The reel librarian in The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood’s classic and award-winning book, The Handmaid’s Tale, has never been out of print since its initial publication in 1985. It struck a chord then, and it continues to strike a chord today, recently returning to bestseller lists. A new 10-part series starring Elisabeth Moss will premiere next week, on April 26, on Hulu.

The Handmaid’s Tale Trailer (Official) • The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu” uploaded by Hulu is licensed under a Standard YouTube License.

This series, which looks like it will be pretty faithful to the source material, is not the first cinematic adaptation of Atwood’s book. That distinction belongs to the 1990 version of the film, starring the late Natasha Richardson in the title role. The film was directed by German director Volker Schlöndorff and the screenplay written by English writer Harold Pinter.

This dystopian tale is set in a world under a fundamentalist theocratic dictatorship, called the “Republic of Gilead,” in which fertility has become rare, and fertile young women, trained as Handmaids, are treated as slaves in the households they are assigned to.

The 1990 version

The 1990 film was received with a lukewarm reception, both by critics and at the box office. I agree with Washington Post movie critic Rita Kempley, who wrote that the film “is also a touch dated, though it remains an intriguing quilt of what-ifs.”

Here’s a trailer from the 1990 film version:

The Handmaid’s Tale (1990) – Official Trailer” uploaded by Shout Factory is licensed under a Standard YouTube License.

Having watched the 1990 film multiple times and read the book (I need to reread it!), I also agree that the impact of the storyline is weakened in the 1990 film version, including the ending and even the costuming (the handmaids wear sheer red scarves over their hair instead of the white “winged” headgear described in the book).

But the sheer power of the story and its all-too-familiar dystopian possibilities continue to linger in one’s mind, which makes the 1990 version still a worthwhile experience to watch.

Differences between the book and the film

In the book, the narrator — known as “Offred,” literally “Of Fred” — never reveals her “real” name, although it is implied that her name is June. She also never reveals many details of her occupation before the Age of Gilead, simply that she worked in an office. Very little is revealed in the book about the narrator’s appearance, except for this brief passage:

I am thirty-three years old. I have brown hair. I stand five seven without shoes. I have trouble remembering what I used to look like. I have viable ovaries. I have one more chance.

In the film, however, we learn early on Offred’s real name, which is Kate. We also learn about her former occupation, that she was a librarian. And of course with film being a visual medium, we immediately see what she looks like.

Getting to know the narrator

So let’s get into how the film reveals the reel librarian part of the narrator’s character.

At the beginning of the movie, right after the credits, Kate/Offred and her husband (Luke) are driving. Kate was the one driving, as we see her get out of the driver’s side. She wears glasses — a detail that we never see again in the film.

Reel Librarians | A screenshot from 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990)

The narrator, first seen wearing glasses, in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1990)

Kate, along with her husband and daughter, attempt to cross the border and escape. This attempt fails. Kate is separated from her daughter and sent to a camp to be trained and conditioned in her new role as Handmaid.

Fifteen minutes into the film, Offred meets the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy (played by Faye Dunaway), in her first placement interview. Serena Joy states bluntly to Offred:

Here’s how it works… If I get trouble, I give trouble back. Is that clear?

I’ve read your file. I know you’re not stupid.

Reel Librarians | A screenshot from 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990)

Offred and Serena Joy meet for the first time in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1990)

This detail — that others know that Offred is not stupid — is a thread the Commander (played by Robert Duvall) later picks up. It is obvious to all, including the audience, that Offred is educated and intelligent.

Scrabble and revelations

Forty minutes into the film, the Commander invites Offred into his private office for the first time, because he wants to “get to know [her] a little.” The narrator is understandably wary, but the Commander surprises her by wanting to play Scrabble! He asks her if she has ever played Scrabble before, and she responds that she had played when she was young.

Reel Librarians | A screenshot from 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990)

The Commander and Offred play Scrabble for the first time, in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1990)

As they wrap up their first game of Scrabble, their conversation continues, and this is when we first hear of the narrator’s former occupation.

Offred:  I can use my last three letters in one go. I’ve won.

Commander:  You certainly have won. Congratulations. I think you play this game a lot better than I do. I know you do. But I knew you would.

Offred: Why?

Commander:  Because you’re a librarian.

Offred:  Was.

Below is Natasha Richardson’s facial expression right after she says that last line, “Was.” It is an expression that is simultaneously wistful, proud, and defiant.

Reel Librarians | A screenshot from 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990)

A closeup of the narrator’s face in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1990)

Ten minutes after this scene, the Commander gives Offred a surprise gift for winning another game. This time, he brings out old copies of Vogue and Cosmopolitan, magazines he usually keeps locked up in a cabinet. The only books in the house are also in his private study.

Commander:  Now, what do you like? There’s Vogue, Cosmopolitan.

Offred:  I thought all this stuff was supposed to have been burned.

Commander:  It was. It was bad for people’s minds. It confused them. It was ok for me because I’m mature.

Reel Librarians | A screenshot from 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990)

The Commander shows Offred his secret stash of women’s fashion magazines, in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1990)

The significance of knowing how to read

The importance of these two scenes between Offred and the Commander is not really explored in the movie, but in the book this is significant because one of the ways the women are kept submissive is that they are no longer allowed to read. This comes out in the movie by the signs and grocery tokens that are in the forms of pictures, not words. The fact that they play Scrabble — in secret, of course — means she has to know words and letters, that she knows how to read. This adds an extra layer of subversiveness to these scenes.

