Reader poll write-up, Spring 2015: ‘You Can’t Get Away with Murder’

It doesn’t really matter that Pop and Johnnie work in the prison library — it’s just being used as a shortcut for someplace “safe” within an unstable and often violent environment.

With a title like You Can’t Get Away with Murder (1939), you pretty much know what to expect. Subtle, this movie is not. It doesn’t stand out much from the kind of dime-a-dozen prison and crime dramas Warner Bros. was churning out in the ’30s and ’40s, but there’s also a kind of comfort in that.

Menu and DVD cover from You Can't Get Away with Murder (1939)
Menu and DVD cover from You Can’t Get Away with Murder (1939)

The film is based on a play co-written by Lewis E. Lawes, who was prison warden of Sing Sing Correctional Facility at the time. Lawes actually wrote a few books and plays about the prison experience (as he saw it); his most famous, and most popular, work was Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing, which was made into a movie in 1932 starring Spencer Tracy, and remade as Castle on the Hudson in 1940. (By the way, Lawes wrote these while he was still warden of Sing Sing — no worries about conflict of interest, huh???) The play this film is based on, “Chalked Out,” was apparently a huge flop when it premiered in 1937, closing after only 12 performances!

Humphrey Bogart gets top billing, but he isn’t really the main character; in fact, Bogart had played this kind of character so often by this point, that his performance and role as baddie and minor crime boss Frank Wilson are practically paint-by-numbers. But Bogart’s facial expressions are always compelling, as seen below.

Screenshot from You Can't Get Away with Murder (1939)
Humphrey Bogart, y’all

The real lead is Billy Halop, who plays Johnnie Stone, a young man who gets in over his head by helping Frank on a couple of jobs — and gets thrown in prison along with Frank for his efforts. Halop was well-known by 1939 as one of the leaders of the “Dead End Kids,” characters in a series of plays and films that featured young actors as tough street kids. Even though Halop, like Bogart, had also played this kind of character many times by this point, his acting… I’ll be nice and just say he’s not as compelling as Bogart. It’s almost like Halop is acting as if he were on stage, using overly broad gestures, facial expressions, and shouting a lot, while everyone else is acting in a movie.

Poor Johnnie, he’s just not cut out for prison. He’s scared of Frank — Bogart always played menacing really well, even in a mediocre film like this one — and he’s holding in a dark secret that’s giving him the shakes. No spoilers here, I promise.

Eventually, almost 30 minutes in the film, Johnnie gets transferred from the shoe-making shop to… you guessed it, the library!

And guess who’s NOT happy about it?

Pop, the prison librarian!

Screenshot from You Can't Get Away with Murder (1939)
Pop, goes the prison librarian

Guard:  Pop, this is your new assistant, Johnnie Stone. This is Pop, your new boss. 

Pop:  How much time has he got?

Guard: You’re doing 5 to 10, ain’t you, Johnnie?

Pop: Five? That means in 3 years and 4 months, the parole board will yank him out. It takes me 2 years to break a man in on this job. I told the warden nothing less than 10 years, lifers preferred. [Turns to Johnnie] Know anything about books?

Johnnie:  Nuttin’.

Pop:  I thought I was getting an assistant.

Guard:  Johnnie’s all right, as long as he keeps away from this big-shot pals. This ought to keep him busy. All in the line of duty, Pop.

Pop:  Duty.

Screenshot from You Can't Get Away with Murder (1939)
Reel librarian training

I felt both delight and chagrin at this brief scene. Delight that the film highlights the time it takes to thoroughly train someone in a library (by the way, a master’s degree in library science usually takes two years… coincidence?). Chagrin that administration doesn’t really care much about having qualified people in the library — and kind of sees the library, and Pop, useful only as “babysitters” for youth. Two attitudes that still plague libraries today… 😦

Where this film also sets itself apart a bit from other, run-of-the-mill prison dramas is in the strength of its supporting cast. If you’re a fan of old movies like I am, then you will recognize a lot of these character actors. Henry Travers is one of those character actors — if he looks familiar, that’s because he played Clarence, the angel who helps Jimmy Stewart out in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). In fact, in that classic film, Travers was the one who revealed that Mary turned into a spinster librarian!

