With or without honors

The quintessential feel-good movie about how terrible higher education is.

Ah, With Honors (1994). A major film of my youth, and very mid-’90s (the soundtrack, the earnest acting, the annoying Joe Pesci accent, the lumpy sweaters and plaid). The quintessential feel-good movie about how terrible higher education is.

Some scenes were filmed on the Harvard campus, but film locations also included the University of Illinois at Chicago; University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana; and the University of Minnesota. The Widener Library plays a big role in the film, although its librarians are featured only briefly.

"Widener Library, Harvard University 2009" by chensiyuan is licensed under CC BY SA 4.0
“Widener Library, Harvard University 2009” by chensiyuan is licensed under CC BY SA 4.0

*SPOILER ALERT*

At the end of the opening credits, campus radio DJ (Patrick Dempsey) reports on a Walt Whitman ghost sighting in Widener Library (“America’s greatest poet haunting the library?”). A few minutes later, uptight Harvard student Monty (Brendan Fraser) accidentally drops his thesis down the grate and discovers that the library ghost is a homeless man, Simon Wilder (Joe Pesci), living in the bowels of the library. Simon strikes up a deal with Monty — food and lodging in exchange for the thesis.

About a half-hour into the film, Simon and Monty enter the Widener Library together (see film clip below). Simon attracts a lot of negative attention but waxes rhapsodic, “This library’s like a church isn’t it?” (Yes, it is quite beautiful.) An older, bespectacled librarian (Patricia B. Butcher as Librarian) with a short, grayish bob and wearing conservative clothes (a grey suit and a white, frilly, high-necked blouse) and conservative jewelry (a string of pearls and a brooch), walks across the room to the pair. She taps Simon the shoulder and tells him he can’t stay there. How do we know she’s a librarian? She’s carrying a book, of course!

Monty hurriedly says he’s with him, “He’s part of my research project.” The librarian responds, “Oh, I beg your pardon” and walks away, looking back once over her shoulder.

Not bothered by the incident, Simon remarks, “Women. Ain’t they perfect?”

Monty — still reflecting a similar attitude to the librarian — warns him to keep his voice low so he won’t attract attention. But then when Monty asks a question, he earns a “Shhh!” from Simon.

The unnamed librarian is your basic Information Provider, reflecting the general social attitude toward homeless people.

The Library Scene (With Honors)” video uploaded by gaiaquest is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

A little over an hour into the film, Monty spends Christmas by himself. After hearing bad news about Simon’s health conditions, Monty’s back in the Widener Library, gazing blankly over a pile of books. Behind him, it looks like the library staff are (quietly) sharing Christmas gift exchange at a desk. We see the same librarian as before, sitting to the left, dressed in a festive red cardigan and white blouse. Three other females and one male librarian are grouped around the desk/table. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in a scene highlighting Monty’s loneliness and sadness, the librarians provide the (literal) backdrop!

Screenshot of With Honors (1994), where librarians are as much decoration as the actual holiday decorations
Screenshot of With Honors (1994), where librarians are as much decoration as the actual holiday decorations

Altogether, the reel librarians appear onscreen for less than a minute total, earning this film a spot in the Class IV category.

Although the reel librarians here don’t come across too well — neither does higher education — libraries still get a shout-out. Simon compares libraries to churches. He also is mad about losing his home in the library’s furnace room, and for good reason:  “I had a home. I had a warm place to sleep. 17 bathrooms and 8 miles of books. I had a goddamn palace!”

And at the very end of the film, after Simon has passed away, Monty goes back to the Widener Library. He looks around reverently and — bringing the film full circle — places a well-worn copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on an empty library table. The library/church has become Simon’s de facto mausoleum, a fitting conclusion to his memory and influence.


Sources used:


  • With Honors. Dir. Alek Keshishian. Perf. Joe Pesci, Brendan Fraser, Moira Kelly, Patrick Dempsey. Warner Bros., 1994.

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.