Ten minutes after the scene with the magazines — another scene in the Commander’s private study — he tries tries to explain why “they” had to cleanse the nation, after Offred asks about what he does and why he works with “them.”

Commander:  Why? Country was in a mess, that’s why. A total mess. All the garbage had risen to the top… So we had to clean it up. We took a big hose and washed the place clean.

Offred:  I had a family and a job I was good at. I didn’t need cleaning up.

Commander:  I don’t mean you.

Below is Natasha Richardson’s facial expression after she says the line about having “a job [she] was good at.” She still clearly identifies with her former life, as a mother and as a librarian. Her facial expression, while still wistful, now seems to have a shade of hardened anger in it. This will prove important later in the film.

Reel Librarians | A screenshot from 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990)

Another closeup of the narrator in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1990)

Naughty Librarian fantasy?

At one hour and 18 minutes into the film, the Commander takes Offred on a secret outing to a building full of party-goers, businessmen, and prostitutes. He has forced her to dress up — for his fantasy of a “Naughty Librarian,” perhaps?

As they enter the illicit party scene, the Commander seems to take pride in knowing several of the women and referring to them by their former occupations, saying one was a sociologist while another was a lawyer. It’s almost as if he were collecting them, that in the future, he looks forward to boasting, “I knew a librarian.”

Below is a look at how Offred dresses up for the Commander — old Hollywood movie-star style, with a long black dress, gloves, and a feather boa — and reconnecting with her friend Moira, who tried to escape but has ended up instead a “Jezebel,” a prostitute.

Reel Librarians | A screenshot from 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990)

Offred dresses up for a night in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1990)

I won’t go into details of the film’s ending, only to say that it feels rushed and vague and doesn’t include the epilogue from the book.

What reel librarian role does Kate/Offred play in the movie?

This is a more difficult question to answer. Her character, as written for the film, is kind of the opposite of the Liberated Librarian character. She is forced to become LESS feminine in the film — except for the party scene — and it’s unclear by the end if she truly becomes liberated. On the other hand, her story arc (and her escape from the horrific reality of living as a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead) drives the film forward.

When I wrote my thesis years ago, I added Kate/Offred in the chapter on Atypical Portrayals. Atypical Portrayals of reel librarians, as I’ve defined them, include major characters whose portrayals go beyond stereotypical constraints. They are intelligent, well-rounded characters with lives outside the library.

Here’s what I wrote then:

She is independent, quietly rebellious when she needs to be but also openly rebellious when the time comes. Desirable to men, Kate also demonstrates a maternal instinct toward her lost child and to the men around her. Her job as a librarian is revealed only once, when Robert Duvall mentions it—the audience doesn’t need to hear that she was a librarian, but it does not detract from her strength as a character, either.

What do I think now? I would still put the narrator’s character, as written in this film, in the Atypical Portrayal category — mainly because she defies categorization. It’s clear that Kate did have a full life outside the library in her former life, but she is forced into a stereotypical box as Offred. But she continues to quietly rebel, in her own way and in her own mind, against these stereotypical constraints.

Why a librarian?

Like I mentioned before, there are many differences regarding the narrator’s character between the book and the 1990 film, one of which is that her former occupation as a librarian is clearly stated in this film adaptation. So why did screenwriter Harold Pinter give her both a real name and a defined former occupation in the movie adaptation? To give her more of an identity, as a shortcut to gain audience’s sympathy/empathy with the main character? Perhaps it was simply a way to provide a shortcut to the narrator’s intelligence that is referred to by several characters throughout the film. That as a former librarian, she’s not just intelligent but also that she knows how to read. That fact then makes her internally dangerous, however docile she appears on the outside.

As (real-life) librarians often say, “Once a librarian, always a librarian.” 😉

Ultimately, this detail of being a librarian in her former life lands The Handmaid’s Tale in the Class II category, in which “the protagonist or other major characters are librarians, but the librarian’s occupation does not directly affect the plot.” Like I wrote in my thesis, it isn’t necessary to the story to hear that she was a librarian — just as it wasn’t necessary to know details about her occupation in the book — but it does not detract from her strength as a character in the film, either.

I don’t now when I will be able to watch the upcoming mini-series, as I don’t currently subscribe to Hulu, but I will definitely put it on my list to keep an eye out for. If the new mini-series is going to be more faithful to its book source material, then I suspect the narrator’s character and former occupation will no longer be a librarian. But I will watch it, just in case!

And if you’ve seen the 1990 film and/or are looking forward to watching the new series, please leave a comment and share.

A reel librarian for the ages in ‘The Age of Adaline’

Earlier this year, I watched the 2015 film The Age of Adaline, starring Blake Lively as the title character. I saved my analysis post of this film for the end of this month, as the film is set around the New Year holidays.

Here’s a trailer for the film:

The plot? Adaline, a young woman and a recent widow, gets into a car accident in the 1930s and stops aging as a result of the accident. After decades of living alone, she meets a man, Ellis (Michiel Huisman) who makes her question her life choices. Even though that plot has a bit of mumbo jumbo narration thrown in to try and explain the scientific reasoning behind Adaline’s agelessness, it’s played as a pretty straightforward romantic drama. Blake Lively definitely commits to the title role and brings a world-weariness to her portrayal of Adaline. However, the real stars that shine in the movie are Harrison Ford, who plays Ellis’s father, William, and Ellen Burstyn, who plays Adaline’s daughter, Flemming.