Screenshot from You Can't Get Away with Murder (1939)
Closeup of Pop, the reel librarian in You Can’t Get Away with Murder

And in this film, he gets to play the male version of a spinster librarian, a self-confessed “old timer” who has found his life’s meaning in the prison library. He takes pride in his library — “I’m the boss of this library!” — and won’t stand for any shenanigans in his domain. He breaks up several heated arguments that take place in the library. In one scene, a weasel-y prisoner is trying to get something out of Johnnie, so Pop comes to the rescue by hitting him over the head with a book!

Take your books and get out, or I’ll knock the bottom right out of your filthy little racket.

Screenshot from You Can't Get Away with Murder (1939)
Trouble in the prison library

Pop has earned respect from both his fellow prisoners as well as the prison guards. Pop also has a heart condition, and several times, different people express concern about his failing health. One prisoner even knits Pop a sweater!

I figured the old man could use it, what with the cold weather setting in. You know he’s been kinda slipping lately, Johnnie. He’s a great guy, kid.

Screenshot from You Can't Get Away with Murder (1939)
A present for Pop, the reel librarian

That’s not something you see in every prison drama! 😉

Henry Travers is quite touching in this role, and displays a lot of patience, understanding, and wisdom. After his initial skepticism of Johnnie, he takes the boy under his wing. Fast forward two years, and we see Johnnie, typing up a storm, stamping books, and earning this praise from another prisoner:

Gee, Johnny, you get to know more about the library than Pop does.

Screenshot from You Can't Get Away with Murder (1939)
The prison library is the place to be

Johnnie has grown up a bit under the protection and tutelage of Pop, but with added pressure (and let’s face it, because reasons of PLOT), he soon cracks again. Almost an hour into the film, in a pivotal scene between Pop, Johnnie, and Frank that takes place in the library, Pop gets to deliver a big emotional speech, trying to convince Johnnie to go straight.

Screenshot from You Can't Get Away with Murder (1939)
Who ya gonna choose? #TeamLibrarian

I won’t spoil anything here, but I will say that Johnnie does find his own kind of peace in the end of the film. In this way, Johnnie fulfills the Liberated Librarian character type. Initially seen as a failure, the male Liberated Librarian eventually breaks free (even in a metaphorical sense); this type usually needs outside force or action to instigate “liberation,” as is the case here. Liberated Librarians are also usually central characters, and in this film it’s Johnnie’s story, and personal arc, that fuel the entire plot.

Pop fulfills both the Information Provider role, as well as a version of the Librarian as Failure character type. I maintain there is a special subset of the Male Librarian as a Failure character type carved out for prison librarians — the “failure” in this sense is often a social construct, like a prison. Prison librarians, who fit into this category as societal “failures,” often get their positions because of good behavior while in prison. It’s an interesting contrast, a “failure” on the outside of those prison walls —  but a “success” on the inside.

There’s also a telling moment about Pop’s real name that ties in with this character type.

Guard:  He’s forgotten his real name.

Pop:  Pop will do. I’ll never need another name.

He’s been there so long, it doesn’t matter. He won’t need his real name, because he’s never going back to the “real world.”

Screenshot from You Can't Get Away with Murder (1939)
Pop the prison librarian

Overall, You Can’t Get Away with Murder (1939) lands in the Class II category, films in which the protagonist or other major characters are librarians, but the librarian’s occupation does not directly affect the plot. It doesn’t really matter that Pop and Johnnie work in the prison library — it’s just being used as a shortcut for someplace “safe” within an unstable and often violent environment. And a librarian character onscreen brings immediate trust, and we, along with Johnnie, need someone to trust in this movie full of untrustworthy characters. It would have been a Class III film, if we had seen only Pop in the library, but because Johnnie gets to be the library assistant, he upgrades the film to Class II.

