Conan the Librarian and Chainsaw Sally

It’s October, which means it’s scary movie time! I am commencing on my annual tradition of scary movie-themed posts during the month of Halloween. (Want to revisit past October posts? Just click on the Archives drop-down menu on the right navigation menu.)

A few years ago, I mused in my post about Chainsaw Sally (2004) that the title character, Sally, and “Conan the Librarian” in UHF (1989) would probably have a lot to talk about. Upon closer inspection, I believe that “Conan the Librarian” and “Chainsaw Sally” would be a match made in heaven… or hell?! 😉

Let’s explore the love and gore, shall we?

Conan the Librarian

“Conan the Librarian” is a brief — but memorable — character featured in a brief sketch in the Weird Al Yankovic film, UHF (1989). The character is introduced in the form of a television ad for a show on an almost-bankrupt public TV station. “Conan the Librarian” is a parody of the famous “Conan the Barbarian” character created by R. E. Howard, and the clip lasts only 40 seconds. But it’s enough time for two scenes featuring “Conan the Librarian’s” wrath.

"Conan the Librarian" character from 'UHF' (1989)

“Conan the Librarian” character from ‘UHF’ (1989)

Conan’s first scene shows a balding, middle-aged man with thick glasses, cable-knit sweater, and tweedy jacket who, with a tremor in his voice, asks Conan the Librarian, “Can you tell me where I can find a book on astronomy?

Conan heaves the man up by his shirt collar and shouts, “Don’t you know the Dewey Decimal System?!

Conan then goes on to slice a young man in two because his books were overdue.

Here’s the “Conan the Librarian” scene:

I explored this character more in this 2011 post, “He’s… Conan the Librarian!

Chainsaw Sally

“Chainsaw Sally,” the title character in the indie 2004 film, wreaks havoc on library patrons all throughout her film.

Reel Librarians | The lead librarian and title character in 'Chainsaw Sally' (2004)

The lead librarian and title character in ‘Chainsaw Sally’ (2004)

What counts as a killable offense in Sally’s library?

  • A man who talks loudly in the library, spouting off curse words and heckling his girlfriend for needing to finish a school report. He also ignores Miss Sally’s warning that he be quiet in the library. (See his fate in the YouTube video below)
  • A woman who never returns a book she checked out.
  • A woman who works at the local ice cream truck misspells “malt” on an order form and also makes fun of Sally when Sally tries to correct her misspelling.

I delved deeper into this film and title character in this 2013 post, “Little Miss Serial Killer Librarian.”

Conan and Sally sitting in a tree… K-I-L-L-I-N-G

Both films are cult classics, and both characters are quite memorable. Both films are also comedies, although on different points on the comedy scale. (UHF often feels like a long series of comedy bits and sketches, while Chainsaw Sally is more of a dried-blood “dark comedy.”) Conan also serves as Comic Relief while Sally is the ultimate Naughty Librarian.

What is the secret to a successful relationship? One often-read tip is to share common experiences and/or similar values. In a twisted way, that would ring true for Conan and Chainsaw Sally. To wit:

  • They both make fun of patrons for not understanding or appreciating rules or organization (Conan berates a patron for not knowing the Dewey Decimal system while Sally chastises a woman for misspelling a word)
  • They retaliate through violence (hacking, slicing, etc.)
  • They enjoy weapons to aid in violence, like swords and chainsaws
  • They believe in over-the-top and deadly punitive punishments for overdue books

So much to bond over!

Conan and Chainsaw Sally collage

Conan and Chainsaw Sally collage


Chainsaw Sally. Dir. Jimmyo Burril. Perf. April Monique Burril, Mark Redfield, Alec Joseph. Shock-O-Rama Cinema, 2004.

Scene From Chainsaw Sally,” uploaded by OneMinuteReviewer, 2011. Standard YouTube license.

UHF. Dir. Jay Levey. Perf. Weird Al Yankovic, Victoria Jackson, Kevin McCarthy, Michael Richards. Orion, 1989.

UHF Conan The Librarian,” uploaded by sirstrongbad, 2006. Standard YouTube license.



Of monsters and missing maps

My colleague Michael from the Century Film Project passed on The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) to me for the website. It’s a ’50s sci-fi film about how an earthquake in California unleashes radioactive mollusk monsters. As you do. The special effects are… pretty much what you’d expect from that plot description. Earnest and enjoyably cheesy.

