Librarian as Failure

Exploring the Librarian as Failure character type

Harsh and awkward title, I know, the Librarian as Failure, but I never was that good with titles. This is the category I have had the most trouble with, mainly because I used to include the male Liberated Librarians in with them (see this earliest post). Their role is to highlight flaws within the library or even society itself; they are social failures in that only “failures” would choose to — or have to resort to — working in a library. This is not me talking about real librarians — this is what I have observed in films. Don’t shoot the messenger! 😉

Whilst the male Liberated Librarians tend to be younger (they still have time to redeem themselves), the Librarian as Failure are middle-aged or older. They dress rather conservatively, in dark colors, suits, or drab uniforms.

Variations include males who fail as a plot device, and male librarians who only appear to be failures to other characters. An example of this is Richard Burton as Leamus in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965). His character, a British spy during the Cold War, seemingly gets fired and works in a library in order to fool the German spies that he’s hit rock bottom. Of course, it does the trick! When the enemy later confronts him in a pseudo-trial, he identifies himself as “assistant librarian” to continue the failed-spy image.

Quite a few of the films in this category involve prison librarians, including The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Gideon’s Trumpet (TV, 1980), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and Escape from Alcatraz (1979). I’ve often debated with myself to make prison librarians a separate category, but I’ve kept them here because they do serve the main purpose of this role — in the eyes of society, they are considered failures. That’s why they’re in prison. But these characters have a unique twist:  they often become prison librarians because they exhibit good behavior while in prison! Inside the prison world, they are (or make believe to be) model citizens; in the outside world, however, they are, at the very least, uncomfortable in social situations.

Brooks Was Here – The Shawshank Redemption” video uploaded by Chrismax is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Take Brooks (James Whitmore), the prison librarian in The Shawshank Redemption. In one scene, Red (Morgan Freeman) astutely sums up why Brooks is so scared to go on parole (see clip above):

The man’s been in here 50 years. … This is all he knows. In here, he’s an important man. He’s an educated man. outside, he’s nothing. Just a used-up con with arthritis in both hands. Probably couldn’t get a library card if he tried.

And how did “Doc” (Sam Jaffe) get to be prison librarian in The Asphalt Jungle? He very considerately tells us (see clip below):

I cause no trouble. The prison authorities appreciate that. They made me assistant librarian.

Clip from The Asphalt Jungle
Click to view clip from The Asphalt Jungle

There are quite a few minor characters who fulfill the Librarian as Failure type, characters used to contrast with other reel librarians, usually Liberated Librarians. This is exemplified in the aforementioned The Shawshank Redemption, as well as in Off Beat (1986), Fast and Loose (1939), Goodbye, Columbus (1969), Shooting the Past (TV, 1999), and Only Two Can Play (1962).

Next week, we’ll continue our peek inside the dysfunctional world of male reel librarians with the Anti-Social Librarian character type.

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The Liberated Librarian (guys, it’s your turn)

Exploring the male Liberated Librarian character type

In my original undergraduate thesis, I had identified only four male character types. The more films I have seen, I have since added two categories, or rather, divided two existing categories. The first of these is the Librarian as Failure — sorry, never was that good with catchy titles — which I later split into two, giving full credence to the male version of the Liberated Librarian.

Rereading my thesis, I can see the idea there:

The films in this category demonstrate that any male who chooses (or perhaps does not choose) to work as a librarian must have something wrong with him. However, variations do exist […] most of the men are relatively young (with one notable exception), perhaps showing the audience that they have time to redeem themselves and find a better job. Interestingly, most of the males in these films triumph, in some way, in the end.

And that’s the major difference. The male Liberated Librarians may begin as failures, but they grow in character throughout the film, just like their female counterparts; their latent skills and talents find a way to rise to the forefront — but only through the instigation of an outside force, action, or other person. (I’ll delve into the Librarian as Failure later. They’re not going anywhere.) 😉

The male Liberated Librarian, as I mentioned, is usually young. Their physical appearance may or may not improve (compare this with their female counterparts, whose makeovers are practically a requirement!), but their wardrobes tend to get better. Personality-wise, they become more masculine and assertive. For major male librarian roles, the most common character type is the Liberated Librarian, with their liberation comprising the main plot.

This is evident in several films, including You’re a Big Boy Now (1966), Off Beat (1986), The Librarian TV movie trilogy (2004-2009), Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), Goodbye, Columbus (1969), and Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983).

There are some more minor characters fulfilling the male Liberated Librarian role. The male librarian (James Frain) in Where the Heart Is (2000) is a supporting character, but the arc of his liberation mirrors the liberation of the lead role, played by Natalie Portman. And Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid) in the TV movie Stephen King’s It (1990), is the only one of the seven lead characters to stay behind in Derry, Maine, a town that hides an inherent evil manifesting as Pennywise the Clown (a chilling Tim Curry). Hanlon, the town librarian, sarcastically referred to as “the answer man,” eventually unites everyone to fight against that evil.

The notable exception to the age characteristic I mentioned above is Jason Robards in Something Wicked This Way Comes. He plays the aging librarian Charles Halloway, who has a bad heart and professes that he never takes risks — risking his son’s respect in the process. However, he is motivated by the evil carnival owner, Mr. Dark (a deliciously evil Jonathan Pryce), to take a risk to save his son and, consequently, saves the entire town.

Several of my personal favorites showcase this category, including The Librarian TV movie trilogy, Goodbye, Columbus (1969), and Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983). For these and other favorites, see my lists for Hall of FameHonorable Mention, and Best Librarian Films by Decade, Parts I and II.

Stay tuned for next week for a deeper look into the Spirited Young Girl character type.

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.