And what of the prison library itself? It’s a quite spacious set, with several tables and chairs. There are also quite a few tall metal bookcases, which create some interesting shadow effects and lighting. A long counter separates the “closed stacks” of the library and the open seating area. The main set-up seems to be that runners from different areas of the prison go to the library to drop off books and pick up new titles (as opposed to Pop taking books out of the library to different parts of the prison).

Screenshots from You Can't Get Away with Murder (1939)
Collage of prison library

There are also a few signs dotting the library, including one along the back of a magazine stand that proclaims, “Attention:  Magazine Must be Returned to Rack. Do not Leave Books or Magazines on tables.” (The capitalization is haphazardly applied.)

Screenshot from You Can't Get Away with Murder (1939)
No rest for the weary

And last but not least, a moment that made me laugh. When Pop starts training Johnnie, he starts off with a task to “get acquainted,” a task to “study this catalog.” He hands him a thin sheaf of papers — the prison library’s card catalog!

If only it were that simple… 😀

Screenshot from You Can't Get Away with Murder (1939)
A low-tech library catalog list!

I mentioned in last week’s “Reader poll winner” post that the plot of the film reminded me of 1994’s classic prison drama The Shawshank Redemption. There are actually quite a few similarities between the two films — including a character named “Red” — and I think there’s enough there for another post in the future…

Stay tuned!


Sources used:


Advertisements

A librarian’s ‘tell-tale heart’

“When he stores you under the floorboards, I’m sure he’ll catalog you, too!”

This 1960 version of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart stars Laurence Payne as Edgar Marsh, who is described on the back of the DVD case as “a mentally unstable librarian.” If you’re familiar with Poe’s classic short story, then you might be asking yourself right now, “I don’t remember that story including a librarian.” And you would be RIGHT.

The plot is summed up on the back of the DVD case. So no spoilers that the DVD case doesn’t already reveal:

A mentally unstable librarian discovers that the woman he is infatuated with has dumped him for another man. In a fit of rage, he murders his rival, burying the body under the floorboards in his home.

DVD cover of The Tell-Tale Heart (1960)
DVD cover of The Tell-Tale Heart (1960)

This is not a film to make Poe purists happy. Also, I noted that in the opening credits, Edgar Allan Poe’s middle name is misspelled as Allen, as seen below. The main character — also named Edgar, subtle — also lives on Rue Morgue. So this film starts out as a hodgepodge of random Poe references.

Screenshots from The Tell-Tale Heart (1960)
This film is NOT subtle (or spelled correctly — see Poe’s misspelled middle name)

Given this context, I was not really looking forward to watching The Tell-Tale Heart (1960). I do, however, have to give credit to the director, Ernest Morris, for crafting a slow-burning, moody tale, with plenty of shadows and dramatic film angles. The film’s look harkens back to the 1944 classic Gaslight, especially given the period film setting. The acting by the leads also elevates this melodramatic tale, even if Laurence Payne tends to go over-the-top in his lead role.

Cue the dramatic facial expressions:

Facial expressions of the lead actor in The Tell-Tale Heart (1960)
Facial expressions of the lead actor in The Tell-Tale Heart (1960)

Our first look at the lead character is shot from below, as Edgar descends a staircase in his bathrobe, peering down the banister. A heart is beating faintly in the background. Is he fearful… or is he the one we should fear? It’s also telling that we get a shot, all askew, of the portrait of his dead mother.

Screenshot from The Tell-Tale Heart (1960)
A librarian’s first love?

Edgar’s naughty librarian ways are revealed early on. In one early scene, he leers through the window at a lively restaurant, and is caught staring at a woman’s legs (seen below). When she makes an advance and touches his hand, he reacts violently and runs away. Returning home — pausing to rub the cheek of his dead mother’s portrait, as you do — he takes out a collection of pornographic photos secreted in the back of his closet. But rather than getting excited by the photos, he seems sad and resigned instead, his hand falling limply by his side.