The director, Lee Toland Krieger, reveals on the bonus features how much thought he put into the look and feel of the film, focusing on different camera techniques to visually depict the different decades of the film and its flashbacks. The film is stunning to look at.

*SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD*

Just five minutes into the film, we get a sweeping view of Adaline as she walks up the steps of a library. The film is set in San Francisco, but these scenes were filmed at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Age of Adaline' (2015)

Adaline walks up the library steps

As she walks into a light-filled room rimmed with bookcases and filing cabinets and card catalogs, we see a woman sitting at the desk by a computer (Cora, played by Indian-British actress Anjali Jay), and a man standing by the window (Kenneth, played by Japanese-Canadian actor Hiro Kanagawa). We also glimpse an older woman in the background by the bookshelves, but she doesn’t get a screen credit. Adaline’s co-workers are surprised to see her.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Age of Adaline' (2015)

Adaline’s co-workers are surprised to her on New Year’s Eve

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Age of Adaline' (2015)

Adaline greets her co-workers at the library on New Year’s Eve

Kenneth:  We thought you might not be coming in today, it being New Year’s Eve and all.

Adaline:  It’s still a Wednesday. The fun doesn’t start till tonight anyway.

Kenneth:  Well, are you up for a little excitement right now?

Adaline:  Sure, what is it?

Kenneth:  Your favorite. The news reel archives. It’s finally being digitized. We need a little help getting it ready to be shipped.

Adaline:  I’d love to.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Age of Adaline' (2015)

Adaline and the archives

We then go into a scene in which Adaline sets up the film reel projector and settles in to watch news reel archives of San Francisco. This is a clever set-up for the narrator to take over and introduce her life while a montage of clips visually accompany the central plot phenomenon. As the narrator explains, at age 29 in 1937, Adaline gets into a car accident. As a result, her cells stop aging, leaving her perpetually 29 years old, even as her daughter and everyone else around her ages.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Age of Adaline' (2015)

Adaline watches a news reel from the early 1900s

Although only a few minutes long, these scenes in the library archives are crucial to introducing the film and introducing us to the character (and motivations) of Adaline. Through her conversation with Kenneth, we learn that Adaline eschews socializing and is committed to her work, and that she loves working with archives. And then we find out why through the montage. We also see in the montage that Adaline studies up on her condition, taking a clerical job at a school of medicine. It’s a very clever and compact scene, one that includes an emphasis on archives and the value of researching and reading.

We also get introduced to the style of Adaline, who is in her prime — and dresses accordingly — through multiple decades. She has a classic style, which comes across as retro-inspired in the present day. She is a lady, and her clothing and hairstyles reflect that. I am definitely adding Adaline to my list of most stylish reel librarians!

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Age of Adaline' (2015)

Adaline in her closet

Reel Librarians | A collage of Adaline's style through the decades

A collage of Adaline’s style through the decades

Adaline then dresses up for a New Year’s Eve party, where she “meets cute” with Ellis in the hotel elevator, setting off the romance part of the film’s plot.

Ellis:  I don’t want to come across like a know-it-all.

Adaline:  Too bad, I adore know-it-alls.

Ellis is (understandably) smitten, but Adaline keeps an emotional distance, as she doesn’t want to get involved with anyone. She is also about to change identities yet again, something she does every decade to escape notice.

Unbeknownst to her, Ellis had already noticed Adaline before the party. Later, he describes how he first noticed her when she was reading a Braille book on the front steps of the library. For someone who’s trying to go unnoticed, she fails spectacularly!

Reel Librarians | A collage of Adaline reading a book in braille on the library steps

A collage of Adaline reading a book in braille on the library steps

A half-hour into the film, Ellis returns to the library to donate a lot of rare first editions. (It turns out he has made a lot of money in the tech industry and is now giving back and doing good works.) Just the way to capture a reel librarian’s heart!

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Age of Adaline' (2015)

Ellis returns to the library to donate books

Adaline’s co-worker, Cora, gets some lines to provide the backstory — plus reveals the name of where they work.

Cora:  Major news. Mr. Jones is donating $50,000 worth of first edition classics to this library.

Adaline:  What books? Do you know?

Cora:  We’re going to find out very soon. Because his office called to say that he’ll be here to deliver them himself.

Cora [to Ellis]:  On behalf of the San Francisco Heritage Society, I’d like to express our sincere gratitude for your most generous gift.

Note:  I could not find record of a San Francisco Heritage Society (y’all knew I would look that up, right?). However, I suspect it’s standing in for the California Historical Society, which has headquarters in San Francisco. The California Historical Society does have its own library.

Ellis then proceeds with his real mission: to flirt with Adaline. Cue the obligatory library ladder scene!

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Age of Adaline' (2015)

Library ladder scene in ‘The Age of Adaline’ (2015)

Ellis:  Hey, it’s me. The know-it-all. I got something for you, too. Some flowers. [Gives her a gift of first editions: Daisy Miller, Dandelion Wine, White Oleander.]

Adaline:  Very clever. How did you know I work here?

Ellis:  I just joined the board. I saw you coming out of our meeting.

Adaline:  Oh. You could have mentioned that in the elevator.

Ellis:  I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for some donating.

Adaline:  Great. I’ll be here.