Reel Librarians | 'The Monster That Challenged the World' VHS

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Monster That Challenged the World'

I also love the film’s tagline, “Distinctly chilling. So real that it is nearly incredible.” Nearly incredible. Nearly. A ringing endorsement! 😉

So where does a reel librarian fit into the picture? There’s not a librarian technically, more a museum archivist. But I’m still including the character in the reel librarian category, as the character is primarily an Information Provider, along with a little Comic Relief thrown in for good measure.

The Naval officers on a base near where the mollusk monsters were unleashed are working hard to contain the issue and track down the remaining monsters. Fifty-five minutes into the film, Lt. Commander John “Twill” Twillinger (Tim Holt) and a scientist figure out that the mollusks are traveling by an underground river through a system of 700 miles of canal bank. The scientist advises them to be on the lookout for a survey map that would show underground rivers.

Twill assures him, “If there is such a map, we’ll find it.

A couple of minutes later, the director cuts to the Imperial County Museum, and we see a middle-aged, balding man closing a file cabinet drawer. Milton Parsons plays the museum archivist Lewis Clark Dobbs, in an uncredited role.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Monster That Challenged the World'

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Monster That Challenged the World'

Let’s listen in on the exchange:

Dobbs: Well, now, we gave most of our map collection to the library.

Twill:  Mr. Dobbs, we’ve already been to the library. We’ve checked every possible source. You’re our last resort.

Dobbs:  Too bad, too bad. We don’t have many documents. We don’t have room for them. We put up a bond issue, Proposition 14-A specifically asking for a document room, but… Oh, here. Here we are. [He hands them one rolled-up map.]

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Monster That Challenged the World'

Twill:  Is this all you have?

Dobbs:  I’m sorry, just not a speck of room.

Twill:  Mr. Dobbs, this is very important. Have you ever heard of an underground river or an ancient waterway in the valley that empties into a deep pool?

Dobbs:  Dear, dear. Let me think. I can’t think of a thing. But every once in a while, somebody dies, and leaves us a whole lot of documents for our room, the one we didn’t get, you understand. Propositition 14-A was defeated.

Twill:  Well, if you should hear of anything, let me know. You should be able to get me at the base.

Dobbs:  Oh sure, sure, I always cooperate with the authorities. You’ll find that I’m a very cooperative person. Just call on me any time, night or day.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Monster That Challenged the World'

The officers are as eager to get away as Dobbs is eager to continue talking to them. He is very solicitous but doesn’t actually help them (at least not yet). He is more interested in talking about the failed bond issue. I KNOW THE FEELING. It’s an interesting choice to highlight public funding issues for a library or museum. This is definitely an issue that continues today — but not one I’d expect to find in a cheesy ’50s sci-fi flick.

I honestly thought we had seen the last of Lewis Clark Dobbs. But I was mistaken! At one hour and seven minutes, he shows up at the base — so nondescript that Twill doesn’t notice him on his way out; Dobbs calls out to him to no avail. Dobbs holds a briefcase and has smartened up a bit with a blazer and hat. He takes off his hat when the phone operator asks if she can help him. Dobbs dithers, muttering, “Well, well” several times and announces that he will wait. The phone operators shrug, and Dobbs sits down in the corner. Awkward social manners, to be sure.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Monster That Challenged the World'

House later, Twill comes back to the base and is so focused on fighting mollusk monsters — as you do — that he doesn’t notice Dobbs in the corner. (Dobbs is probably used to this.)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Monster That Challenged the World'

After they shake hands, here’s the resulting conversation:

Dobbs:  It’s probably not anything at all.

Twill:  I see. [turns away, dismissive]

Dobbs:  You said it was important, you know, about the map.

Twill:  Yeah.

Dobbs:  Well, a very strange thing happened. I was looking for these papers — well,  actually, I was looking for this petition. [Takes out papers.] We’re campaigning again, for the Proposition 14-A, the one that was defeated. [Twill nods.] And there was this folder, and in this folder, there was this map.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Monster That Challenged the World'

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Monster That Challenged the World'

As Twill reviews the map, Dobbs mutters on about a family that helped settle the area, the family that donated the map; Dobbs is oblivious that Twill is not listening. Instead, Twill points to the map and asks him if this is a river.

