“Never before in the history of motion pictures has there been a screen presence so commanding, so powerful, so deadly. He’s… Conan the Librarian!”
I haven’t featured that many male reel librarians so far, so let’s bring out the big guns (or swords, rather) with Conan! The! Librarian! from the 1989 cult comedy, UHF. In this film, George Newman (Weird Al Yankovic) takes over an almost-bankrupt public TV station, and it becomes an unexpected hit. And one of those hits is showcased in a brief sketch — only 40 seconds long! — in the form of a television ad for the show “Conan the Librarian,” a parody of the famous “Conan the Barbarian” character created by R. E. Howard. I think it’s a bit fun, too, that the name serves as a subtle (and unintentional?) riff off the “Marian the Librarian” character and song from The Music Man (1962).
Conan’s first scene shows a balding, middle-aged man with thick glasses, cable-knit sweater, and tweedy jacket (really, doesn’t HE look more like a stereotypical male librarian?) who asks Conan the Librarian, “Can you tell me where I can find a book on astronomy?”
Conan’s classic response? To heave the poor man up by his lapels, of course, and shout, “Don’t you know the Dewey Decimal System?”
FYI, the astronomy books would be in the 520’s. And as a librarian, I have repeated this line — and Schwarzenegger-type intonation — many times. It is ALWAYS funny!
Conan then goes on to showcase more what-NOT-to-do examples for providing reference services, including slicing a young man in two because his books were overdue.
UHF successfully parodies the “Guardian of the Library” image and the librarian character types who display anal-retentive qualities — the Spinster Librarian and her male equivalent, the Anti-Social Librarian immediately spring to mind — who are prone to shushing anyone who dares to be loud in a library, or reel librarians who express over-the-top anxiety about late or damaged books. Conan the Librarian is a classic Comic Relief character type, with its crude portrayal of librarianship and extreme physical characteristics.
The scene’s over-the-top humor is more potent because it plays against type: a reel librarian, especially a male librarian, is often portrayed as weak or effeminate. Conan the Librarian shows off his physical superiority at every opportunity. (Fun fact! We first see Conan hanging out in the 613’s, which is the Dewey Decimal number for Aerobics.) Librarians are also usually portrayed as intelligent — even if a condescending type of “book smart” — and this Conan characterization riffs off of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dim-yet-tough brand of acting in his classic 1982 Conan the Barbarian. Although Conan the Librarian is a VERY bad librarian, he is a hero in one sense: he helps save the UHF television station. He’s so bad that he’s funny.
So although only 40 seconds long — again, a short scene provides an immortal reel librarian! — this scene packs a punch (literally) while laying waste to several reel librarian stereotypical traits. Just as Conan the Librarian helped save the fictional TV station, I think this funny scene and unforgettable librarian helped save the film itself. UHF was a notorious flop at the time it was released, but has since solidified fame with its cult status.
UHF. Dir. Jay Levey. Perf. Weird Al Yankovic, Victoria Jackson, Kevin McCarthy, Michael Richards. Orion, 1989.
“Remember getting trapped in that library? I still have nightmares about that!”
The 1989 film Woof! details the comic adventures of an English boy, Eric (played by Edward Fidoe), who turns into a dog — a Norfolk terrier, to be exact — whenever his nose starts twitching. The movie, although a bit dull and hokey to me, is connected to a long-running (!) British TV series.
Stereotypes abound in this movie. There is the stuffy, child-hating teacher who yells at students to keep off the grass; the absent-minded and slightly buffoonish father; and, of course, the glasses-wearing, sour-faced librarian. This movie seems harmless enough, but I got an overwhelming sense of rules, rules, RULES. There are rules about not walking on the school lawn, no toys in the pool, no dogs allowed, no talking, and so on. Perhaps the boy (subconsciously) simply wants to escape!
The boy becomes determined to figure out why he keeps turning into a dog and tells his parents he’ll be going to the library later. His mother’s reaction? To feel his forehead and ask if he’s all right. It seems in this household, going to the library is odd behavior and cause for concern. Brushing away his mom’s concern, he tells his not-so-bright friend, Roy, at school that they must start by collecting data. Roy sees a light bulb, “Oh, that’s why you asked about the library tickets!”