A ‘borstal’ kind of librarian

Surprise to me, the librarian continues to pop up throughout ‘Borstal Boy’

The 2000 film Borstal Boy is based upon the autobiography of (in)famous Irish writer and activist Brendan Behan, and it focuses on his time in a borstal (a kind of youth prison/labor camp in the UK) during WWII. I didn’t personally know anything about Behan before watching this film… and after watching the film? I still didn’t know much about him. So I looked up a little bit about him on the interwebs. His works are Irish classics, as are his spirited appearances on talk shows. He died of alcohol poisoning at the age of 41. None of this is apparent in this tame-by-numbers biopic.

About twenty-three minutes into the film, we spy the prison library. Which looks like, from the outside, a combination of outhouse and shed (see below).

Library entrance in Borstal Boy
Inviting, no?

The camera quickly cuts to a male librarian (Arthur Riordan), sitting down behind a makeshift Circulation desk. He wearily asks two young lads, including Behan (Shawn Hatosy), “What are you looking for?” The boys mumble something about pictures, so the librarian points and says, “Comic books over there.” He looks puzzled as the boys scurry off. (And he has reason to be puzzled — the boys are trying to find resources to help plot an escape.)

He’s a white, middle-aged male, with thinning brownish grey hair, no glasses. He dresses quite well, although conservatively, with a dark blazer, tan waistcoat, white button-down. The only bit of flash about him is his polka-dot bow tie.

Borstal Boy librarian
Borstal Boy librarian

We then see a wider shot of the library, a small room with faded white painted walls, with a few low shelves and pieces of furniture with books stacked up. There’s a hexagonal table in the middle — looks like a card table — with some chairs. Most of the windows are painted over or blocked in some way (because of blackout regulations during the war?), so the light inside the room is relatively dim. In one wide angle, a large ledger is visible on the shelf behind the librarian, most likely the ledger where he records what’s checked out. There are a few bookcases filed with books behind the Circulation desk. Despite the bookcases, it still looks like a converted store room.

A borstal library
A borstal library

At this point, I thought this was going to be it for the prison librarian. I was thinking he would turn out to be your standard  Librarian as Failure character type (who else would work in this makeshift prison library?). But I was wrong! Surprise to me, the librarian continues to pop up throughout the film.

In this first library scene, he starts a conversation with Behan:

“And you are an Irish rebel, am I right?” the librarian asks as he stands up.

“Only one, as far as I know.”

“Very thing for you.” The librarian turns to a tall bookcase beside his desk. “Life of Oscar Wilde, by Frank Harris.” (Note: The Life and Confessions of Oscar Wilde by Frank Harris was published in 1914.)

“Not interested in Oscar Wilde.”

The librarian responds: “Blasphemy. A fellow Irishman, a fellow jailbird and rebel.”

“You know what he was down for, don’t you?”

“He was put in jail for buggering the son of the Marquis of Queensbury. Shocking.”

“No Irishman if he was a black caper.” (Aside: Is this a reference to The Black Cap, a famous gay pub in London, dating back to the 1700s?)

What is the librarian’s aim in this exchange? He was definitely smirking at Behan during this little talk (see screenshot below). The issue of homosexuality — and Behan’s evolving response to it — is a theme explored throughout the film.

Borstal Boy librarian
Borstal Boy librarian

Behan then starts putting his escape plan into action and asks the librarian, “What do you got in local history?” The librarian tosses his head, “Ah… let’s see” and turns back to the shelves.

A few minutes later, Behan is using a book about local history to trace a map for an escape route. Using a flashlight to shine down on the book, he’s obviously doing this in secret, after lights out.

The warden’s daughter makes a stir upon her arrival — and Behan immediately sets his sights on her. When the girl quotes Oscar Wilde to him and recommends, “You should read it,” Behan immediately (!) gets a copy of the book. This is, of course, based on the girl’s suggestion, NOT the librarian’s. He even steals lines from the librarian:  “He’s a jailbird like myself.”

Apparently, bonding with the fellow Irish jailbird agrees with him, as he decides to put on an Oscar Wilde play for the benefit of the camp. The play in question? The Importance of Being Earnest, of course! The film then cuts to the auditions. And who is there? The librarian, of course! He’s there to provide copies of the play, most likely, but he’s also the one Behan confers with about casting. Behan asks who they’re going to get to play the girls.