Ellis:  No way. I would like for you to accept the books on behalf of the library.

Ellis wants to take a photograph of Adaline accepting the books, but of course, she has her own reasons for not wanting to be photographed. She initially refuses, giving him a stern look, as seen in the screenshot below. (By the way, I love the composition of this shot! They all look like professionals, but Adaline stands out in green against the blacks and greys of her reel librarian co-workers.)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Age of Adaline' (2015)

Adaline refuses to be photographed accepting a donation of books to the library

Then Ellis threatens to take away his donation.

Ellis:  Suit yourself. If you won’t accept them, I won’t donate them.

Adaline:  You wouldn’t do that.

Ellis:  I will. I’ll even have a book burning. Okay, fine, fine. Here’s an alternative. Let me take you out tomorrow.

I know this is the central romance of the film, and this is supposed to be another “meet cute” scene, but I was incensed at this. A man “joking” about a book burning?! I was literally shouting at the screen, “NO!!!! That is NOT the man for you. Walk away!”

Ellis then attempts to make up for this later when he woos Adaline by complimenting the way she reads. He seems to appreciate Adaline’s intelligence and knowledge, even saying, “You can tell me anything you want, and I’ll believe it.”

His father, William, is not so easily convinced. Ellis wants Adaline to meet his parents, and we get a brief scene an hour into the film between William and his wife, Kathy. William questions any woman who’s beautiful who is “hiding out in a library,” and he suspects her of being a gold-digger.

William:  So, what’s the story with this girl? She works there?

Kathy:  I’ve told you everything Ellis told me.

William:  A beautiful girl working in a public library.

Kathy:  Maybe she likes books. And silence.

William:  Or maybe she Googled him, and found out about his generous contribution and then worked her way in there so she could get her hooks into him.

But Adaline shows up William when they all play Trivial Pursuit. William has had a longtime winning streak — he’s a professor — but Adaline sweeps the game due to her lifetime of knowledge. It’s an enjoyable scene.

More romantic drama ensues, including a super-awkward love triangle, plus some more scientific mumbo jumbo thrown into the mix. I won’t reveal the ending of the film, but it’s pretty predictable. Enjoyably predictable, but predictable nonetheless.

So why is Adaline working in a library? As the New York Times review puts it, “By the time the present rolls around, Adaline has become an emotional shut-in.” The library — or at least the library at this particular historical society — is a quiet place, which suits her. There is no mention of qualifications or education for any of the four librarians pictured onscreen, but it’s obvious that Adaline has lots of personal experience with the older technology and artifacts.

We see Adaline do a variety of tasks in the library, including helping out with archives, running news reels on film projectors, stacking and shelving books, and filing cards. Her co-workers are seen working on computers. They must leave the older technology to Adaline! 😉

Reel Librarians | A collage of Adaline using older technology in the library

A collage of Adaline using older technology in the library

Adaline mentions several times about having to work for a living:

  • I only get an hour” [for lunch]
  • Some of us work for a living.”

However, we witness a flashback scene in which we learn that she has bought stock in Xerox. My thoughts are that she doesn’t actually need to work for a living; she simply prefers to do so in order to keep her mind alert, to utilize her knowledge and skills, and to indulge her nostalgia for the past. An historical library and museum are a good fit for those purposes.

Adaline’s co-workers serve the role of Information Providers, which is pretty straightforward. We don’t learn much about them as individuals, but I do enjoy the diversity of the reel librarians seen onscreen, representing different ages, genders, and ethnicities.

What purpose then does Adaline provide in this role as a reel librarian? I believe she serves the role of a Liberated Librarian:

  • Female Liberated Librarians tend to “discover” themselves with the help of a man or in the face of an adventure/disaster. (Check. Her life does change when she meet Ellis.)
  • The “liberations” can be positive or negative. (It’s positive in this film)
  • They are usually substantial roles with the librarian’s “liberation” often the film’s major plot. (Check and check. Adaline is the title character, and her “liberation” is both emotional and physical.)

Adaline is, indeed, “hiding out” in the library, trying to go unnoticed and to stay emotionally unattached. She is perfectly content in her life and at the library — but she is also content to leave that job and move on in order to preserve her privacy.

The Age of Adaline (2015) ends up 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.

The film’s conclusion, however, does not answer whether or not she will continue to work at the library. My guess — or rather, hope? — is that she will, but then, I’m also a romantic librarian at heart. ♥


And with that, 2016 comes to a close for Reel Librarians. I’ll be back next week — and next year! — with a wrap-up for 2016. Have a great New Year’s holiday!

Reel librarian conquests

As I mentioned last week, today I have an extra-special, super-sized post, all about Norman and his reel librarian conquests.

A library colleague, one who knows that I research librarian portrayals in film, recommended The Norman Conquests , a 1977 British TV mini-series, and kindly lent me her DVD copy.

Reel Librarians | DVD case for 'The Norman Conquests' (1977)

DVD case for ‘The Norman Conquests’ (1977)

The Norman Conquests — not to be confused with the historical Norman Conquest of England in 1066! — was adapted from the trilogy of plays written in 1973 by Alan Ayckbourn. Each play depicts the same six characters over the same weekend at a family home in the country, but from different perspectives and in different parts of the house. Norman, played by Tom Conti, is the title character — and reel librarian!