Their first stop is the school library, a small room with few books available. There doesn’t appear to be any school librarian. The room is filled with older wood-and-metal tables and chairs, a chalkboard, a bulletin board covered with pictures, and a few low bookcases. From one angle, we see a large window along the back wall with a view of trees. There are a few books haphazardly stacked up on one bookcase, and a small 6-drawer card catalog on top of another. Overall, the look is very cluttered and disorganized.
Although the scene is only two minutes long, the message of RULES gets hammered again. Two girls come in and immediately ask, “Have you got permission to be in here?” Then a teacher — the same one who had yelled at them about walking on the grass — bursts in and yells again. “What are you up to?!” The fact that he’s holding a gun in his hand is commented on but never explained. Decidedly odd.
“It’s not easy is it, research?” Eric muses, on their way to the public library. This five-minute scene takes place toward the end of the first hour of the movie. The public library looks cheerful from the outside, with its traditional red brick and gold lettering; it seems quite busy and popular with lots of people going in and out. No “beware of librarian” signs to be seen.
The next shot showcases the main librarian (Sheila Steafel), checking out books with a scanner at the Circulation desk. She appears to be middle-aged, with short blondish hair, glasses perched low on her nose. She wears a tan cardigan and a light blue/grey blouse with an undone bow at the neckline. She wags her finger at two girls, who promptly move to the other side of the librarian’s right side (again, RULES alert!). After the girls have moved to the proper place, the librarian then motions for their library card. There is another librarian, uncredited, with her back to the camera. We see glimpses of her later on; she is of African descent, and she also wears rather conservative clothing (a black cardigan, white button-up shirt, long black-and-white polka-dotted skirt).
We get to see more of the public library, which has many bookcases, light-colored walls, and several informational signs. A character even mentions a second floor. There are several dark wood tables and comfy chairs visible.
The boys apparently find more books, judging by the stack on their table, but their research is cut short. Next, we see the librarian standing in the middle of the floor, in a light tan, calf-length skirt and brown flats, but without her glasses. She’s waving a large bell, a not-so-subtle way to signify closing time. Seeing no reaction from two kids right beside her, she waves the bell right in their faces (see above). Still no words, just crude gestures. After putting the bell back on the desk, she turns to a book cart, then taps impatiently to the man standing on the other side of the cart. He moves quickly (fearing worse her bite or her bark?), and she hurriedly pushes the cart in front of him.
Disaster strikes! Eric turns into a dog at the library. Roy leaves his duffel bag of the library table, where it catches the ire of the librarian, who is busy pushing the cart and clearing up books. When she spies the offensive bag, she rolls her eyes, gives it a glare, huffs, and throws the bag on the cart. While Eric’s friend is trying to figure out a way to get them out of the library without the librarian seeing, the director cuts to the librarian back at the Circulation desk. (Side note: we see the electronic scanner, but no computer. Hmmmm…..) Up to this point, the librarian has been more of the “Actions speak louder than words” type, but she finally speaks up — albeit in a whispering tone — in the presence of an adult (her perceived equal?), a schoolteacher. The teacher, who is also the cricket coach, invites the librarian — and even calls her by her first name, Marjorie, although she is listed only as “Librarian” in the credits — out to the cricket match. The librarian seems horrified at this idea. The teacher, giving no notice to the librarian’s obvious social discomfort, leaves by trilling, “Till this evening.” This prompts the librarian to finally raise her voice, shouting out, “NO! I — ” before breaking off. She seems quite embarrassed at her outburst — breaking her own rules, tsk tsk — and looks around guiltily while biting her nails (see below).
When Roy braves his life to ask the librarian about the missing duffel bag, we see the librarian glare at the boy with pursed lips. She shows no concern, airily telling him that the teacher took the bag. She shows much more concern about getting out of there, as she is in the process of putting her glasses up in a case. The boy, not getting the message from the librarian’s first dismissive smile, earns a scathing warning, “We are CLOSED now, actually” and another dismissive nod. Roy then walks slowly away, carrying out Eric-turned-dog in his other bag. Eric lets out a bark — what a mischief-maker! — which causes a look of confusion on the librarian’s face (in yet another close-up). She purses her lips again, raises her eyebrows, and looks around in confusion, as if she’s hearing things. She puts on her wide-brimmed black hat (which is NOT shaped like a witch’s hat), and that is that.
