Scary clowns + reel librarians

I had another scary movie post all lined up and ready to go this week, analyzing the 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man, but then I got a “creepy clown hoax” email from my workplace (for real! it was urging us NOT to wear clown costumes this year, for safety reasons). That’s when I decided to address the “scary clown phenomenon” on this blog, because there IS a connection to reel librarians.

That connection is the 1990 TV miniseries, Stephen King’s It. Every article I have read about the scary clown phenomenon that is sweeping the country right now mentions Stephen King’s 1986 novel and its title character, Pennywise the Clown. For the record, I have always found clowns scary, and I’m not the only one. Read this article, “The Surprising History Behind the Scary Clown Phenomenon,” and this more in-depth article from, “The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary.” Stephen King himself has weighed in on the clown craze and hysteria!

I haven’t read King’s original source novel, but I have seen the TV miniseries a few times. I won’t go into an exhaustive analysis of the miniseries right now in this post — there’s not time enough for me to do that — but I will point out that one of the main characters, Mike Hanlon (played by Marlon Taylor as a youth and by Tim Reid as an adult), grows up to be the town librarian. Although other characters get more screen time, Mike essentially serves as the catalyst for the entire second half of the plot, as HE is the one who contacts his friends to return to Derry, Maine, and fight “It” once more. Since Mike is the only one of the seven lead characters to stay behind, he becomes the “institutional memory” for the havoc Pennywise wreaked on the town. Also, being a librarian and archivist, he has resources to help his friend research and confront the evil plaguing their town.

Stephen King’s It 1990. Bill Denbrough and Mike Hanlon” video uploaded by Gunnar Andersson, May 20, 2013. Standard YouTube license.

Mike is a classic Liberated Librarian character, as I point out in my “The Liberated Librarian (guys, it’s your turn)” post from 2012. He may start out weak, a member of the self-proclaimed “Losers Club” — and his friends continue to sarcastically refer to him as “the answer man” — but he does find personal release from the town’s nightmarish history. I included the character of Mike Hanlon in my “Heroes/heroines” list on my “Victims or villains? Librarians in horror films & thrillers” post from 2013. He is a hero who unites everyone to fight against evil. (Also, in King’s 1994 novel, Insomnia, that is also set in Derry, we learn that Mike continued to work as a librarian, yay!)

There are a few scenes in the miniseries set in the library, and you can see one of them here in this short video that rounds up the “Best of: Stephen King’s IT.” The library scene clip starts at 3:03.

Best of: Stephen King’s IT” video uploaded by Gorey Bits, Aug. 29, 2016. Standard YouTube license.

Next week, I’ll be back with MORE creepy clowns in my film analysis post of The Wicker Man(There’s a harlequin clown character central to the May Day celebrations.) Stay tuned!

A liberated librarian versus the volcano

Last week, I delved into how Flynn Carsen from the first ‘The Librarian’ TV movie, The Librarian:  Quest for the Spear, fits the Liberated Librarian mold. This week, I take a look at another Liberated Librarian, the title character in the 1990 screwball comedy and cult classic, Joe Versus the Volcano.

The basic plot? Joe Banks, played by Tom Hanks, is stuck in a thankless job, and after learning he has only weeks to live, he embarks on an adventure to sacrifice himself in an island volcano. As you do.

The title cards start out fairy-tale style:  “Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe… who had a very lousy job…” And what is his job?! A librarian! (Sigh.)

Reel Librarians | Opening cards of 'Joe Versus the Volcano' (1990)

Opening cards of ‘Joe Versus the Volcano’ (1990)

Hapless Joe steps into a puddle getting out of his car and on his way to a factory-like building, and he raises his arms to heaven as if to send up a plea to save him from his hell. And how does he describe how he feels working in his workplace?

~ “Losing my soul” ~ “I feel kind of tired” ~ “I’m not feeling very good” ~

His uncaring boss, Mr. Waturi, played by Dan Hedaya, is unimpressed and suggests he should be grateful. After all, he “put you [Joe] in charge of the entire advertising library.” (Joe has worked there the past four and a half years.)

Joe’s response:  “Ah, you mean this room.