Reel Librarians | Title card from 'The Norman Conquests' (1977)

Title card from ‘The Norman Conquests’ (1977)

Setting the stage

The three “episodes” of the trilogy include:

  • Table Manners,” set in the dining room
  • Living Together,” set in the living room
  • Round and Round the Garden,” set in the garden

The plays were written to be self-contained and watched in any order. Content from some scenes overlap from the different plays, and several times, a character’s exit from one play mirrors an entrance in another play.

There are six main characters, including three siblings, whose lives and loved ones intertwine:

  • Norman (played by Tom Conti)
  • Ruth, Norman’s wife (played by Fiona Walker)
  • Reg, Ruth’s brother (played by Richard Briers)
  • Sarah, Reg’s wife (played by Penelope Keith)
  • Annie, Reg’s and Ruth’s sister (played by Penelope Wilton)
  • Tom, Annie’s neighbor (played by David Troughton)

What’s the main plot? The back of the DVD sums it up as, “Passions flare and tempers rise when three couples cross paths at a country house one weekend.” Reg and Sarah come visit his sister, Annie, who confesses she’s been having an affair with her brother-in-law, Norman, and plans to go away for the weekend with him. Then Norman arrives, followed a day later by his wife, Ruth. Awkward… especially since Annie’s neighbor, Tom, is also interested in Annie!

Table Manners

Reel Librarians | "Table Manners" title card from 'The Norman Conquests' (1977)

“Table Manners” title card from ‘The Norman Conquests’ (1977)

This was the first of the three episodes that I watched. We don’t see Norman until over a half-hour into the episode, but we hear about Norman and his characteristics (and exploits) almost from the beginning, when Annie confesses their affair to her sister-in-law, Sarah:

Annie:  You know Norman… Norman doesn’t bother about secret signals at all. It was just wham, thump, and there we both were on the rug.

Sarah:  Which rug?

Annie:  The brown nylon fur one in the lounge.

Sarah:  I blame Norman. That is absolutely typical. A brown fur rug.

During dinner on Saturday, we hear Norman’s voice for the first time, as he drunkenly sings from the living room, “Girls were made to love and kiss.”

We don’t get a look at Norman until Sunday morning, decked out in pajamas (the pajamas which we heard he had been “waving about” in the garden the day before). Quite the memorable first impression of a reel librarian!

Reel Librarians | Norman in his pajamas from 'The Norman Conquests' (1977)

Norman in his pajamas from ‘The Norman Conquests’ (1977)

Norman, Reg, Sarah, and Annie spent an awkward breakfast together — mostly Norman acting up and telling uncomfortable truths dressed up as “jokes” — and afterward, Norman reveals something personal and revealing to his brother-in-law, Reg.

Reg, it’s not fair. A man of my type of temperament should really — ideally — be square-jawed, broad-shouldered, blue twinkling eyes, chuckle in his voice, a spring in his stride. He should get through three women a day without even ruffling his hair. That is what I am like inside. That’s my appetite. That’s me. I am a three-a-day man. There is enough of me in here to give, you know? Not just sex. I am talking about everything. Trouble is I was born in the wrong damn body. Look at me. A gigolo trapped in a haystack. Tragedy of my life.

Let me repeat that destined-to-be-immortal line:  “Gigolo and assistant librarian.

It’s like Norman himself is providing a definition for his Naughty Librarian character type!

Reel Librarians | Screenshot of Norman in 'The Norman Conquests' (1977)

Screenshot of Norman in ‘The Norman Conquests’ (1977)

There are a couple of references to librarianship in this episode. One is that we learn that Norman told his wife that he would be going away for the weekend to a librarian conference (when he really was going to take Annie away to a hotel).

The other library reference is a conversation late in the episode between Ruth and Sarah:

I always feel with Norman I’ve got him on loan from somewhere, like one of his library books. I’ll get a card one day informing me he’s overdue, and there’s a fine to pay on him.

Living Together

Reel Librarians | "Living Together" title card from 'The Norman Conquests' (1977)

“Living Together” title card from ‘The Norman Conquests’ (1977)

This episode is chock full of library references! It starts off with Reg and Sarah in the living room, along with Norman, sulking in the corner with his suitcase (because we know the weekend tryst between he and Annie has been called off). Interestingly, as you can see in the shot below of Norman with his suitcase, books are scattered about a bookcase shelf behind him… perhaps an external representation of Norman’s inner frustrations?

Reel Librarians | Norman sulking with his suitcase in 'The Norman Conquests' (1977)

Norman sulking with his suitcase in ‘The Norman Conquests’ (1977)

We also get an immediate reference to the “librarian conference” Norman used as excuse, when Reg asks Norman about it and Norman replies it’s been cancelled “due to lack of interest.” Reg’s response? “Funny lot, these librarians.”

Norman later argues with Sarah about “stealing” Annie away:

Norman:  I was not stealing her. I was going to borrow her for a weekend.

Sarah:  You make her sound like one of your library books.

Norman: Well, she was borrowing me, too. It was a friendly loan, mutual.

Norman also explains his “librarian conference” excuse to Annie:

Annie:  I didn’t know assistant librarians had conferences.

Norman:  Oh, everybody has conferences.

And toward the end of the episode, on Monday morning, Norman plans to call in sick to the library:

Ruth:  I’m amazed they keep you on.

Norman:  I’m a very good librarian, that’s why. I know where all the dirty bits are in all the books.