Screenshot from The Tell-Tale Heart (1960)
Naughty librarian thoughts
Screenshots from The Tell-Tale Heart (1960)
Creepy

The next morning, Edgar looks out his bedroom window and sees Betty for the first time and finds himself instantly obsessed. He becomes a peeping Tom, watching her undress night after night (it is annoying that Betty remains clueless about her uncovered window throughout the film). The director also consistently places the camera behind Edgar as he looks at women, which heightens the creep factor.

Screenshot from The Tell-Tale Heart (1960)
A librarian’s obsession

Edgar finally works up the nerve to ask Betty to dinner, and she accepts because, as she says later, “I suppose I felt sorry for him.” On their first outing, he reveals his occupation:

Betty:  Now it’s your turn.

Edgar:  I work as a librarian. I’m in charge of the reference section in the main library. [pauses]

Betty:  Is that all?

Edgar:  I can’t think of anything else to say.

Escorting her home, he then sexually assaults Betty, putting his arms around her and trying to kiss her (below left). He gets a door slammed in his face (rightfully so). He apologizes the next morning, and Betty takes yet more pity on him. This leads to yet more sexual harassment (below right).

Screenshots from The Tell-Tale Heart (1960)
Sexual assault by a reel librarian

Edgar is the one who ends up introducing Betty to his friend, Carl; Edgar seems oblivious to their immediate attraction to each other. Until that is, his voyeuristic activities reveal Betty’s and Carl’s affair… which leads to him later beating Carl to death in a jealous rage. Of course, Edgar didn’t realize at the time that he was also killing his own soul while he was killing his only friend.

Screenshot from The Tell-Tale Heart (1960)
A naughty librarian’s evil deeds

Ironically, Carl is the only one in the film who says anything nice about Edgar. He says to Betty at one point that “He’s a decent sort. He’s helped me out of a spot more than once,” and in another scene, “He’s an intelligent man.”

Why a librarian? This is not part of the original short story, so why did the screenwriters make such a point of mentioning it? The library itself is shown briefly in one scene, pictured below, when Betty comes to ask him about Carl’s disappearance.

Screenshot from The Tell-Tale Heart (1960)
The naught librarian in his library

Ironically, Edgar appears at his most confident while in his “natural habitat,” the library. He is smooth and even flirtatious with Betty, cupping her chin with his fingers. The shot of Edgar’s tidy desk at the library also contrasts with his untidy desk at home, as seen in the pictures below. He plays the role of a respectable citizen when he is at the library; at home, he is a mess.

Screenshots from The Tell-Tale Heart (1960)
At work in the library

The fact that Edgar is a librarian is not that important to the plot (landing the film in the Class II category), except for a scene later in the film when Betty goes to the police to voice her suspicions about Edgar’s involvement in Carl’s disappearance. The policeman’s reaction?

Edgar Marsh has worked quietly as chief librarian in this town for many years. A thoroughly respectable citizen. No, no, no. I don’t want to persecute an innocent man.

His being a librarian provides him respectability, although it is a “damning with faint praise” kind of respectability. Edgar is a sad, frustrated, lonely man, one who lacks confidence and shows obvious discomfort in social situations.

You know how I’m usually like around women. Petrified as such to do to the wrong thing.

Betty:  You live all alone in that big house?  

Edgar:  I prefer it that way.

A classic Librarian as Failure. His actions and violent reactions are motivated by fear.

Edgar also fulfills the Naughty Librarian character type. He is obsessed with sex, as evidenced by his collection of pornographic photos, but he doesn’t know what to do when he has the opportunity (like when he runs away from the woman in the bar). He is sexually frustrated, which feeds into his violent overreactions; the film also hints at some kind of unnatural past sexual relationship with his mother.

It doesn’t come as a surprise then, when sexual fantasies of Betty quickly turn into nightmares of Carl’s last dying moments. Sex and violence are irrevocably linked in this reel librarian’s mind. It is also no coincidence that the only time we see Edgar in bed, he is physically ill.