Dobbs puts on his glasses, and states, “Oh no, but the Indians dug wells all along there. It says here — in Spanish, of course — the wells of life. I read 18 foreign languages.

So what do we learn about Dobbs?

  • He dresses conservatively
  • He is patient
  • He doesn’t read social cues very well (which adds to the “Comic Relief” role)
  • He is a multi-linguist
  • Proposition 14-A is his favorite topic of conversation

Twill, a man of action, immediately sends the map off to the photo lab to help identify the location of the mollusk monsters. He doesn’t even thank Dobbs for the map! Twill gets all the credit (of course), but it’s really Dobbs who provided the essential evidence that saved the day. And if only that Proposition 14-A had passed, he could have helped them sooner… and perhaps saved a few more lives.

I was hoping this Class III film would end with Twill saying that the Naval base would contribute funds to the Imperial War Museum and their documents room, but alas there was no more mention of Dobbs or Proposition 14-A after that third short scene with the reel librarian. Oh, well. In my head, that’s what happened: the Imperial War Museum got a donation (and a plaque) to celebrate their pivotal role in challenging the mollusk monsters that challenged the world, and Dobbs is now happily puttering away in his new documents room.

Reel librarians save the world! Now THAT’s a movie tagline. 😉

Reader poll write-up: Transylvania Twist

Thank you to everyone who voted in the recent reader poll, scary movie edition to choose the next film for me to analyze! And here you have it, an analysis post about your chosen winner, the horror comedy spoof, Transylvania Twist (1989).

Reel Librarians | VHS cover of 'Transylvania Twist' (1989)

VHS cover of ‘Transylvania Twist’ (1989)

I had never seen this movie before, and I knew little beyond the fact that legendary Hollywood producer Roger Corman (The Little Shop of Horrors) was involved (he served as executive producer). What I knew about the film involving a reel librarian came from the Librarians in the Movies: An Annotated Filmography site, which stated that Angus Scrimm plays Stefen, a librarian from Transylvania who tries to collect the fines on a book that’s 200 years overdue.

When looking up the film on its page, however, I encountered some conflicting info:

  • From the film’s summary:  “The nephew of a librarian must go collect a 200 year old book, ‘The Book of Ulthar,’ that should have never been checked out by the Evil Count Orlock.”
  • From the film’s synopsis page:  “Marissa Orlock [Teri Copley] and librarian Dexter Ward [Steve Altman] go to Transylvania, she to attend the funeral and will-reading of her dead father Count Orlock and he to retrieve a 200-year overdue book titled ‘The Book of All Evil.'”

So who’s the librarian? The nephew or the uncle? Both? Another character named Stefen? Obviously, I needed to pay careful attention watching this film.


The movie doesn’t take long to jump right into the action… and into a coffin!

Reel Librarians | Reel librarian in a coffin in 'Transylvania Twist' (1989)

Reel librarian in a coffin in ‘Transylvania Twist’ (1989)

Dexter Ward, played by Steve Altman, shows up at the funeral for his uncle, played by Jay Robinson. But when Dexter comes up to the casket to pay his respects, his uncle pops up, very much alive — and angry!

Reel Librarians | Funeral scene in 'Transylvania Twist' (1989)

Funeral scene in ‘Transylvania Twist’ (1989)

Uncle Ephram:  The book. The Book of Ulthar. You must find it. You know, it has the power to summon forth the evil one. What am I doing here?

Dexter:  You’re dead, Uncle Ephram.

Uncle Ephram:  Like hell I am! Get me out of this goddamn thing! What stupid son-of-a-bitch pronounced me dead? … You can all go home. I’m not dead. Get out of here, you miserable toadies.

Turns out, Uncle Ephram is a librarian. And next we see an exterior of the library to set up the next scene inside the library.

Reel Librarians | Library exterior from 'Transylvania Twist' (1989)

Library exterior from ‘Transylvania Twist’ (1989)

Dexter:  You’re looking much better since the funeral, Uncle Ephram. You know, I think death agrees with you.

Uncle Ephram:  Dexter, you’re the only person who seems genuinely happy that I’m still alive.

Dexter:  Remember what they said about that condition of yours. You sure it’s such a good idea to return to work this soon?