This episode also reveals Norman’s romantic — and literary — side, as he bemoans the fate of his weekend tryst with Annie.

The course of true love shattered not by the furies, not by the fates, but by Mother’s bleeding pills?! ‘Dear Juliet, my shoelace has come undone. I cannot join you in the tomb. Love, Romeo.’

Reel Librarians | Norman gets slapped in 'The Norman Conquests' (1977)

Norman gets slapped in ‘The Norman Conquests’ (1977)

Ruth — who slaps Norman after she catches him kissing Annie in the living room — also reveals Norman’s inner romantic when she describes how he proposed to her:

He’s always been an expert at timing, whatever else. He proposed to me in a crowded lift. It was total blackmail. He sounded so appealing he won the heart of everyone round us. Had I been heartless enough to refuse him, they’d have probably dropped me down the lift shaft… I remember that was the first time I really felt like throttling Norman.

Ruth also shines a light on Norman’s “Naughty Librarian” character traits, when she states that Norman would “be much happier if you were perfectly free, flitting from woman to woman as the mood takes you.”

Round and Round the Garden

Reel Librarians | "Round and Round the Garden" title card from 'The Norman Conquests' (1977)

“Round and Round the Garden” title card from ‘The Norman Conquests’ (1977)

This episode ends with a bang — literally! — but I won’t give too much away. More is revealed in this episode about Norman’s central character trait, his inner desire to be desired, and the inherent friction between lust and romantic idealism. Here are two speeches Norman gives that illustrate this conflict:

Where’s the romance? Where has the romance gone? Destroyed by the cynics and liberationists. Woe betide the man who dares to pay a woman a compliment today. He bends to kiss her hand and — wham! — a karate chop on the back of the neck, and she’s off with his wallet. No, forget the flowers, the soft word, the chocolates. Rather, woo her with a self-defense manual in one hand and a family-planning leaflet in the other.

It is on such a night as this, the old base instincts of primitive man, the hunter, come flooding to the surface. You long to be away, free, filled with the urge to rape, pillage, and conquer. Filled with the lust for conquests tonight.

Also revealing more of his “Naughty Librarian” characterization? On Sunday night, Reg and Tom are playing a game in the garden, and Norman comes out wearing shorts! While Reg and Tom are arguing, Norman scores a kiss from Annie… and it rapidly escalates from there!

Reel Librarians | Scenes from 'The Norman Conquests' (1977)

Scenes from ‘The Norman Conquests’ (1977)

We also find out more about this “librarian conference” Norman has lied about:

Tom: Business?

Norman: Yes. Yes. It’s the International Association of Assistant Librarians’ annual conference.

Tom:  Jolly good.

Norman:  Ah, it’s very exciting.

Toward the end of the episode, Norman — once again — links together the library and his personal life:

Ruth: I know you and your rests. Your mind just doesn’t associate beds with sleep at all. I don’t know when you do sleep. It certainly isn’t with me.

Norman:  I was brought up to believe that it was very insulting to sleep with your wife. Or any lady. A gentleman stays eagerly awake on one elbow. He sleeps at his work. That is what work is for. Why do you think they have the “silence” notices in my library? So as not to disturb me in my little nook behind the biography shelves, L to P.

Ruth:  They’ll sack you.

Norman:  They daren’t. I’ve reorganized the main index. When I die, the secret dies with me.

What we talk about when we talk about Norman

Even when Norman is not onscreen, someone is talking about him. Here is a round-up of both criticisms and compliments about Norman throughout the episodes:

Criticisms:

  • Whatever did she see in him? (Sarah talking about Ruth and Norman, in “Table Manners”)
  • He’s a laugh, you know, Norman. Goes on and on. Don’t know what he’s talking about. Makes me laugh. I don’t care. I like him. Not many women like him. I don’t know why. Sarah can’t bear him. Won’t have him in the house. Nor will his wife. (Reg to Tom, in “Table Manners”)
  • You’re a nice bloke, but I think you must be the last person in the world I ever want to have breakfast with again. (Reg to Norman, in “Table Manners”)
  • You do talk rubbish. (Annie to Norman, in “Table Manners”)
  • I’m a kept man. A married ponce. (Norman to his wife, Ruth, in “Table Manners”)
  • I don’t hate you. I can’t say I like you very much most of the time. (Sarah to Norman, in “Table Manners”
  • No point in making a gesture unless he has an appreciative crowd to applaud him. (Ruth, in “Living Together”)
  • You are odious, deceitful, conceited, self-centered, selfish, inconsiderate, and shallow. (Ruth to Norman, in “Living Together”)
  • Why did you let him drive? You know what he’s like! You knew he was Norman, didn’t you? (Reg to Ruth, in “Round and Round the Garden”)
  • He just can’t bear not being the center of attention. (Ruth about Norman, in “Round and Round the Garden”)
  • You’re foul. (Annie to Norman, in “Round and Round the Garden”)
  • Oh, Norman, you’re so stupid. (Annie to Norman, in “Round and Round the Garden”)

Compliments:

