Revisiting ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

As we get closer to Christmas, I thought it would be good timing to revisit one of the first posts I ever wrote on the Reel Librarians blog, a post analyzing the 1946 Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.

Screenshot from 'It's a Wonderful... Stereotype?' post on Reel Librarians

Screenshot from ‘It’s a Wonderful… Stereotype?’ post on Reel Librarians

My post, entitled “It’s a Wonderful… Stereotype?” was first posted on Sept. 21, 2011. I have reprinted it below in its entirety. Enjoy!


It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s a wonderful movie, truly. One of my personal favorites, actually. And a personal favorite for many, especially as a TV staple at Christmas, thanks to its lapsed copyright in 1974 (although that was successfully challenged in 1993). The director, Frank Capra, is in top form, as is James Stewart, who displays devastating depth as George Bailey, an ordinary man who aches to be extraordinary. Both deservedly earned Oscar nominations, out of 5 total, including Best Picture.

In the film’s nightmarish second half, George gets a rare second chance to see how life would have been without his presence — a concept that’s been seen time and time again, but it still feels fresh and raw every time I rewatch this movie. And I still find tears in my eyes toward the end when everyone chips in to save good ol’ George Bailey, and when James Stewart whispers, “Attaboy, Clarence” and winks after the bell rings on the Christmas tree. Oh, who am I kidding?! I’m tearing up right now even typing about it!

But…. how do you solve a problem like Mary?

Mary is George’s wife and one true love, played with intelligence and warmth by Donna Reed. We see lots of her in the film’s first half, through childhood adventures and young adulthood until George finally realizes he’s in love with her. Throughout these scenes, she is quite lovely and open and trusting and displays a great sense of humor. She is worthy of his love and his equal in every way. And she MUST be believable as his one true love in order for the second half of the film to work, because what she becomes is the straw that finally breaks George. Throughout the nightmare he witnesses in the second half — his brother dying, his mother withdrawing into a bitter old woman — it is the scene with his wife that finally gets to him.

And what does Mary become if George is out of the picture? A Spinster Librarian! Sigh.

Her scene as the Spinster Librarian is only about 30 seconds long, but that image continues to haunt librarians. Just look at the physical before-and-after:

Mary in the movie’s first half

Mary in the movie’s second half, as the Spinster Librarian

In the first half, she looks lovely. Modern hairstyle, flattering clothing, fresh and clean. But without George, she suddenly loses her sense of style?! Glasses, sensible clothes, hat, hair pulled back, gloves, no makeup. She is so covered up, almost hiding, with the hat and the gloves and the buttoned-up clothes. This image is the stereotypical prototype for all Spinster Librarians. This does make sense, as the Spinster Librarian is one of the character types that heavily rely on stereotypical visual cues:  the severe hairstyle, glasses, and prim clothing.

But worse than that is the change in Mary’s personality. In the first half, she is warm and funny and sweet. In the second half, she has become shy, furtive, non-trusting, and scared of men. A typical Spinster Librarian, right? (Sigh.) Mary clutches her purse, and finally screams and faints when he declares her to be his wife.

Clarence telegraphs the change in Mary:  “You’re not going to like it, George. She’s an old maid. She’s just about to close up the library!”

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.

So this movie will continue to be a personal favorite — but a personal favorite with an asterisk.

Going back down the rabbit hole | Librarian misspellings and search terms

In my “Down the rabbit hole” post from July 2013, I explored site statistics for different ways and keywords people searched to get to my Reel Librarians site, which turned into a post about all the different ways people misspelled the word “librarians.”

Reel Librarians | List of common misspellings for the word librarian

List of common misspellings for the word librarian

I thought it would be fun — or maddening? or both?! — to revisit this idea and see if anyone has gotten any better at spelling the word “librarians” in the resulting three years.

Spoiler alert? They haven’t. 😦 Most common misspellings continue to include librianslibbrarians, and libarians.

Also, does anyone else itch to replicate some of the more interesting/odd keyword searches, just to see how it connects to your site? ‘Cause y’all know I totally did that!