Uncle Ephram:  This library is my life. For 40 years, I’ve been responsible for the world’s largest collection of books on witchcraft and the black arts.

Dexter:  That’s what I call job security.

Reel Librarians | Library scene in 'Transylvania Twist' (1989)

Library scene in ‘Transylvania Twist’ (1989)

Uncle Ephram delves into exposition, explaining about the Book of Ulthar and its history and importance. Ulthar was a sorcerer and cast a spell that trapped an evil spirit, and the book contains a counter-spell that would free the forces of evil. And OF COURSE this book would wind up being guarded by a librarian — who, we learn next, wasn’t really up to the task.

Uncle Ephram:  He [Ulthar] placed all his mystic incantations in one volume, which has been carefully guarded throughout the ages. Then, 20 years ago, I made a tragic error. I lent the book out.

Dexter:  Isn’t that what libraries are supposed to do?

Uncle Ephram:  Not with such a priceless volume. The culprit’s name was Meredith Orlock. His academic credentials were impeccable. A few days later, he simply vanished, with my book. For two decades, I vainly attempted to find some trace of him. Finally just recently, I unearthed a clue, a daughter, living in Los Angeles. 

Dexter alludes again to his uncle’s health condition — which led him to having an attack and being pronounced dead. That is then why his uncle gives his nephew the task to contact Orlock’s daughter, Marissa, and hunt down the book for him.

Throughout this conversation — which sets up the entire plot of the movie, such as it is — Uncle Ephram and his nephew have a “walk-and-talk” through the library. We therefore get treated to an extended tour of the library stacks, along with a peek of the back area and front counter.

Reel Librarians | Library scene in 'Transylvania Twist' (1989)

Library scene in ‘Transylvania Twist’ (1989)

When Dexter tracks down Marissa — who happens to be filming a cheesy music video, as one does in the ’80s — he tells her that in the ’60s, her father borrowed a book from the “Arkham Public Library.” Dexter also describes his uncle as the “head librarian at Arkham.”

Wink, wink, “Arkham” is an integral setting of H.P. Lovecraft’s works, and “Arkham Asylum” features in the Batman stories.

Marissa then learns via telegram that her father has died, and she has been summoned to his castle in Transylvania. Dexter and Marissa travel together to Transylvania and are greeted at the castle doors by the butler… named Stefen (played by Angus Scrimm). So Stefen turns out to be a butler who materializes when called, but he certainly is no librarian.

Marissa and Byron then view the last will and testament, via a game-show-themed video, of Meredith Orlock, who reveals that the Book of Ulthar is hidden somewhere in the castle. Marissa inherits the castle, but her Uncle Byron vows to track down the book. The race is on — as is the remainder of the film’s plot.

Reel Librarians | Quest to find the missing Book of Ulthar in 'Transylvania Twist' (1989)

Quest to find the missing Book of Ulthar in ‘Transylvania Twist’ (1989)

As a horror spoof, Transylvania Twist helped pave the way for later movies like the Scary Movie franchise. I’m not sure that’s a compliment. The film pokes fun at both classic and ’80s horror movies, including Young Frankenstein, The Horror of Dracula, Hellraiser, Poltergeist, The Exorcist, A Nightmare on Elm Street, among others. The film has several positive user reviews on, and I can understand why fans of cheesy horror spoofs might enjoy Transylvania Twist. I have to admit, I am not a personal fan of horror spoofs, so I did not particularly enjoy the film. I found it pretty tedious overall, the jokes and asides and acting included.

Reel Librarians | The missing Book of Ulthar in 'Transylvania Twist' (1989)

The missing Book of Ulthar in ‘Transylvania Twist’ (1989)

Dexter eventually finds the Book of Ulthar hidden in Orlock’s casket. It is kind of clever, structurally, how the book is introduced by a(n undead) character in a coffin, and the book itself winds up hidden in another coffin (one whose body is missing).

After having watched the entire film, here’s what we find out in the end:

  • The book is NOT 200 years overdue; it is merely 20 years overdue
  • The sole reel librarian in the film turns out to be Uncle Ephram, not the nephew nor the butler Stefen, as erroneously listed in other write-ups
  • Uncle Ephram fulfills the role of Comic Relief (by popping up undead out of a coffin, hilarious!), as well as the role of Information Provider
  • The reel librarian provides the reason — and blame? — for the entire plot of the movie
  • Uncle Ephram is not a very good librarian, as he lent out the “priceless volume” of the Book of Ulthar — causing this whole mess in the first place — and he didn’t even do a thorough background check of the person he lent it out to. Tsk, tsk.
  • The film winds up in the Class III category, with a memorable supporting reel librarian character

Transylvania Twist ends with a bang. (Literally.) And a dancing librarian. As you do.