Screenshot from The Tell-Tale Heart (1960)
Guilty conscience?

Laurence Payne gives it his all, and then some, as troubled reel librarian Edgar Marsh. However, as you can tell, this is not the most flattering of male librarian portrayals!

To counteract all the creepiness, I will end on a funny note. My husband did NOT like the film — he is a Poe purist — and after the scene in which Edgar kills Carl and hides his body, he joked:

“When he stores you under the floorboards, I’m sure he’ll catalog you, too!” 😀


Sources used:


  • The Tell-Tale Heart. Dir. Ernest Morris. Perf. Laurence Payne, Adrienne Corri, Dermot Walsh. Danziger Productions, 1960.

‘Time travel’-ing librarian

It’s hard out there for a time-traveling librarian.

Thanks to everyone who voted for their next adventure… and here you have it, an analysis post of your chosen winner! The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009) is a romantic drama based on the best-selling 2003 novel by Audrey Niffenegger. The love story between Henry, a time-traveling librarian (played by Eric Bana) and Clare, an artist (played by Rachel McAdams) provides the central plot, as the film jumps back and forth in time, mirroring Henry’s travels. The two actors do all they can to provide gravitas and chemistry to the movie, but the tone and execution do end up feeling a little heavy-handed.

DVD cover of The Time Traveler's Wife
DVD cover of The Time Traveler’s Wife

Any kind of time-traveling-themed film involves its own brand of suspension of disbelief, as the audience has to accept somewhat circular logic and avoidance of plot holes (see also The Lake House and Premonition for other recent examples). This kind of story works better in print, and I did read the book years ago to see if Henry was a librarian in the book (he is). What’s intriguing about this variation on time travel is that Henry can’t choose when he travels back in time, and this brings on a whole host of problems and relationship instability.

*POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERTS*

Henry doesn’t get to keep his clothes when he travels, so most of his time spent time-traveling seems to involve breaking into places to find clothes, only to leave yet another pile of clothes as he disappears again. Also, Henry is older when he goes back in time to meet Clare, who is 6 years old when they meet for the first time on Clare’s timeline (incidentally, Henry is also 6 years old when he first travels through time). A 6-year-old girl and a 30-something-year-old man who later marry? Yeah, the creep factor is always there.

For a romantic hero, Henry is also unusual, because he often has to resort to petty theft, lock-picking, and sometimes back-alley brawls during his travels. (At one point, he also uses his abilities to win the lottery. Personal morality and ethics take a slip when one slips in and out of time.)

It’s hard out there for a time-traveling librarian. 😉

Librarian alert in the stacks!
Librarian alert in the stacks!

The two library scenes come fast and furious, both occurring within the first five minutes of the film. Three-and-a-half minutes in, we get our first shot of the library archives, as Henry travels back to his present (naked and shivering and emotionally drained). Henry wearily puts on his clothes, which are in a bundle on the library floor.

Screenshot from The Time Traveler's Wife
Rare books

After a heavy sigh, Henry then bends down to pick up rare books in a pile on the floor, affording us a close-up of his shoes. (Visuals of shoes feature heavily in this film, and a close-up of shoes in a field also graced the book’s cover.) Next, we see Henry bringing the stack of books to a patron in the library.

Patron:  That took you long enough.

Henry:  You have no idea.

Screenshot from The Time Traveler's Wife
“Took you long enough.”

Contrast that with the next scene, which brings sunshine and spring into the storyline. We also learn that Henry lives in Chicago. We get another wide shot of the library, this time bathed in sunlight and warm tones. The difference? This is when he first meets Clare, and they “meet cute” (or rather, “meet awkward”) in the library. Before Clare, his entire world — including his work world — feels cold and dark. With Clare, his world brightens — literally.

Screenshot from The Time Traveler's Wife
Reference help in the library

Fun fact:  Although the library is not named, these scenes were filmed in the Newberry Library in Chicago. This is also the library where Henry works in the book.

