Victim

The librarian, Miss Gottschalk (Sarah Shelby in an uncredited role), is only in this scene, which lasts just under a minute. She is white, late 30s or early 40s, with her hair rolled up in an unflattering style. She is wearing makeup and seems to be attempting a modern style in her dress — she’s even wearing nail polish! — but the end result is an ill-fitting suit that comes off as conservative when combined with her old-fashioned updo. Ultimately, she seems a bit desperate.

In mild Naughty Librarian fashion, she quickly responds to Hoag’s flirting, who shamelessly seizes the opportunity to obtain the books the cult members have checked out. He uses the pretense of giving gifts because “nothing nicer than a book for a gift” and gets on her good side by complimenting her hands as “so slim and capable” (such flattery!).

At first, she demurs, “I’ll have to get permission” to look at the closed-shelf books, but soon breaks out an attempt at a coquettish smile. But “since [Hoag] is over 21”, she gets the books he’s looking for, after first flipping through her card catalog files to find the names and titles he’s seeking. Basically, Miss Gottschalk sells her soul — in less than a minute! — for a few cheap compliments, breaking the rules to provide him restricted books taken from the private records of library patrons (aarrggghhhh — again, totally unethical and illegal behavior). As Ray & Brenda Tevis sum up this scene in The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999, “the extent to which filmgoers believe Gottschalk’s behavior is transferable to working librarians depends upon whether they believe that reel librarians accurately reflect the ethics of working librarians” (46). In this case, let’s hope they don’t!

She is a less extreme version of the Naughty Librarian — you can tell she wants to let her hair down after work and is seeking opportunities to do just that, with her (sadly inept) flirting. And she does engage in illegal behavior — for shame! — but it’s not to the extremes of violence as other Naughty Librarians (see Personals).  She also serves the role of the Information Provider, providing Hoag with the clues he uses to follow the cult’s trail.

The Seventh Victim (1943)” video uploaded by KmanCosmo is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Sources used:

  • The Seventh Victim. Dir. Mark Robson. Perf. Kim Hunter, Jean Brooks, Tom Conway, Isabel Jewell, Erford Gage. RKO, 1943.
  • Tevis, Ray, and Brenda Tevis. The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999. McFarland, 2005.