As Joe — and the audience — look around, we are met with a depressing visage of a sterile room with blocky desks, screened windows, file cabinets, flickering fluorescent lighting, and half-empty steel bookshelves. Yep, that is the entire advertising library.

Reel Librarians | The advertising library in 'Joe Versus the Volcano' (1990)

The advertising library in ‘Joe Versus the Volcano’ (1990)

Joe obviously feels no control over his job, and he is told he is “not competent” and “inflexible.”

Joe then goes to the doctor. As if he weren’t depressed enough, that’s when the doctor lays out the bad news — and the movie’s plot — by telling him that he has an incurable “brain cloud” and has only a few months to live. His advice? “You have some life left. Live it well.

When Joe goes back to the library, his boss tells him that he’ll “be easy to replace,” which makes Joe finally snap and stand up to his boss. “I’ve been too chicken-shit to live my life.

Joe vs The Volcano – Joe Quits” clip uploaded by RdHolland on Sept. 5, 2007. Standard YouTube License.

As he quits his job, he finally asks a female co-worker out (one of many roles played by Meg Ryan!), and she says, “Wow, what a change.

The liberation has begun!

A businessman, Samuel Graynamore, played by Lloyd Bridges, then offers Joe a chance for an adventure during his final days — to throw himself into a volcano as a human sacrifice. (Why? Because PLOT.) As he puts it — and true to the Liberated Librarian plot arc — “Try to see the hero in there.

Joe then has dinner with one of Graynamore’s daughters, Angelica (another one of Meg Ryan’s roles). Their conversation over dinner contains perhaps the most quietly damning insult to the librarian profession:

Angelica:  So what did you do before you signed on with Daddy?

Joe:  I was an advertising librarian for a medical supply company.

Angelica:  Oh. I have no response to that.

I have no response to that.” clip uploaded by ostrichkyle on June 22, 2014. Standard YouTube License.

And Angelica isn’t the only one slinging out insults to Joe. He does it to himself! “I have no interest in myself. I start thinking about myself, I get bored out of my mind.

So off Joe goes to seek adventure, letting loose (performing a silly dance atop of a steamer trunk floating in the Pacific Ocean) and releasing his inner brave soul (“Take me to the volcano!“)

As he faces the volcano and almost-certain death, he proclaims that “I have wasted my entire life” and “My whole life, I’ve been a victim, I’ve been a dupe, a pawn.” But no longer! In the end, he faces his own fears, alongside Patricia (Meg Ryan again!), and becomes truly liberated.

Everyman Joe Banks, therefore, also fits the Liberated Librarian character type quite well:

  • Initially similar to the the Male Librarian as a Failure — but eventually breaks free
  • Needs outside force or action to instigate “liberation” (in this case, the medical diagnosis that he has only weeks to live)
  • Younger in age, late twenties (there’s time to redeem himself!)
  • Becomes more masculine and brave after “liberation”
  • His “liberation” is the main plot arc of the film

How Joe Banks differs from, say, Flynn Carsen from ‘The Librarian’ TV movies — who is liberated through actually becoming a librarian — is that Joe is first seen as a failure in part because of being trapped in a “lousy job,” in this case a advertising librarian for a medical supply company. Being a librarian equals being a failure in his life. It is only by quitting and embarking on this adventure does he become liberated. Therefore, Joe Versus the Volcano joins the Class I category, in which the protagonist or other major characters are librarians, and the librarian’s occupation serves as catalyst to the plot.

Have you seen the cult classic Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)? Please leave a comment and let me know!

Quest for the ‘Liberated Librarian’

After my review of the second season premiere of ‘The Librarians’ TV series, I got to thinking that it was perfect timing to revisit the original TV movie, 2004’s The Librarian:  Quest for the Spear.

The Librarian collage

The Librarian collage. Click collage image for individual image sources.

In several ways, Noah Wyle’s by-now-iconic reel librarian characterization of Flynn Carsen is the classic Liberated Librarian character type, which I will explore here in this post. As I summed up here in my “The Liberated Librarian (guys, it’s your turn)” post from 2012:

The male Liberated Librarians may begin as failures, but they grow in character throughout the film, just like their female counterparts; their latent skills and talents find a way to rise to the forefront — but only through the instigation of an outside force, action, or other person.