The librarian — maroon bow tie quite erect and legs crossed — gives him a sidelong glance. “Well, frankly, I’ve always felt I was born to play a great lady… So perhaps I could be your Lady Bracknell.”

Librarian dressed up as a woman in a play scene in Borstal Boy
Dude looks like a lady

We then are treated to a close-up of the librarian in drag (see above), along with a fellow gay Borstal boy playing the role of Gwendolyn. When introduced, the audience members laugh uproariously. The librarian — indeed, born to play a great lady — talks in a suitably high-pitched voice and properly haughty demeanor.

Apparently, the play is a hit. And in the joyous after-party, the librarian is seen complimenting the boy who played the butler.

Toward the end of film, about an hour and fifteen minutes in, another scene takes place in the library. Behan (obviously reformed, by the looks of his turtleneck sweater and earnest expression, which has replaced his usual sullen expression) is helping another boy read. The book in question is about “the man that I loved” (another Oscar Wilde tome?). The boy asks how a man can love another man.

A lasting impression of the Borstal librarian
A lasting impression of the Borstal librarian

The librarian, standing behind them at the tall bookcase, seen above, turns to join the conversation.

“You love your father?”

“I love my wee brother.”

“You love a man then, don’t you?” the librarian sums up, hands on hips, with a scornful gaze. He then turns back to reshelving books.

This reel librarian ultimately serves two main roles, primarily as an Information Provider, and in the play scene, as Comic Relief.

At the end of this film — which feels much longer than its 93 minutes — Behan seems to be on his way to being a writer. All due to Oscar Wilde’s — and the librarian’s — influence!


Sources used:


  • Borstal Boy. Dir. Peter Sheridan. Perf. Shawn Hatosy, Danny Dyer, Michael York. Strand Releasing, 2000.

My precious, my archives in ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’

Disorganization in the archives

About a half hour into The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) needs some info about the ring, and he needs it fast. So next we see the Gondorian Archivist (Michael Elsworth) leading Gandalf down a winding staircase to the archives. The elderly archivist is clothed in dark robes and hat, with no glasses. He serves as an Information Provider, although he has no dialogue. He provides directions only. The archivist shows Gandalf the way with an open torch (flames near old papers? insert internal scream here!).

Gondorian Archivist in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
The Gondorian Archivist

The archives themselves have no apparent organization; as you can see below, some papers and books are stacked vertically, while others are loose on shelves.

Gandalf feverishly paws through archives, spilling pipe smoke and ash everywhere. He bends old scrolls and parchment in his haste of reading, amidst dripping candle wax and drinking cups (seen below). And after several hours or days, Gandalf does find the info he needs concerning the ring, from an obviously rare scroll of parchment.

First off, I love love love LOTR — the books and the films. The trilogy is a fantastic cinematic achievement. It deserved all the Oscars it got, and even some it didn’t get (mental hugs to you, Ian McKellen).

BUT.

The librarian in me cannot help wondering how much quicker — if not cinematically dramatic, of course — the process would have been if:

(a) the archives had been in some kind of order, and

(b) the archivist was put to any use other than giving directions.

Disorganization in the archives of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Disorganization in the archives
Open flames amidst the archives in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Open flames amidst the archives

And, of course, I wanted to climb into the frame and clean up those archives. First step: no open flames or smoking! For me, “my precious” would describe not the ring but the priceless information contained in those archives.

And if you’re wondering, no, the librarian in me never has a day off. Once a librarian, always a librarian!


Sources used:


A ‘brief encounter’ with a librarian

Chemist’s shops, lending libraries, and lies

The 1945 film Brief Encounter is one of the greats. Yet it’s one of those films that still flies pretty low under the radar — but those who have seen it and share it with each other light up in remembrance. It’s a simple, quiet film, heartbreakingly beautiful. With the best use of Rachmaninoff EVER.

The film, based on Noel Coward’s 1935 one-act play Still Life, stars Celia Johnson (luminous in an Oscar-nominated role) as Laura Jesson, an ordinary English wife and mother, and Trevor Howard as Dr. Alec Harvey, an ordinary English husband and father. They meet one day by chance and fall in love. It’s that simple. But life is never really that simple, is it?