  • You’re a good chap, you know, Norman. A really good chap. I’m sorry you’re having to dash away to your conference. It’s a pity you’re not staying because you brighten up the place a bit. (Tom to Norman, in “Living Together”)
  • I think we underestimate Norman. (Sarah, in “Living Together”)
  • I seem to remember you could do a lot with one hand. (Annie to Norman, describing their one-night stand, in “Living Together”)
  • I think I must be rather fond of him. It’s a bit like owning an unmanageable oversized dog, being married to Norman. He’s not very well house-trained. He needs continual exercising — mental and physical. And it’s sensible to lock him up if you have visitors. Otherwise, he mauls them. (Ruth to Sarah, in “Round and Round the Garden”)
  • I have the Midas touch. (Norman referring to himself, in “Round and Round the Garden”)

Final encore

As I’ve demonstrated above, Norman’s desire to be desired (dressed up in a “I could have made you happy” refrain) drives a lot of the trilogy’s plot. He is quite possibly the most fully realized Naughty Librarian character type in all cinema. Let’s check off the Naughty Librarian traits:

  • Sexually charged male librarian (usually focused on sex, which is certainly true in Norman’s case)
  • Usually unsuccessful professionally (Norman jokes about sleeping on the job; Ruth complains about having to earn a salary for them to live on; everyone is surprised that “assistant librarians” have conferences to go to)
  • Middle-aged (one could argue that Norman is experiencing a “mid-life crisis”)
  • Depicted as generally unattractive (Norman is described as a “sheepdog” in one scene and “an unmanageable oversized dog” in another)
  • Usually viewed as creepy, sexually deviant, or wimpy (Norman is seen as unmanly and a “kept man; reveals he fainted during a documentary about childbirth; also gets punched and slapped in the face by multiple characters)

I found myself thinking throughout the episodes that Norman was very similar in character to Peter Sellers in Only Two Can Play, who plays John Lewis, an assistant librarian who feels unfulfilled in career, in life, and in love; in that 1962 film, John seeks a promotion, as well as possible love affairs. Sound familiar?!

The Norman Conquests ends up a Class II film, in which the protagonist or other major characters are librarians, but the librarian’s occupation does not directly affect the plot. Norman being a librarian isn’t the catalyst or reason for the plot; rather, his profession juxtaposed with his libido is played for laughs. Isn’t it hilarious that this wimpy, sheepdog-like librarian feels like a gigolo on the inside?!

Tom Conti as the title character Norman does an excellent job of being both annoying AND charming at the same time. One almost feels sorry for this man, as Conti reveals Norman’s inner turmoil and sexual frustration — mostly through a myriad of engaging facial expressions:

Reel Librarians | Facial expressions of Norman from 'The Norman Conquests' (1977)

Facial expressions of Norman from ‘The Norman Conquests’ (1977)

The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. And that is critical in a story like this; with a limited pool of actors, the weakest link would rise immediately to the top. I am quite glad I watched The Norman Conquests, and I can appreciate the writer’s skill in crafting a tale that manages to go over the same events from different perspectives — but still manages to pack in surprises along the way! Each episode reveals something you didn’t know before and deepens your understanding of what you had seen before.

The main caveat is that it does take time to watch the entire miniseries, as each episode is 90 minutes. But the series definitely merits multiple viewings — if you have the patience for Norman’s antics! — and I have to admit, I have continued to think about Norman and his conquests long after I finished watching the miniseries.

I have a feeling Norman would be quite pleased to learn that I’m still thinking about him… 😉

Have you watched The Norman Conquests, either in film or play format? Please leave a comment and share your experiences!

Reel Substance: A look at Classes I and II

If you’re a regular reader of Reel Librarians (thank you), you know that I write and publish one post a week. Most of those posts focus on analyzing portrayals of librarians on film; when relevant, I delve into related subjects of library roles in TV or in books. I am also fond of listmaking, like when I round up themed lists of librarian films or portrayals. That describes the focus of the blog part of this website.

I also use this website as a repository for my lifelong research of librarians in film, so sometimes it’s good to highlight the research behind the blog. Therefore, for the next few upcoming posts, I would like to shine a spotlight on the “Reel Substance” portion of my Reel Librarians site.

Reel Librarians  |  Reel Substance screenshot

When I watch and analyze reel librarian films, I categorize them in different ways. (I am a librarian, after all — organization is as natural as breathing!) One way I categorize films is according to the importance of the librarian role to the film overall. I like to think of it as providing shortcuts to those who want the “most bang for their buck” — e.g. if you want to watch a film in which a librarian plays a key role, there’s a list of starting points to choose from. 😉

Right now, my “Reel Substance” section is divided into 5 sections. For this first post, I’d like to take a look at Class I and Class II. What is the difference between these two categories? Why should one care?

First, the basics:

Class I

Class II

Films in which the protagonist or other major characters are librarians Films in which the protagonist or other major characters are librarians
The librarian’s occupation serves as catalyst or is otherwise integral to the plot The librarian’s occupation does not directly affect the plot

So the main difference is how important is the librarian occupation to the plot? For me, this then naturally feeds into the purpose of having a character in the film who is a librarian. I am not particularly interested in having a librarian character on film just for the sake of having a librarian. Does it matter that there’s a librarian in the film, and if so, why?

What are some examples?

Class I

Class II

The above lists are only selected samples; you can view more titles and synopses in the Class I and Class II pages.

The library setting

Sometimes in Class I films, the library itself plays a big role in addition to the librarian character, like in Desk Set and Party Girl, but that’s not always a given. For example, we only see the exterior of a library — and then only very briefly — in It’s a Wonderful Life, and there is a particularly memorable library scene early on in The Mummy. A library setting is not featured at all in Rome Adventure; rather, the library is only referred to at the beginning of the film.