So what’s the point of the library scenes? Eric thinks of the library first when it comes to research — yay! — and seems to find more info at the public library than at the woefully understocked school library. But the kids are definitely on their own, either way. No help from this librarian. She appears quite dowdy, with a dismissive attitude when it comes to children or library users in general. She is not social — the idea of going out in public to a cricket match scares her into a shout! — and her mannerisms betray this social awkwardness. The only library tasks depicted are checking out books, pushing a cart, picking up books, and telling people to go home.
The public librarian serves as yet another authority figure who presents obstacles for the kids and delivers more rules. She is another guard dog — mirroring the big, scary black dog the boys have to confront every morning on their paper route. But her bark — or glare, in this case — is decidedly worse than her bite. Not a flattering portrait. She serves as both a Spinster Librarian (an uptight rule-monger) and Comic Relief (the target of derision and laughter in socially awkward situations).
Eric succinctly sums up his experience with the public librarian. At the end of the movie, he says, “Anyway, I’m glad it’s over. Remember the swimming baths, the telephone box, getting trapped in that library? Tell you, Roy, I still have nightmares about that!”
Woof! Dir. David Cobham. Perf. Liza Goddard, John Ringham, Edward Fidoe. Miramax, 1989.
“Pick any book, and if we don’t have it here, I will move mountains to get it for you.”
The 2004 film Dear Frankie is one that I visit time and again — it’s a beautiful, touching film that never gets treacly or sentimental. The bracing Scottish backdrop helps, of course. Plus, it boasts a quietly stellar cast, including a young(er) Gerard Butler and the always intriguing Emily Mortimer.
The Frankie of the title is a deaf boy (Jack McElhone) who receives a lot of letters from his seafaring dad — but all those letters have actually come from his mom (Mortimer). His dad’s (fictional) ship is about to come into town, so his mom hires a stranger (Butler) to pose as Frankie’s father.
In one early scene, his mom composes a letter in what appears to be a library — or perhaps an archives room or historical society. No librarian in sight, but there looks to be the standard library prop of a shelving cart stacked with folders and boxes.
In another scene about fifteen minutes into the film, Frankie visits the local library — it’s called the “lending library” by the sign on the glass door — which has a light, cheerful atmosphere with its stained-glass windows.
Frankie browses the shelves and catches the attention of the librarian. The librarian (Elaine Mackenzie Ellis) is a white female, with short dark hair, and a shorter, rounder frame. She wears glasses, modest clothing (a light blue top and matching cardigan), and minimal jewelry (small earrings and silver necklace). She’s also holding a book, the most obvious prop to mark a reel librarian!
The librarian — unnamed in this film and listed only as “Librarian” in the credits — starts speaking to him, not realizing he’s deaf. “Yes? Can I help you? Hello? Hello, I’m talking to you.”
Obviously offended at the boy’s seemingly defiant inattention, she steps out around the desk. “Come back here, please. I’m talking to you. Cheeky wee devil, you!”
So she tracks the boy down and says, “I am well aware that a wee boy your age should be at school at this time of day.”
Frankie then puts in his hearing aid. When she realizes he’s deaf, the librarian’s tone and demeanor completely change. “I didn’t realize. I’m so sorry.” Her tone becomes encouraging, her facial expression quickly softens, and she starts exaggerating and over-enunciating her words.
“Pick a book. Pick any book, and if we don’t have it here, I will move mountains to get it for you.”
The next shot cuts to Frankie leaving the library, holding an armful of books (and a slight smirk on his face).
Surely he’s pulled this kind of trick before? Frankie must find it a bit amusing to see how people’s reactions change after they realize his handicap. The librarian here fulfills the role of the Information Provider — no surprise there — as she helps Frankie find books he wants. She also serves as a typical example for how a majority of the public treats Frankie and other children with physical handicaps.
Dear Frankie. Dir. Shona Auerbach. Perf. Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone, Gerard Butler, Sharon Small. Miramax, 2004.
The first occurrence of a reel librarian uttering, “Shush!” onscreen
The 1933 film The Good Companions, adapted from J. B. Priestley’s novel of the same name, tells a story of three wayward souls finding their way to a variety troupe called the “Dinky Doos” (no, I do not make this stuff up). Thankfully, they change the name straightaway to “The Good Companions,” hence the film’s title. This decidedly minor film, remade in 1957, takes its time setting up the characters and the plot.