Reel Librarians | Dancing librarian in 'Transylvania Twist' (1989)

Dancing librarian in ‘Transylvania Twist’ (1989)

Again, thanks to all who voted in the reader poll. I’ll be back next week with another Halloween-themed post — next time, reviewing an actual ’80s horror classic. Stay tuned!

A magical librarian

A couple of years ago, when I started this blog, I received a reader comment adding the TV movie The Color of Magic (2008) to my Master List. The TV movie is adapted from two of Terry Pratchett’s books, the 1983 work of the same name (although it is spelled in the English way, The Colour of Magic, the first in his famous Discworld series) and the second book in the series, The Light Fantastic. About a year ago, a work colleague recommended Terry Pratchett’s book Men at Arms to me, as it is another book in the series that features the librarian character. I haven’t read The Colour of Magic yet, but I did enjoy Men at Arms, especially Pratchett’s sense of humor. So when on a recent trip to the public library I spied a DVD of The Color of Magic, I checked it out.

Reel Librarians  |  DVD case of 'The Color of Magic'

I had been warned that this TV movie was bad — even my work colleague, who loves the Discworld series, said it wasn’t very good. It is overlong, as it was conceived and developed as a two-parter. It’s also very cheesy in execution and special effects. Where the tone of the books is funny and whimsical, the movie feels silly and belabored; the filmsuffers from a lack of charm that is evident in Terry Pratchett’s writing. So, yes, this was another instance in which I watched this film so YOU DON’T HAVE TO. 😉

I also did not understand the general plot — this TV movie suffers from too.much.plot. — until I read this very detailed synopsis entry of the film in the Discworld Wiki site. This entry is SO detailed, but if you are unfamiliar with the Discworld books, suffice to say that (SPOILER ALERTS):

  • The Octavo is the greatest of all spell books and very dangerous, and it lives in the cellars of Unseen University.
  • Wizards keep killing — or attempting to kill — each other, because that’s what wizards do.
  • Tim Curry plays an evil-minded wizard named Trymon (no big casting stretch there) and wants to rule with help from the Octavo’s spells.
  • One wizard, Rincewind (played by David Jason), is the worst of the wizards because he can’t remember any basic spells or even to show up on time to wizard meetings.
  • Rincewind is therefore expelled at the beginning of the movie, which wreaks havoc because his mind inadvertently contains a spell from the Octavo. (This is also why he’s the worst wizard and can’t remember any other spells.)
  • Sean Astin ambles cluelessly through the movie as Twoflower, a rich tourist who hires Rincewind as his guide. They go on adventures outside the city but eventually come back for the final showdown against Trymon.
  • The Head Librarian starts out in human form… and then gets turned into an orangutan. Yes, an orangutan. Even in primate form, he continues to be Head Librarian of Unseen University.

The Librarian is played in human form by Nicholas Tennant, and in “Orang Utan” form by actor Richard da Costa, who also plays the Luggage. (That is a very strange sentence to write.)

Books also lead other, secret lives in the L-Space in the Discworld series — and as a member of the Librarians of Time and Space, the Librarian of Unseen University has an understanding of L-Space and its powers. It is no wonder that this TV movie highlights the Octavo, as Brian Cox (!) narrates that the “greatest of all spell books, locked and chained deep in the cellars of the Unseen University, the spells imprisoned in its pages lead a secret life of their own. And Rincewind’s departure … has left them deeply troubled…”

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

The next scene involves the Head Librarian, deep in conversation with the Arch Chancellor. The Head Librarian reveals a lot of plot in this scene — and indeed, provides plot details throughout to several characters — so his primary role in this TV movie is that of an Information Provider.

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

The Librarian also reflects the fear others have of Trymon, who is power-hungry and trying to bump off any wizard in his way to the “room at the top.”

Librarian:  … I’m just glad he doesn’t want to be Head Librarian.

Trymon [who’s been eavesdropping and bursts into the room]:  Perish the thought, Horace. And I am looking for a book.