In Class II films, there may be one or several scenes actually set in a library, but usually, the setting is seen only long enough to introduce the character as a librarian, as in Chances Are and Love Story.

A closer look at Class I

You’ll note that I’ve included two ways in my Class I description in which a librarian’s occupation is important to the plot:  either as a catalyst or otherwise integral to the plot. These depictions manifest themselves in different ways.

Reel Librarians  |  Class I films

For example, in Desk Set, the essence of the plot itself is inextricably linked to librarianship. The major conflict — manifested in the main characters Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn), the head librarian of a TV research library, and the efficiency expert played by Spencer Tracy — boils down to technology vs. the human mind. This is a central conflict in librarianship even today (Do librarians matter in the age of Google? Spoiler alert:  YES), and the conclusion of the film is still relevant for modern librarians.

But what about the librarian characters in Rome Adventure or It’s a Wonderful Life? In the former, the film starts with librarian Prudence Bell (Suzanne Pleshette) quitting her job at Briarcroft College for Women after the board reprimands her for recommending a “too adult” book to a student. She goes to Italy in search of adventure and love, and the rest of the film takes place in Italy. So how does this qualify as a Class I film? In her role as a librarian, Prudence quite literally sets off the rest of the film’s plot — and exemplifies the virtues of standing up for what she believes in. But there’s a little something deeper, as well. In my post analyzing Rome Adventure, here’s how I put it:

[Why] a librarian? I think a young woman in that profession lends an air of intelligence and, let’s be honest, respectability — which she might need as support once she goes traipsing on long weekends in Italy! And […] being a librarian provides a more solid contrast to the idea of “liberation” — that without this chance of a “Rome Adventure” to broaden her horizons, she will have to face a future of spinsterhood (and overbearing would-be censors, a sad fate indeed). There just isn’t the same kind of contrast if she had simply been a salesclerk or a young lady with no profession. So when Prudence does explore her sexuality in the film, the audience might even be relieved for her, instead of condemning her more liberated escapades (perhaps a more serious issue in 1962, when the film was released?). Ahhh, the specter of the Spinster Librarian!

This specter of the Spinster Librarian links back to the ultimate Spinster Librarian portrayal in the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) falls on hard times, tries to commit suicide, and an angel grants him the wish to experience life as if he’d never been born. This set ups the alternate reality/nightmare played out in the second half of the film, in which his lovely wife, Mary (Donna Reed), has become an old maid librarian. The short scene in which George sees Mary as a librarian — a scene only 30 seconds long! — serves as the catalyst for the rest of the film. No longer desperate to end his life, George is now desperate to return to his real life.

In my post analyzing It’s a Wonderful Life, here’s how I summed it up:

What’s so disturbing about this scene — again, only about 30 seconds long! — is the uncomfortable undertones of this scene (at least for librarians). That without men in our lives, the ultimate nightmare for women is… to become “old maid” librarians?! That if we get married, we are spared from this oh-so-terrible fate? Again, sigh.

I know this scene is taken to extremes for the sake of the plot. George is near breaking point, and he needs a shock to get him to appreciate life again. And Mary becoming an “old maid” highlights the point that they are each other’s true loves — that without the other, they are not truly whole. Plot-wise, this scene makes sense. But emotionally, as a librarian, it is hard to swallow.

A closer look at Class II

In contrast to the myriad ways a librarian are shown to be integral or function as a catalyst for the plot in Class I films, many of the films in the Class II films follow a similar plot structure: Girl meets boy in a library in a “Meet Cute” kind of scene to set up the film’s plot/setting. Sometimes, the two leads have some kind of confrontation or otherwise dramatic scene in a library. Otherwise, the library — and the librarian’s occupation — are not major factors for the rest of the film.

Reel Librarians  |  Class II film

Variations of this structure play out in Class II films such as Major LeagueLove StoryMen of HonorMirandaThe BlotChances AreThe FBI StoryPump Up the Volume, Strike Up the Band, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and on and on. The librarian — usually a younger female — in these Class II films still continues to be a major character in the film, but the profession itself is really no more important than a placeholder.

For example, in the film The Time Traveler’s Wife, the two romantic leads “meet cute” in the library where he works as a “special collections librarian.” But as I said in my analysis post of the film:

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.

Final thoughts

This post is not meant to say that Class II films are bad, or that Class I films are better. I don’t categorize these films in this way as a mark of quality. There are some Class II films I love — hello, Major League (I ♥ Rene Russo’s reel librarian character and her “READ” license plate!) — and other films I don’t. (Cough, Forever Mine, cough.) Same goes for Class I films. Party Girl and Desk Set? Two thumbs up! Adventure and Bookies? Not so much. But it is interesting to me to view films through the lens of evaluating how important or purposeful the librarian characters and roles are to the films.

Have you ever wondered about the “Reel Substance” categories on this site? If so, you’re in luck… next week, I’ll delve deeper into Class III and Class IV. Stay tuned!

 

Reader poll write-up: You Can’t Get Away with Murder

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.

Reel Librarians  | 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???) One user review on IMDb.com noted that the play this film is based on, “Chalked Out,” was 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.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

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!

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

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.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

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!

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

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.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

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.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

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.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

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.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

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 Male Librarian as a 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.”

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

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).

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshots from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

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.)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

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… 😀

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'You Can't Get Away with Murder' (1939)

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!