In this scene, we also get treated to another librarian, a young, red-haired woman perched in the stacks with a book cart in front of her. She looks quite professional — much more professional-looking than Henry — and is wearing a pin-striped Oxford blouse and a suit vest. This librarian is a typical Information Provider.

https://reel-librarians.com/rolecall/charactertypes/#informationprovider
Reference librarian in the stacks

Clare:  Excuse me. I’m looking for something on papermaking at Kelmscott.

Librarian: Our special collections librarian can help you with that. [She raises her voice to get Henry’s attention, who looks over at them.]

Henry:  Can I help you?

Clare:  Henry? [Claire recognizes him, but he doesn’t seem to recognize her.]

Henry:  Yes?

Clare:  Henry. It’s you. You told me this would happen. I’m supposed to act normal, but I’m not really acting very normal.

Here’s Henry’s reaction to Clare’s recognition of himself. Awwwwwwwwkward.

Screenshot from The Time Traveler's Wife
Awkwaaaaaard “Meet Cute” moment
Screenshot from The Time Traveler's Wife
Girl meets boy… again

Long story short, Henry agrees to meet up with Clare. Boy meets girl. Boy disappears. Girl has to clean up the mess. You know, the same old story. 😉

Although there are no more physical scenes of the library, there are a couple more mentions of his profession:

  • 21 minutes in, Clare introduces Henry to her friends Gomez and Charisse. Gomez isn’t favorably impressed at first, saying, “I couldn’t get anything out of him except he’s a research librarian.”
  • 25 minutes in, Gomez goes straight to Clare after learning Henry’s time-traveling secret. Gomez asks if Henry’s around, and she responds, “No, he’s at the library.”

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. However, because of the extensive scenes we get to see of Henry outside of the library, and the personality flaws we witness, I would argue he fills an atypical role for reel librarians. Henry’s personality is atypical of most romantic heroes, full stop, and his role as a reel librarian is also secondary to the central romantic drama. It is also atypical to highlight a reel librarian, male or female, who is quite physically active and fit. (See also Rene Russo’s character in the 1989 comedy Major League). Henry is fit out of necessity, in order to survive while time-traveling.

The filmmakers are also not afraid to be critical of the lead romantic hero. Twice, Henry describes himself as a “pain in the ass.”

Screenshot from The Time Traveler's Wife
Classic viewpoints of a librarian through a bookcase

One could also argue that Henry’s role is that of a librarian as failure; that character type consists of self-perceived “failures” who resort to working in a library. And Henry did choose to be a librarian when he was younger and felt lost and unhappy — before he had met Clare, and before he scientifically explored his condition. However, the “librarian as failure” character type primarily fills the purpose of reflecting flaws in a library, or other social system or construct; this character type is also very closely tied to the library. In this film, the library is just an excuse.

Although Henry’s occupation actually does make it to the back of the DVD case (“… a handsome librarian who travels involuntarily through time”), like I said, it’s not really that important that he’s a librarian.

DVD back cover of The Time Traveler's Wife
DVD back cover of The Time Traveler’s Wife

His occupation is only important because it provides him a way to make a living that, well, doesn’t get in the way of his time-traveling. His job, that of a special collections or archives librarian, affords him time to spend in the archives, alone, so that no one really notices when he’s gone. (Even when he’s gone for two weeks straight, we don’t hear anything about how that affects his work.)

How’s that for an endorsement for librarianship? Be a librarian so that NO ONE will notice if you’re even there or not. SIGH.

This film attempts to end as a testament to true love and how it can stand the test of time. But there is no such love for the library. Because once Henry wins the lottery — surprise, surprise — there is no more mention of the library. Who would continue to work in a library when there’s no need to work anymore?

On that cheerful note, I bid you farewell… but you can count on me that I’ll be back next week, same time, same place. 😉


Sources used:


Naughty Librarians (boys’ night out)

Exploring the male Naughty Librarian character type

We have come to my final post in this series of reel librarian character types (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for previous posts). The male counterpart to the female Naughty Librarians, this type was originally entitled “The Sex-obsessed Male Librarian” in my undergraduate thesis.