The next shot reveals the Unseen University Library in all its dusty, disorganized glory. The Librarian retrieves the book Room at the Top:  How to Succeed at Wizardry! (first chapter:  “Knife in the Back”) for Trymon and continues the theme of the previous conversation.

Librarian:  The position of Head Librarian isn’t one that really appeals to you, sir?

Trymon:  No. [smirks]

Librarian:  Oh, good.

Trymon:  It is quite possible that the next Arch Chancellor may well smile upon those who understand the importance of things being well organized.

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

A rumbling, creaking sound from the cellars — the groans of the Octavo — interrupt this conversation.

Trymon:  Is everything in order down there?

Librarian:  Oh, yes, absolutely. Everything is in alphabetical order, in fact.


The Librarian, at least while in human form, comes off as quite cowardly and sniveling. He reacts in fear, and I don’t think it’s an accident that camera angles play up his diminutive form. (For more on the Librarian character in the books, click here.)

Reel Librarians  | Screenshots from 'The Color of Magic'

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

In fact, I grew so tired of the Librarian cowering in and around Trymon — all the while supplying him with the information he needed to move forward with his evil plan — that almost halfway through the TV movie, I shouted out, “I am SO READY for the Librarian to turn into an orangutan!” And, yes, that is another strange sentence to say out loud and write.

The movie complied, as at the end of the first half, the Librarian gets accidentally gets turned into a primate by a spell released by the Octavo. The Arch Chancellor and the other wizard rush to the library, to be greeted with the Librarian sitting on his desk. Not at his desk, but ON his desk.

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

Even if I hadn’t know the Librarian got turned into an orangutan — he’s already in his primate form in Men at Arms — I could have guessed where the plot was going, based on the number of bad puns he slips in before the accident:

  • Better not monkey around with it [the Octavo], or who knows what will happen.
  • It’s the Octavo. It’s going really ape.

I was relieved that after he got turned into an orangutan, his vocabulary became limited to variations of “Ooook!”

The Librarian does not have as many scenes in the second half of the TV movie, but he does help Trymon find another book in the library. Trymon threatens him and also gives him a banana for his troubles (“it’s not as if bananas grow on trees”) — which proves to be his own downfall. Literally.

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

At the end of the film, Trymon holds all the spells but the final spell in the Octavo and is engaged in a battle with Rincewind and the bumbling tourist, Twoflower, at the top of the tower. The camera then cuts to a close-up of the Librarian with a banana in his mouth (oook?), and then we get a lovely wide shot of the tower in silhouette. And who in the world would be able to scale a tower like this… but an orangutan librarian?!

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

And that banana? Well, a banana peel just HAPPENS to find its way underneath Trymon’s foot as he prepares to send one final spell toward Rincewind. Trymon is then blasted by his own ricocheted spell!

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

Although Rincewind gets all the glory, it’s the Librarian who actually ended up saving the day! (Typical.) At the end, as Rincewind and Twoflower make their way out of the tower, the Librarian drops over the side of the wall and toward Rincewind. (Apparently, Richard da Costa studied real orangutans in a zoo to learn how they moved — not that it helped.) Rincewind hands the Librarian a banana and tells him to “Go on, you sort this all out.”

I think HE ALREADY DID. Ungrateful wizard. Ooook, indeed.

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

The Head Librarian is a minor character who appears in short scenes throughout The Color of Magic (2008), and therefore winds up in the Class III category of reel librarians. I’ve already mentioned how he fulfilled the role of Information Provider, and considering the bad puns and overly crude portrayals — both in human and ape form — he also serves as Comic Relief. We are definitely laughing AT him, even if that laughter could be characterized as nervous laughter. Plus, his last trick with the banana peel is the oldest, broadest slapstick humor there is, right?

Until next week … and make sure you look where you step! And be nice to librarians while you’re at it. Bananas optional. 😉

Pride and Prejudice and librarians

This week’s post is about a film version of one of the classic romantic novels, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, featuring the central love story between Elizabeth Bennet, a gentleman’s daughter, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, a gentleman of the gentry.

But wait! There’s no librarian in Pride and Prejudice.