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

There are many aspects from that general description of the Liberated Librarian that ring true for Flynn Carsen, aka “THE Librarian”:

  • Young in age (and a bit immature in temperament, as well)
  • Initially viewed as a “failure” in the eyes of his mother — and potential dates!
  • An outside force (in this case, the library itself!) is the catalyst for his liberation
  • He becomes more masculine and assertive throughout the TV movie
  • His “liberation” is the main plot arc of the movie

However, unlike other Liberated Librarians — who usually need to be “liberated” from their jobs as librarians — Flynn becomes “liberated” by becoming a librarian. Let’s see how!

Reel Librarians | The perpetual student

Screenshot from ‘The Librarian: Quest for the Spear’

The TV movie starts off with Noah Wyle in an Egyptian tomb, kitted out in an ill-fitting trench, spouting off factoids about Egyptian pyramids and trigonometry. He’s generally being an annoying, socially awkward know-it-all, as illustrated in an outburst by a frustrated classmate:

Stop frickin’ posing and join the rest of the students!

The first 15 minutes of this TV movie not only set up the Liberated Librarian character type and plot arc but also contain some of the most memorable dialogue about lifelong learning and libraries. Here’s a closer look at the three main scenes that comprise the first quarter-hour:

Opening scene:

In this brief scene, Flynn’s professor tells him he has completed his work and won’t be continuing in the program.

Flynn:  But I’m your best student.

Professor: Voila, that’s the problem. You are my best student. You’re everyone’s best student. You’ve never been anything but the best student… How many degrees do you have in total, Flynn? I checked your transcript:  you have 22!

Flynn:  School is what I know, it’s what I’m good at. It’s where I feel most like myself.

Professor:  You’re a professional student, Flynn. You’re avoiding life. This is a serious problem that I will no longer enable… Have you ever been out of the city? When was the last time you went dancing or to a ball game? You need to find a job, Flynn, to get some real life experiences.

Flynn:  All I want to do is learn.

Professor:   We never stop learning, Flynn. Never. It’s only where we learn that changes. And it’s about you start doing it in the big, bad, real world. Sink or swim, Flynn. Look ahead, that way. Good luck. Off you go.

Home scene:

Flynn goes home to seek comfort — from his books, naturally.

These aren’t just books. These books are slices of the ultimate truth. The greatest thinkers of all time. And they speak to me. Like nothing else.

Reel Librarians | The librarian and his books

Screenshot from ‘The Librarian: Quest for the Spear’

Flynn goes downstairs to find that his mom has set him with a “nice girl,” Deborah, wearing a cardigan and pearl earrings. Small talk quickly touches a nerve…

Deborah:  What do you do?

Flynn:  Actually, I’m a student.

Deborah:  You’ve been a college student your entire… ?

Flynn:  I like to learn. Is that a crime? I mean, so what, I’ve spent most, if not all, of my adult life in school. Maybe I have missed out on a few extracurricular activities. That doesn’t make me a freak, does it?

Deborah:  Of course not. I understand.

Flynn:  You do?

Deborah:  Sure. You like to learn. [Flynn:  Yes!] And you’re in your 30’s and you’re still in school. [Flynn:  Exactly!] And you live with your mother and you’re ok with that.

Flynn:  Yes! No. No. Wait. I have to change my life.

Deborah:  I would.

Reel Librarians | Noah Wyle as Flynn Carsen in 'The Librarian: Quest for the Spear' (2004)

Screenshot from ‘The Librarian: Quest for the Spear’

Deborah then wishes Flynn good luck as she rushes off. And just to make the point VERY CLEAR, his mother then turns to him to say:

The things that make life worth living… they can’t be thought here [pointing to his brain]. They must be felt here [pointing to his heart]. Maybe you don’t know so much.

Librarian interview scene:

Flynn then receives a mysterious invitation to interview at the Metropolitan Public Library.

Reel Librarians | Magical invitation to interview at the Metropolitan Public Library

Screenshots from ‘The Librarian: Quest for the Spear’

As he walks to the library, he joins a very long line of candidates going up several flights of stairs. (This entire scene reminds one of the nanny interview scene in Mary Poppins!)