Striking differences do separate the two varieties of Naughty Librarians. There are not as many examples of the males as there are females; obviously, the female Naughty Librarian fantasy reigns supreme (see here for a related post). The male charaters are more focused on actual sex, not a diluted vision of love, as sometimes seen in the female equivalent. Also, the female Naughty Librarians turn to violence more often due to repressed feelings, while their male counterparts almost never do.

The male Naughty Librarian, although a sexually charged character, is one who attempts to act out his desires because he is professionally and/or personally unsuccessful in some way. This marks the biggest deviation between the two sets of Naughty Librarians. The females are usually young to middle-aged, and quite attractive (after they let their hair down after work, of course), whereas the males are usually middle-aged to older, and usually viewed as a bit creepy or otherwise sexually unappealing to others.

The father in You’re a Big Boy Now (1966), I. H. Chanticleer (Rip Torn), illustrates the male Naughty Librarian type. While his son, Bernard, experiments with fantasies — in the film, they are expressed in Day-Glo ’60s colors — the father acts out by sexually harassing his pretty young secretaries. One scene, see above, involves Bernard’s landlady, Mrs. Thing (Julie Harris), who assumes that the father must want to rape her after she accidentally locks them both into the archives vault. She freaks out when she realizes the archives are full of “dirty” pictures of Ovid and ancient literature “pornography” (her perspective, not mine). In this instance, Chanticleer, the Curator of Incunabula at the library, is NOT sexually interested in Mrs. Thing; he is more preoccupied with saving the rare books. And let’s be blunt, she’s not the same type as the secretaries he’s used to going after.

In The Name of the Rose (1986), Michael Habeck plays the assistant librarian Berengar, a homosexual monk prone to staring and giggling. His white skin and googley eyes do stand out, and not in a good way. And then we find out that Berengar has caused a brilliant young monk to commit suicide after being forced to partake of the “sins of the flesh.” Knowing his sin, Berengar whips himself and becomes the third victim in the film because he has read the “forbidden” book, Aristotle’s second book of the Poetics.

Perhaps the most realistically lecherous of all the male Naughty Librarians, Peter Sellers plays John Lewis in Only Two Can Play (1962), a Welshman vying for a promotion of Sub-Librarian by embarking on an affair with the wife of a library board member (see below).

The beginning of the film sets up John’s character, saturating his vision with glimpses of women’s legs, breasts, and hips. He groans in frustration after he discovers a book he has dropped is called Is Sex Necessary? His obsession with the female sex is compounded by the fact tht he has a young, desirable wife — but also faces the realities of two messy kids at home. John never actually consummates the affair, and in the end, he agrees with his wife to work on his sex addictive behavior. I must note that the film does not reveal to us at the end if he has mastered his womanizing ways.

So there you have it! I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of reel librarian character types. For all the types I’ve identified thus far, please see the Role Call section of this site.

The Anti-Social Librarian

Exploring the Anti-Social Librarian character type

Continuing our series of reel librarian character types (click here, here, here, here, and here), this week we’re shining the spotlight on the Anti-Social Librarian, aka “The Male Librarian with No Life Outside the Library.” That was the moniker I used in my undergraduate thesis (more on that here) — and my talent for awkward titles is well-documented. While the previous name was an apt description, I decided to simplify it.

This character type may seem more like a variation on the Librarian as Failure type. Both are awkward in social situations, and minor roles usually used to contrast with other reel librarians or major characters in the film (see Off Beat, 1986; Goodbye, Columbus, 1969; Prick Up Your Ears, 1987; and Fast and Loose, 1939) . However, I set the Anti-Social Librarian apart because there are a few characteristics that apply to this type of male librarian and not necessarily to the male librarians who fit the “loser” mold.