If you’ve read the classic novel, or seen one of a handful of more modern adaptations, such as the seminal 1995 miniseries starring Jennifer Ehle as Lizzy and Colin Firth as Darcy or the Oscar-nominated 2005 version with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, then you are correct. There is no librarian in Pride and Prejudice.

From the church to the library

However, in the very first film adaptation of any Jane Austen work, the 1940 MGM adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the vocation of Mr. Collins is changed from clergyman to … you guessed it, a librarian. (Sigh.) Pride and prejudice indeed.

As portrayed by well-known comedic character actor Melville Cooper, all the hallmarks of the bumbling, fussy, socially awkward Mr. Collins are still present. One of the Bennet sisters describes him early on as “a pudding face,” and our first visual introduction is one of him bouncing down the stairs and nearly overturning a vase. Cooper plays Mr. Collins as a perfectly ridiculous man, a fop who bounces on his toes and manages to offend everyone he intends to flatter.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshots of Mr. Collins in the 1940 'Pride and Prejudice'

image sources:  top / bottom left  /  bottom right

When we first meet Mr. Collins in this 1940 screen adaptation, he rushes to explain his lowly, humble position:

Although I act as her ladyship’s librarian, she has always spoken to me as she would to any other gentleman.

By his own admission, a librarian is not on par with a gentleman; instead, the implication is that a librarian is beneath a gentleman’s (or gentlewoman’s) notice or concern. Forehead, hand, slap, repeat.

Mr. Collins is a clergyman in the book, earning some of Jane Austen’s sharpest wit and scathing commentary. As a clergyman’s daughter herself, it is perhaps surprising how little difference religion makes in Jane Austen’s novels. Pastors and reverends in Austen’s novels are either well-meaning (and a little boring), like Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility and Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park , or on the other spectrum, they are socially tone-deaf, like Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice and Mr. Elton in Emma.

As stated in The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Jane Austen:

[T]here are two types of pastors — those who make things worse and those who, in their own bumbling way, make things better. (35)

So why DID they change Mr. Collins’s profession for the movie?

There are a couple of theories that I have gathered through a little research.

Screwball comedy influence

Reel Librarians  |  Posters for 'Pride and Prejudice'

Posters for 1940’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’

First, as mentioned in Sue Parill’s work, Jane Austen on Film and Television: A Critical Study of the Adaptations, the feel and pace of the 1940 adaptation is influenced by the screwball comedy genre, which was popular at the time. Events were changed or added to highlight comedic elements, and storylines — such as the Lydia and Wickham elopement — were rushed over.

True to the screwball comedy genre, the minor roles are played for broad humor. Since MGM has a large stable of well-known contract players, these roles were played by actors who were familiar to audiences from other screwball and romantic comedies. (50)

This roster of contract players included Cooper, who had played buffoonish characters in such films as 1934’s The Scarlet Pimpernel and in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, as a decidedly clownish Sheriff of Nottingham.

As Parill further elaborates:

It uses them [characters] solely for comedy. Mr. Collins (Melville Cooper) has been changed from clergyman to Lady Catherine’s librarian, but he is still the same ingratiating and officious today that he is in the novel. (52)

The Hays Code

Another highly likely theory is that the role was changed to a librarian due to the overly comedic, and disparaging, portrayal of a clergyman. This was during a high point in the Motion Picture Production Code, commonly known as the Hays Code, which demanded censorship and sanitization of so-called “risqué” or “immoral” elements. On the Don’ts list of the Hays Code, “ridicule of the clergy” is ranked as #10!

In her book Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, author Claudia L. Johnson counts Mr. Collins’s character change as one of the “ludicrous” changes in the 1940 film:

…a good deal of ludicrousness — antebellum costumes, Mr. Collins’s metamorphosis into a librarian (the Hollywood production forbidding irreverent representations of the clergy)… (p. 88)

It is quite telling that while clergyman were a protected class in early Hollywood, the same could NOT be said for librarians. (Double sigh.)

So the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice changes the already humorous character of Mr. Collins from a clergyman to a personal librarian. The occupational change seems to serve the absurd and ridiculous qualities of Mr. Collins — we do not pause and wonder at a bumbling librarian, whereas we might be offended at a bumbling clergyman.