His interview is with Charlene, played by the stone-faced and implacable (and awesome) Jane Curtin, who is as imposing as the grand ballroom setting.

Charlene:  What makes you think you could be THE librarian?

Flynn:  Well, I’ve read a lot of books.

Charlene:  Don’t try to be funny. I don’t do funny… What makes you think you could be THE librarian?

Flynn:  I know the Dewey Decimal system, Library of Congress, research paper orthodoxy, web searching. I can set up an RSS feed.

Charlene:  Everybody knows that. They’re librarians. What makes you think you could be THE librarian?

Flynn:  I know… other stuff.

Charlene:  Stop wasting my time. Tell me something you know that nobody else who has walked in here can tell me.

Flynn then taps into his inner Sherlock Holmes, rattling off several facts about her, including the fact that she has three cats (a white Himalayan, a tortoiseshell, and an orange-striped tabby). Next, the disembodied voice of Judson (Bob Newhart) asks what is more important than knowledge — and Flynn totally steals his answer from his mom (“The things that make life worth living can’t be thought here. They must be felt here”).

Charlene then officially sets up the Liberated Librarian story arc of the movie:

There will be a 6-month trial period. If you don’t screw up, then you will officially be The Librarian.

Judson then makes a physical appearance and utters what is arguably the quintessential line of the entire “The Librarians” series:

You are about to begin a wondrous adventure from which you will never be the same. Welcome to the library.

Reel Librarians | Flynn's first look at the Metropolitan Public Library archives

Screenshot from ‘The Librarian: Quest for the Spear’

The rest of the TV movie and plot focuses on Flynn’s adventures to return a stolen artifact. Oh, and saving the fate of the world. (Obviously.) He teams up with Nicole Noone (Sonya Walger), the librarian’s bodyguard.

One of my favorite aspects of the entire “Librarian” series is how it excels at clever, seemingly throwaway moments, like when Nicole and Flynn have to waltz through a booby trap — and Nicole ends up dipping Flynn at the end of the waltz.😉

The Librarian:  Quest for the Spear boasts multiple male reel librarian characters (as played by Noah Wyle, Kyle McLachlan, and Bob Newhart), a rarity in film. It is the character of Flynn Carsen, however, who best exemplifies the Liberated Librarian character type.


Becoming The Librarian:

In the final action scene, Flynn has to match wits — and spears — with the last librarian, Edward Wilde (Kyle McLachlan). He also battles his former professor from the movie’s first scene, a very clever way of “closing the loop.”

Here’s a side-by-side, before-and-after visual comparison of Flynn in the opening and final action scenes of the movie.

Reel Librarians| Before-and-after collage of Flynn, the librarian

Screenshots from ‘The Librarian: Quest for the Spear’

By the end of the TV movie — and after the librarian has saved the world, as you do — the final scene showcases just how far Flynn has come. (Even Excalibur, the “sword in the stone” thinks so.)

Reel Librarians | The librarian and Excalibur

Screenshot from ‘The Librarian: Quest for the Spear’

Flynn is not only dressing better, it is also obvious that he has more confidence, both inside and out. He even stands up to his mother!😉

Reel Librarian | Flynn Carsen and his mom

Screenshot from ‘The Librarian: Quest for the Spear’

Margie Carsen [speaking to a group of ladies]:  Flynn is a librarian now. But he’s capable of so much more. Just needs the right woman to push him.

Flynn:  Mom, you don’t understand. Being a librarian is actually a pretty cool job.

As he speeds off on his next adventure, Flynn is now truly a Liberated Librarian; in other words, THE Librarian.

If you can’t get enough of Flynn Carsen and “The Librarian” TV movies and TV series spin-off, here are more of my posts for all-things-The-Librarian:

Next week, I’ll delve into yet another Liberated Librarian portrayal… 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 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!

Librarian by chance

The movie Chances Are (1989) is a romantic comedy about reincarnation. A woman’s (Cybill Shepherd) husband is killed in the 1960s, and in a brief heaven scene — complete with fluffy clouds and angels with clear tablets shaped like the Ten Commandments — we see the husband head off to get reincarnated. The only problem is, he doesn’t get the all-important forgetfulness inoculation. Through the rest of the film, Corinne (Shepherd) believes her husband’s soul has come back in the body of her daughter’s boyfriend, Alex (Robert Downey, Jr.).