2016:

2015: 

  • Over 15,000 keyword searches
  • Theme of searches for librarian names:
    • funny librarian names
    • funny names for librarians
    • cool librarian nicknames
    • sexy librarian names
    • common librarian names

2014:

  • Almost 12,000 keyword searches
  • Again, a theme of searches for librarian names!
    • funny librarian names
    • librarian names
    • other names for librarians
    • librarian nicknames
    • names for librarians
    • Names of librarians
    • sexy librarian names
    • naughty librarian names
    • librarian name

It was very interesting to note the recurring theme of searches for librarian names. I did a post a few years ago about names of major librarian characters, as well as a post about common screen credits and titles for reel librarians… perhaps I should revisit that theme again?

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think about that idea. Or send me some additional, interesting names of major librarian characters, to add to my list! 🙂

Reader poll of runner-ups: Soylent Green and the Books

Last week, the winner of the reader poll of runner-ups (say that phrase 3 times fast!) was the 1973 sci-fi classic, Soylent Green. In the year 2022, food is scarce, and a majority of the world’s population relies on a food product called “Soylent Green.” A detective, played by Charlton Heston, investigates the murder of a Soylent official… and discovers the secret behind Soylent Green.

Reel Librarians| DVD cover for 'Soylent Green' (1973)

DVD cover for ‘Soylent Green’ (1973)

If you don’t already know what Soylent Green really is, then I won’t spoil it for you. (I just hope you didn’t have any with your Thanksgiving leftovers! 😉 ) “What is the secret of Soylent Green?” is also the hook for the original trailer:

The film stars screen legend Edward G. Robinson, in his final performance. The director’s commentary track on the DVD also revealed that Robinson was almost totally deaf by the time he made this film. He learned his scenes by timing during the rehearsals!

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Soylent Green' (1973)

Edward G. Robinson as Sol Roth in ‘Soylent Green’ (1973)

Robinson plays Sol Roth, and we meet him within the first five minutes of the film. He’s described in the trailer as:

Sol Roth, Thorn’s private library. A Living Book in a world without books.

This futuristic world — only 5 years away from our current present day! — has stopped printing books for almost 20 years. The word “Book” now refers to people, to former scholars and librarians who serve as personal researchers for others. Sol is a self-described “Police Book,” assigned to Detective Sergeant Thorn, and there is a “Supreme Exchange” where he goes almost daily for information and to talk to other Books.

Real books are treasures to be hoarded in this overcrowded, dirty, violent nightmare of a future, and Thorn and Sol live together in comparative luxury, in an apartment filled with bookcases.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Soylent Green' (1973)

Bookcases in Thorn’s and Sol’s apartment

Even though they look to have a lot of books, we learn that Sol is having trouble finding files for Thorn, looking up information on suspects and cases. This scene also sets up their relationship and how insulting each other is their way of showing their mutual love and respect for one other.

Thorn: What’d you dig up on those cases I gave you? You’ve been telling me that for the last three days.

Sol:  Well, I can’t locate the files. I spent hours on it at the Exchange today. Talked to every other Book who was there. […] What the hell kind of miracle do you want of me? I’m just an ordinary Police Book, not the Library of Congress. I don’t know why I bother.

Thorn:  Because it’s your job. Besides, you love me.

Thorn then goes to the apartment of Simonson, the Soylent official who has been killed (another screen legend, Joseph Cotten, in a cameo role), and Thorn comes back with multiple treasures. Twenty-two minutes into the film, we are treated to a wondrous site:  new books. Thorn brings back two large volumes from the dead man’s apartment, books entitled Soylent Oceanographic Survey Report from 2015 to 2019.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Soylent Green' (1973)

Book cover for the Soylent Oceanographic Survey Report

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Soylent Green' (1973)

Sol’s amazement at the new reference books Thorn finds

Sol:  Where the hell did you get all these?

Thorn:  Off his shelves. They were the only reference books he had. You like them?

Sol:  I love them. Do you know how many books were published in this country, once upon a time? When there was paper and power and presses that worked.

A little over 10 minutes later, Thorn again asks for more info about Simonson.

Sol’s response:  I’ve got a handful of reference work 20 years out of date. You throw out a name, and you expect a miracle?

He then proceeds to read out Simonson’s bio from the last biographical survey that was published, in 2006.

Thorn then asks about the books he brought back from Simonson’s apartment.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Soylent Green' (1973)

Sol describes the Soylent Oceanographic Survey Report

Sol:  Oh, very technical and highly classified. Unnumbered copies. Officially they don’t exist. […] What else do you want?

