“Never before in the history of motion pictures has there been a screen presence so commanding, so powerful, so deadly. He’s… Conan the Librarian!”
I haven’t featured that many male reel librarians so far, so let’s bring out the big guns (or swords, rather) with Conan! The! Librarian! from the 1989 cult comedy, UHF. In this film, George Newman (Weird Al Yankovic) takes over an almost-bankrupt public TV station, and it becomes an unexpected hit. And one of those hits is showcased in a brief sketch — only 40 seconds long! — in the form of a television ad for the show “Conan the Librarian,” a parody of the famous “Conan the Barbarian” character created by R. E. Howard. I think it’s a bit fun, too, that the name serves as a subtle (and unintentional?) riff off the “Marian the Librarian” character and song from The Music Man (1962).
Conan’s first scene shows a balding, middle-aged man with thick glasses, cable-knit sweater, and tweedy jacket (really, doesn’t HE look more like a stereotypical male librarian?) who asks Conan the Librarian, “Can you tell me where I can find a book on astronomy?”
Conan’s classic response? To heave the poor man up by his lapels, of course, and shout, “Don’t you know the Dewey Decimal System?”
FYI, the astronomy books would be in the 520’s. And as a librarian, I have repeated this line — and Schwarzenegger-type intonation — many times. It is ALWAYS funny!
Conan then goes on to showcase more what-NOT-to-do examples for providing reference services, including slicing a young man in two because his books were overdue.
UHF successfully parodies the “Guardian of the Library” image and the librarian character types who display anal-retentive qualities — the Spinster Librarian and her male equivalent, the Anti-Social Librarian immediately spring to mind — who are prone to shushing anyone who dares to be loud in a library, or reel librarians who express over-the-top anxiety about late or damaged books. Conan the Librarian is a classic Comic Relief character type, with its crude portrayal of librarianship and extreme physical characteristics.
The scene’s over-the-top humor is more potent because it plays against type: a reel librarian, especially a male librarian, is often portrayed as weak or effeminate. Conan the Librarian shows off his physical superiority at every opportunity. (Fun fact! We first see Conan hanging out in the 613’s, which is the Dewey Decimal number for Aerobics.) Librarians are also usually portrayed as intelligent — even if a condescending type of “book smart” — and this Conan characterization riffs off of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dim-yet-tough brand of acting in his classic 1982 Conan the Barbarian. Although Conan the Librarian is a VERY bad librarian, he is a hero in one sense: he helps save the UHF television station. He’s so bad that he’s funny.
So although only 40 seconds long — again, a short scene provides an immortal reel librarian! — this scene packs a punch (literally) while laying waste to several reel librarian stereotypical traits. Just as Conan the Librarian helped save the fictional TV station, I think this funny scene and unforgettable librarian helped save the film itself. UHF was a notorious flop at the time it was released, but has since solidified fame with its cult status.
UHF. Dir. Jay Levey. Perf. Weird Al Yankovic, Victoria Jackson, Kevin McCarthy, Michael Richards. Orion, 1989.
“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.
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.
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).
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!”
Woof! Dir. David Cobham. Perf. Liza Goddard, John Ringham, Edward Fidoe. Miramax, 1989.
Although only in a couple of scenes, the ship’s librarian definitely makes an impression, but not a very positive one.
The Disney comedy Bon Voyage! (1962) is about a typical all-American family who set sail on a “dream” vacation to Europe. Mishaps ensue. Side note: Isn’t ensue a fun word?
In an early scene on the cruise ship, the husband and head of the family, Harry Willard (Fred MacMurray), mentions the book State Fair, and the next morning, his wife (Jane Wyman) is reading it. That’s our (subtle?) first clue there’s a library on board the ship.
Harry then visits the ship’s library. Second (not-so-subtle) clue: Several bookshelves are arranged along the wall. We are introduced to the ship’s librarian by seeing his back first. First impressions? Extremely skinny with gelled hair. This is typical of a Comic Relief librarian, where exaggerated physical characteristics add to the visual humor. Character actor James Millhollin, seen below, plays the Ship’s Librarian, his official title in the fim’s credits — late 40’s (47 in real life), with dark, short hair oiled back, no glasses. He’s wearing a ship’s uniform — perhaps considered a member of the crew? or just posturing? — with a bow tie (!). The librarian extends a greeting and adjusts his cuffs while standing behind the Circulation desk. This extra clue is added by a file box full of cards, the standard movie prop for a Circulation desk.
The reference interview commences:
Ship’s librarian: “May I help you?”
Harry: “I’m looking for something in the way of a mystery. I guess I’d like to read about somebody else’s troubles for a change.”
Ship’s librarian: “Very good, sir. We have any number of stimulating items in that category. I rather learn toward the intellectual type of crime myself.”
He then leads Harry straight to another bookcase and takes down a book. Harry, perhaps turned off by the librarian’s manner and also caught up in his family woes, is quite dismissive and says he’ll find something but “thanks very much.”
Ship’s librarian: “Just as you say sir. Oh, and good hunting.”
Later, Harry sees his daughter researching architecture in the library, with books spread out all over the desk. She and her dad get into an argument about a boy, resulting in the daughter running off.
Ever-so-helpful, the librarian then comes over, straightening his coat. He is very fastidious about his dress, always straightening something — again, adding to the humor. Leaning over, he continues the reference interview with an oblivious smirk:
Ship’s librarian: “Did you find your mystery, sir?”
Harry: “Yes. It’s called The Case of the Puzzled Parent Who Can’t Understand Why His Children Keep Saying He Doesn’t Understand.” [Stalks off.]
Ship’s librarian: “Hmmm…. That’s an oddish title.” [talking to himself, obviously puzzled]
Not the most socially bright crayon in the bunch, is he?! He fits the Comic Relief character type perfectly, with his skinniness and mannerisms exaggerated so that we laugh AT him, not WITH him — but we wouldn’t have a chance anyway, as he doesn’t display any sense of humor. The Comic Relief librarian’s role is to serve as the butt of jokes, and this ship’s librarian fills that role to a super-straight T.
Although only in a couple of scenes, the ship’s librarian definitely makes an impression, but not a very positive one. On the plus side, he knows “his” collection — he does seem like the type to describe it like that, doesn’t he?
On the negative, he is consistently overly solicitous, oblivious to people’s needs or the concepts of sarcasm or humor. (The sarcasm in this post would most likely fly over his well-oiled hair.) He just doesn’t “get” people — but doesn’t get that! — and comes across as too formal or proper. The ship’s librarian is just not that great at customer service, which is comically at odds with the purpose of his job. Cruises are supposed to be fun — I’ve never been on one, but I’ll go out on a limb with that assumption — and this librarian most certainly is NOT fun. But he sure is fun to make fun of! Bless.
Bon Voyage! Dir. James Neilson. Perf. Fred MacMurray, Jane Wyman, Tommy Kirk, Deborah Walley. Buena Vista/Walt Disney, 1962.