Almost twenty minutes into the film, Laura’s going about her usual shopping day in nearby Milford. She walks past a display window, full of new “holiday reads.” We then see her in what looks to be a kind of public library, smiling with a friendly female librarian (uncredited). The library is lined with shelves, with a main desk in the center stacked with books. The librarian is a white female with short, wavy blonde hair. She looks to be in her 30’s, appears quite friendly, and is dressed in a quite stylish cardigan (yes, there ARE some out there) with what looks to be military-style embellishments.

Boot's Lending Library in Brief Encounter
Boot’s Lending Library

Laura narrates:  “I changed my book at Boots. Miss Lewis had at last managed to get the new Kate O’Brien for me. I believe she’d kept it hidden under the counter for two days.”

Note:  Kate O’Brien was an Irish novelist and playwright (1897-1974), who explored gay/lesbian themes in several of her works. Some of her work was quite controversial, as two of her books were banned in her native Ireland. It is also interesting to note that upon its initial release, Brief Encounter was itself banned in Ireland, due to its sympathetic portrayal of adultery.

But then we see Laura turn and step from the library into a chemist’s shop (see below). What??? From our travels overseas, I knew that Boots is a British pharmacy chain. What’s the deal? Is this library actually a bookstore? Is this just an odd film set?

Laura walks from the library into the chemist's shop in Brief Encounter
Laura walks from the library into the chemist’s shop

Doing a little more digging (thanks, IMDb!), there’s an interesting answer:

Laura borrows books from the Boots Lending Library. Such Lending Libraries were an offshoot of Boots Pharmacies. Boots is a major pharmacy chain in the UK. It was founded in 1849 and still exists, although in a much different, more diversified form. The Lending Libraries were started in 1898.

Boots is still around, but their lending libraries ceased in the late 1960s. The Boots Lending Library was an example of a subscription library. You’d pay a small monthly or annual fee to the library — or a small fee per item — to be able to check out materials. Sound familiar? It’s basically the same idea as video rental stores or Netflix.

Library label for Boots Booklovers Library by alan.98 via Flickr is licensed under CC BY NC SA 2.0
Library label for Boots Booklovers Library by alan.98 via Flickr is licensed under CC BY NC SA 2.0

Ok, back to the film. That’s the only time we see the librarian, Miss Lewis — a typical Information Provider seen only for a few seconds — but her character still plays a role in the film, as you’ll see.

The library books are also mentioned a few more times throughout. A couple of minutes later, Laura and Alec are enjoying lunch, and he asks if she comes into town every week.

“Yes, I do the week’s shopping. Change my library book, have lunch and generally go to the pictures. Not a very exciting routine, but it makes a change.”

After spending the afternoon together, Laura is thinking about Alec as she boards the train to go back home. She sees a clergyman in the corner and flushes: “I felt myself blushing and opened my library book and pretended to read.”

Just over an hour into the film, their would-be love affair comes to a head. We see Laura running down the wet streets, with her library book under her arm. She knows she’s late and ducks into a tobacco shop to phone her husband.

No librarian in this phone booth in a scene from Brief Encounter
No librarian in this phone booth

We hear only her side of the conversation:

“Yes, everything’s perfectly all right, but I shan’t be home to dinner.

—–

I’m with Miss Lewis. Miss Lewis, dear. You know, the librarian I told you about at Boots.

—–

Yes, I can’t explain in any detail because she’s outside the box now.

—–

I met her in the High Street a little while ago in a terrible state. Her mother’s been taken ill, and I’ve promised to stay with her until the doctor comes.

—–

Yes, I know, but she’s always been awfully kind to me, and I feel so sorry for her.”

So she uses poor Miss Lewis (“Miss” – of course) as an excuse for being late!!!

Why? Most likely, the library book she had with her provided the inspiration. Also, being with a librarian MUST be respectable and above board, right? 😉 There would be no questions asked (and really, why WOULDN’T one feel sorry for a poor librarian?), and as Laura says, “It’s awfully easy to lie when you know that you’re trusted implicitly.”

I can’t help but wonder how Laura will react to Miss Lewis the next time she visits the lending library…


Sources used:


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