Thorn:  Everything. Across the board.

Sol:  Across the board? That’s impossible.

Thorn:  Check the Exchange.

Sol:  Check the Exchange? I need you to tell me that? You know, I was a teacher once, a full professor, a respected man.

This short conversation conveys a lot of information — about the books, about Sol and his past, as well as about the Exchange and its importance in their work.

The next scene that features the Exchange, which comes in at a little over an hour into the film, is one of the most important scenes in the entire movie. It anchors the film and sets up the finale. It is a scene in which the Books reveal that they know the secret of Soylent Green… only Thorn, and by extension the audience, remain in the dark.

Sol takes the two large volumes with him to the former public library, now known simply as the “Supreme Exchange.” A sign on the door reveals it’s for “Authorized Books Only,” and as Sol earns admittance, he is therefore visually confirmed as an “Authorized Book.”

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Soylent Green' (1973)

Supreme Exchange: Authorized Books Only

Sol slowly walks past row after row of crumbling books and papers, on his way to talk to the others. The books and the Books are all that is left of civilization, of knowledge, of humanity.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Soylent Green' (1973)

Bookshelves in the Supreme Exchange

As the director states on the commentary track, Sol is “reporting on this committee on what he’s learned through his research,” and he brings the two volumes to the Exchange Leader. The other Books greet him by name, so they are obviously familiar with and comfortable around him.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Soylent Green' (1973)

The Books at the Supreme Exchange

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Soylent Green' (1973)

The Exchange Leader looks in reverence at the volumes

The rest of this scene — a pivotal scene lasting only a minute and a half total! — features all of the Books:  Celia Lovsky as Exchange Leader, Morgan Farley as Book #1, John Barclay as Book #2, Belle Mitchell as Book #3, and Cyril Delevanti as Book #4.

However, only two of the Books exchange words during this scene, Sol and the Exchange Leader. Here’s their entire conversation:

Sol:  It’s horrible.

Exchange Leader:  You must accept it.

Sol:  I see the words, but I can’t believe them.

Exchange Leader:  Believe. The evidence is overwhelming. Simonson was a member of the board. He learned these facts, and they shook his sanity. The corporation knew he was not reliable anymore. They felt he might talk, and so he was eliminated.

Sol:  Then why are they doing this?

Exchange Leader:  Because it’s easier. I think expedient is the word. What we need is to prove what they are doing, before we bring it to the Council of Nations.

Sol:  Good God.

Exchange Leader:  What God, Mr. Roth? Where will we find Him?

Sol:  Perhaps at Home. Yes. At Home.

The director’s commentary during this scene is illuminating and thoughtful:

This sequence is an interesting comment on the state of humanity in this period. When this hidden-away little niche in this enormous library. That’s all there is. There are really no big libraries, and communication is very difficult. People have to actually get together and talk to each other, but they have nothing technical to help them. They have to read the books, and analyze them themselves. Which is not a bad idea, but under these circumstances, it’s terrible when you think there are no books being printed, everything is stopped. No paper, no ink. Just these wonderful people, like this actress, Celia Lovsky, who carries the scene. She’s wonderful, brings the whole feeling in her face of what is really wrong with that civilization.

Can you imagine? These are the only people left who can analyze information, who even know how to read reference books — or any books! And they are all old. The director rests the camera on their faces and wrinkles, and he does not flinch away. When they are gone, there will be no one left to remember. Librarians are holding down the fort for civilization in this film; they are gatekeepers in a very literal sense.

Although the rest of the Books are silent, their expressions speak volumes.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Soylent Green' (1973)

Books at the Supreme Exchange

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Soylent Green' (1973)

Books at the Supreme Exchange

It’s honestly hard to watch this movie today, as parts of it feel TOO real, thinking how close we really might be to the edge of this dystopian future. Corruption is a fact of life in Soylent Green, and people are categorized into functions:  Furniture, Books, and so on. And the Books, although they hold the key to knowledge in this future, are arguably no more effective than Thorn himself is as a policeman. But they all carry themselves with dignity, particularly Sol and the way he holds himself upright in his threadbare blazer and beret. All of the Books, including Sol, serve as reel librarians in the role of Information Providers.