As you can imagine, the creep factor is quite high in this film. If Alex is Corinne’s reincarnated husband, then he’s dating his own daughter. If he’s not her reincarnated husband, then Corinne is stealing her daughter’s boyfriend. Oh, and she’s been cooking her dead husband dinners for over 20 years. And her husband’s best friend (Ryan O’Neal) has been in love with Corinne all this time, and has basically helped raised Corinne’s daughter. Like I said, the creep factor is high.

It’s a strange premise for a romantic comedy, and it requires a good half-hour or so of set-up and character introductions. The first time we meet Alex is about fifteen minutes into the film, as he coasts along on a book cart in the Yale University Library. This introduces his personality as boyish and fun-loving — traits at odds in a serious setting like the library.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Chances Are'

Coming through!

He then coasts into a scene in which Miranda (Masterson) — whom is later revealed to be Corinne’s daughter — is getting schooled by a librarian called Mrs. Handy (Kathleen Freeman). The librarian is middle-aged, dressed in conservative layers and has short hair — but no glasses!

Let’s listen in as Alex does:

Mrs. Handy:  So you just assumed that nobody at Yale University or Yale Law School had any interest in checking out these 6 books in the last 3 months? You are going to make some lawyer. You owe $87.25.

Miranda:  Can I put that on a credit card?

Mrs. Handy:  This isn’t a boutique. Cash only, or we’re have to hold up your grades.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Chances Are'

Alex then swoops into action, coming to the rescue of the damsel in distress.

Alex:  Mrs. Handy. The rare books room. The Shakespeare folios.

Mrs. Handy:  Fooling with the folios?

Alex:  Yes and they’re fiddling, too. Go!

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Chances Are'

Miranda’s reaction as the librarian rushes off?

God. Is she always that awful?

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Chances Are'

Interesting to realize that the librarian replaces Miranda as the “damsel in distress.” And she is so worried about people “fiddling” with the folios — and her character name is Mrs. Handy. Such clever screenwriters.😉

This “meet cute” scene continues as Alex jokes that the librarian is his mother — we are rewarded with a priceless reaction on Miranda’s face! — and then he magically wipes away the fines in the computer:

Uh-oh. This is bad. Worse than I thought. According to this, these books were never legally checked out. So that means I can’t charge you for them. You beat the system.

Alex then introduces himself, and we learn that he’s about to graduate. Miranda rushes off — she’s got a ride waiting, because she just had NO IDEA that it would take very long to return books that were 3 months overdue — but doublechecks that the “awful” librarian isn’t his mother.

This is definitely a scene played for laughs, and the university librarian fulfills the Comic Librarian character type. We laugh at her distress over the folios, which OF COURSE is what she gets for being mean to the pretty young girl with a credit card in one hand and overdue library books in the other. Oh, wait … am I showing my real librarian bias at this reel librarian portrayal?😉

Another side note:  After rewinding this scene to make sure I had gotten the quotes right, my husband piped up with the information that the library fines turned out to be 15 cents a day. Doesn’t it sound like one of those word problems you had in school:

Your library fines total $87.25. You checked out 6 books, which are 3 months overdue. What then is the daily rate for library fines?

This “meet cute” introductory scene also recalls the “meet cute” scene in the 1970 film Love Story, co-starring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, one of the four leads in Chances Are. In Love Story, Ali MacGraw plays a library assistant and is the one who schools Ryan O’Neal.

Reel Librarians  |  Library scenes in 'Chances Are' and 'Love Story'

And in yet another coincidence, Robert Downey, Jr. starred in another reincarnation comedy a few years later, in the 1993 comedy Heart and Souls. That film also included a reel librarian character, a supporting character named Harrison Winslow, played by Charles Grodin. Harrison in  Heart and Souls turns out to be a Liberated Librarian — as does Alex in Chances Are. The librarian, Mrs. Handy, definitely fulfills the Comic Relief role in this Class II film.

For more examples of Comic Relief portrayals, click here.

And for more about Liberated Librarians, click here and here.