It is also interesting to note that we, the audience, never actually get to see the inside of the library that Collins curates for Lady Catherine; his profession is mentioned once at the beginning and never referred to again. And it is quite revealing on retrospect that Mr. Bennet, who has his own personal library which serves as an important personal retreat, does not mention libraries or books at all with Mr. Collins. Mr. Bennet does not take the opportunity of using an apparently mutual love of libraries to bond with his cousin and heir. Curious, no?

Writing credits

In addition to the source novel by Jane Austen — who probably would opt not to take credit for this film adaptation — the film’s writing credits are lengthy:  Aldous Huxley (!) and Jane Murfin are credited as co-authors of the screenplay, which also borrowed heavily from Helen Jerome’s 1934 dramatization of the play entitled Pride and Prejudice: A Sentimental Comedy in Three Acts. I haven’t obtained a copy of the play — and only bits of it are available to read for free online — to check if the character of Mr. Collins was turned into a librarian in Jerome’s version. I doubt it, but it would be nice to close that loop.

However, critic Andrew Wright does state that “Mr. Collins, Mrs. Bennett, and Lady Catherine were always played farcically in the Jerome play” (as quoted in Parrill, p. 50). When the play was first performed in New York in 1936, the stage actor Harold Scott (1891-1964) played the role of Mr. Collins.

Reel Librarians  |  Excerpts from the 'Pride and Prejudice' stage play

Cover and insert of the play when it opened in New York, 1936.

There are quite a few other major shifts in the 1940 adaptation, including a time period pushed forward to allow for puffy sleeves and ridiculous hoop skirts (again, to heighten broad comedic moments), a total reversal of Lady Catherine’s character at the end of the film, and completely made-up bits shoehorned in, like an archery scene. (Elizabeth Bennet gets to take aim in more ways than one!) The pacing is also different from the book. Lizzy’s refusal of Darcy’s initial marriage proposal comes in the middle of the novel, a stroke of genius on Austen’s part. We then get to witness Lizzy’s change of heart and deepening maturity throughout the book’s second half. However, in the play, as well as in the 1940 film, the proposal comes at the end of the second of three acts. This rapid-paced ending is also indicative of screwball comedies.

The ads for the film also highlighted the screwball elements, with taglines such as:

Five love hungry beauties in search of husbands!!

The Gayest Comedy Hit of the Screen! Five Gorgeous Beauties on a Mad-Cap Manhunt!

When pretty girls t-e-a-s-e-d men into marriage…

Film’s reception

How was the film received when it was released in July, 1940? It was a crowd-pleaser and broke attendance records at Radio City Music Hall. The film was a hit with audiences and earned the Oscar for Best Black-and-White Art Direction.

And I have to admit, this film was my own personal introduction to Jane Austen, as well! I have quite fond memories of this film; I loooooooooved watching, and rewatching, this movie as a child. I didn’t read the novel until junior high, when I was shocked (shocked, I tell you!) to learn that Lady Catherine de Burgh did not, in the end, approve of Darcy’s choice to marry Lizzy.

The film also earned mostly positive reviews from critics. For example, Bosley Crowther’s film review in The New York Times praised the film’s “cast of such uniform perfection,” with notable exceptions:

Only Melville Cooper as Mr. Collins and Marsha Hunt as Mary Bennet permit their characterizations to degenerate into burlesque.

Ouch. A reel librarian portrayal that also manages to draw comparison to burlesque? (Triple sigh.)

All in all, odious Mr. Collins’s role as a reel librarian in the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice does not help the reel librarian’s cause in any way. It’s also notable that this film is not even included in the round-up of librarian films in The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999. As a minor character, our Mr. Collins winds up a Class III reel librarian, fulfilling the character role of Comic Relief.

No surprise there, right? 😉

Works Cited (and Consulted):

In addition to the 1940 film itself, I consulted the following works:

Adams, Carol, Douglas Buchanan, and Kelly Gesch. The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Jane Austen. New York:  Continuum, 2008. Print.

Crowther, Bosley. “Pride and Prejudice (1940).” The New York Times Review. 9 August 1940. Web. 15 Feb. 2014.

Johnson, Claudia L. Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2012. Google Book Search. Web. 15 Feb. 2014.

Parrill, Sue. Jane Austen on Film and Television: A Critical Study of the AdaptationsJefferson, NC:  McFarland & Co., 2002. Print.

Ray, Joan Klingel. Jane Austen For Dummies. Hoboken, NJ:  Wiley, 2006. Print.