Sol does go Home, and his final words to Thorn are, “You’ve got to prove it, Thorn. Prove it. The Exchange…”

Sol’s words spur Thorn to finally uncover the terrible secret behind Soylent Green. As he walks home to his apartment, he passes by the old public library building and current home of the Supreme Exchange. Before, when Sol entered the building, it was quiet and deserted. Now it is the scene of violence. Foreshadowing of the future, perhaps?

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Soylent Green' (1973)

Sol walks to the Supreme Exchange, the former public library

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Soylent Green' (1973)

Violence in front of the Supreme Exchange, the former public library

The final words of the film also focus on the former library, as Thorn’s supervisor states, “I promise. I’ll tell the Exchange.”

I originally had placed this film in the Category III and listed only the four Books and the Exchange Leader as reel librarians. Upon rewatching the film, I realized that I had overlooked Sol Roth as another reel librarian. We learn he was a former teacher, yes, but as an “Authorized Book,” he also serves the same role as the other Books. I have therefore reclassified this film as a Class I film, as Sol’s job is indeed integral to the plot.

I will leave you with a riddle from Michael, a longtime reader of Reel Librarians:

All librarians may be books, but are all books librarians?

What say you, dear readers?

Reader poll: A runner-up becomes the winner

The votes for the most recent reader poll are in… and y’all chose Soylent Green by a very large margin. In this 1973 sci-fi classic, librarians play a small, but important role, and are known as “Books.”

Reel Librarians reader poll winner

I will be enjoying some Soylent Green along with my Thanksgiving leftovers over the weekend (hah!). Next week I will be back with a film analysis post — stay tuned!

Reader poll of runner-ups: Choose your next adventure

Y’all have indulged my tangents the last couple of weeks (the danger of a single story for reel librarians two weeks ago and thanking librarians in book acknowledgments last week), so now I’m flipping the lens back around.

I started reader polls back in May 2014 for you to choose your next adventure, and I’ve continued doing reader polls every 6 months or so ever since. I had an idea for this next round, to select the next winner from the runner-ups of the 5 prior reader polls.

From runner-up to winner… you get to choose the next reel librarian movie I watch and analyze!

Reel Librarians | Reader poll runner-ups


Adventure (1945)

This film place second in the November 2014 reader poll. A sea-going adventurer (Clark Gable) falls for a librarian (Greer Garson), but their relationship is not smooth sailing.


An Extremely Goofy Movie (2000)

This tied for second place in the first reader poll, along with Soylent Green. It’s an animated film and includes a memorable college librarian character.


A Girl Named Tamiko (1962)

This film, available online through the Paramount Vault YouTube channel, was runner-up in the most recent reader poll, from this past spring. The title character of Tamiko, who is from a wealthy Japanese family, works as a librarian for the Foreign Press Club in Tokyo. There are a couple of scenes set in the Foreign Press Club library.


Public Access (1993)

This tied for runner-up in the scary-movie edition reader poll from Sept. 2015, along with Wilderness. In this film, director Bryan Singer’s first feature-length film, a stranger arrives in the sleepy, small town of Brewster and stirs up dark secrets with his public access TV show that asks, “What’s wrong with Brewster?” He dates the shy, young town librarian.


Soylent Green (1973)

This classic sci-fi film also tied for second place in the first reader poll, along with An Extremely Goofy Movie. The librarians in this film are known as “Books.”


Wilderness (1996)

This tied for runner-up in the scary-movie edition reader poll from Sept. 2015, along with Public Access. Amanda Ooms plays Alice White, a librarian at a British university, who has a dark secret: she locks herself away every month when she transforms into a werewolf!

Note: Originally a three-part British mini-series, I have a copy of the abridged movie version released in the U.S.


Wonder Man (1945)

This film was runner-up in the third reader poll in May 2015. Nightclub singer Buster Dingle (Danny Kaye) gets killed by a mob boss, and his spirit enters his identical twin, Edwin (also played by Kaye). Edwin, a bookworm writing a history book, gets involved with a young and attractive librarian (Virginia Mayo).


The poll will stay open through next Tuesday, Nov. 23, 10 p.m. PST.

I’ll be back next week on Wednesday with the winning runner-up!