Essentially, this is the male equivalent of the Spinster Librarian:  conservative library workers who hoard knowledge and focus on rules. There are also physical similarities between the two (see above). They do NOT like people and display extremely elitist attitudes, resulting in those strict rules. In this category, the reel librarians are almost never seen outside the library — or at least, never in any sense of home or social setting — because they are seen as literal extensions, or representations, of the library. It comes as no surprise that whenever an Anti-Social Librarian shows up in a film, an unflattering light is cast on libraries in general. Instead of places of knowledge and access to information, libraries are depicted as places blocked off with barriers and secrets.

Most Anti-Social Librarians do not have important roles in these films, which helps to cement stereotypical traits of personality (anal retentive, unfriendly) and physical appearance (conservative clothing, unattractive). These types don’t like the public, and the very idea of the public using their libraries can send them into a panic, as in Goodbye, Columbus (1969). In that film, Neil’s co-workers include two Anti-Social Librarians, who seek to prohibit an African-American boy from visiting the library.

John McKee (Bill Derringer):  What’d you let him in for?

Neil Klugman (Richard Benjamin):  It’s a public library.

John: You know where I found him yesterday? In the stacks looking at the nudes. He was hiding there all morning. [Note: The boy is actually interested in art books]

Neil:  Did you throw him out?

John: Of course I threw him out.

John Rothman (he also stars in my “Repeat Offenders” post) has made his mark in playing this type of male librarian, appearing in two films as an Anti-Social Librarian. First, in Sophie’s Choice (1982), he has a memorable scene as the uncaring library clerk who ridicules Polish immigrant Sophie (Meryl Streep), who mistakenly asks for information on “Emil Dickens” when she means “Emily Dickinson.” He has no concept of polite behavior; he shouts, argues, ridicules, and basically causes an already emotionally and physically frail women to fall down on the floor in a faint. His oily hair, glasses, and bow tie complete his image of anal retentiveness. It is important that he remains behind his high desk; he cannot be removed from that desk, or his image as the snooty, unbending keeper of privileged knowledge would be diluted.

Research scene” video uploaded by SoFewChoices is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

In a more modern perspective, Rothman played a library administrator in Ghostbusters (1984). His job — again, never seen outside library doors — centers on protecting the library’s reputation. He seems totally oblivious that a poor librarian (Alice Drummond) was scared out of her wits by a ghost. He is concerned only with how people will regard the library, and by association, himself.

A film set in the fourteenth century, The Name of the Rose (1986), features one of the strangest male librarians in reel history, Malachia (played by Volker Prechtel). A monk with an enormous nose and ears and tufts of red-orange hair, he is depicted as strange and rude, with no social skills whatsoever. His name — derived from Malachi, a minor prophet from the Bible, whose name means “my messenger” — reflects his ties to the library, or at least how he perceives the purpose of his life’s vocation. Malachia works to isolate the library from any prying eyes. Only three monks in the monastery know the key to the library’s peculiar system of cataloging books, explaining how Malachia (who is referred to as the “head librarian”) helps hoards knowledge and limits physical access to any books deemed unsuitable.

Here’s what happens when William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) and his sidekick, Adso of Melk (Christian Slater), encounter Malachia outside the library door:

William:  I was just looking for your assistant, Brother Berengar. Is he here?

Malachia:  No.

William:  Oh. I see. Do you know where we might find him?

Malachia:  No.

William:  Is he perhaps upstairs in the library?

Malachia:  No.

William:  I am most curious to see the library for myself. May I do so?

Malachia:  NO! [moves to physically block door to library]

William:  Why not?

Malachia:  It is a strict rule of the abbot, that no one is permitted to enter the abbey library, other than myself and my assistant.

Of course, William and Adso find a way into the library later. Take a peek for yourself, in the clip below:

The Name of the Rose – Labyrinth Library Part (1986)” video uploaded by Tenuun Batzorig is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Next Friday, we’ll take a look at the Comic Relief librarians… so you’d better start saving up your laughs now, okay? 😉