The librarian (Hugh E. Wright) shows up for less than a minute, and we never see his face — only the back of his head (see below). His appearance is notable only because it appears to be the first occurrence of a reel librarian uttering, “Shush!” (as determined by Ray & Brenda Tevis in their book, The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999). The Tevises also take note at how the low camera angle — revealing only the back of the librarian’s head — visually de-emphasizes the reel librarian.
The reel librarian is a white male, older, and quite thin. He is wearing a black coat, and his hair is short, grey, and appears to be thinning. We see a glimpse of spectacles as he turns slightly to the side at one point.
The library scene occurs one hour and 17 minutes into the film (the 113-minute UK version, NOT the 95-minute US version). Right before the library scene, the two female leads, Miss Elizabeth Trant (Mary Glynne) and Susie Dean (Jessie Matthews) enjoy a picnic; the older woman laments a long-lost love, and Susie schemes to bring the two former lovers back together. The gentleman in question is a doctor, and the Susie muses that “there’s a medical register at any public library.” Next, we see a shot of Susie looking up the medical register and finds the name she’s seeking and the town where the doctor lives, Dingley. She then asks in a loud voice, “How far’s Dingley?”
Immediately, we hear a “Shush!”, then the camera pans back to reveal the library and the back of the reel librarian, who then answers “20 miles” to her question. Susie, quite unconcerned at her mild reprimand, tosses off a quick thanks. She then brings the big book back to the Circulation desk and asks the librarian what kind of illness would bring a doctor in from 20 miles away. He seems puzzled — who wouldn’t be? — and replies, “Well, I don’t know. Heart attack?” Susie seems quite pleased with his response, thanks him, and leaves. He fulfills the basic Information Provider role, one punctuated by the inaugural and soon-to-be-infamous (and oft-repeated) “Shush!”
We see one wide shot of the library itself, with the reel librarian perched on the edge of the stool at the far right. Anybody else visualizing Ebenezer Scrooge?! The long, wooden Circulation desk spans the bottom part of the frame, and the obligatory card files flank both sides of the librarian — another visual barrier. The left side of the frame reveals a fairly populated reading room, most likely for newspapers and other periodicals, while the larger space to the right is empty except for the girl. Is it just me, or does the library backdrop almost look painted? There are tall stacks of books, and we spy a second floor with more bookshelves, tables, and library lamps; in the close-up, we see thick velvet ropes — yet another visual barrier — curtaining off the tall stacks.
The Good Companions. Dir. Victor Saville. Perf. Jessie Matthews, Edmund Gwenn, John Gielgud, Mary Glynne. Gaumont British Picture Corporation, 1933.
Tevis, Ray, and Brenda Tevis. The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999. McFarland, 2005.
The librarian sells her soul for a few cheap compliments
In honor of Halloween, I’m exploring the first horror film (at least, the first one I have been able to find) that features a librarian. The Seventh Victim (1943) is a creepy thriller about a woman, Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter), who is desperate to find out more about her sister’s (Jean Brooks) disappearance and mysterious involvement with a cult. For me, the scariest thing is probably Jean Brook’s hairstyle in the film (which you can see in the image, at left, and in the trailer below).
Jason Hoag (Erford Gage) is a book clerk by day, poet by night. He wrote a bestseller 10 years ago, but now has nothing much to his name. Following a lead in an effort to impress Mary, he tries to gather clues from the circulation records of suspected cult members. (By the way, do NOT try this at home. This is highly unethical and illegal behavior. Library circulation records are private, even concerning members of a mysterious cult.)
The librarian, Miss Gottschalk (Sarah Shelby in an uncredited role), is only in this scene, which lasts just under a minute. She is white, late 30s or early 40s, with her hair rolled up in an unflattering style. She is wearing makeup and seems to be attempting a modern style in her dress — she’s even wearing nail polish! — but the end result is an ill-fitting suit that comes off as conservative when combined with her old-fashioned updo. Ultimately, she seems a bit desperate.
In mild Naughty Librarian fashion, she quickly responds to Hoag’s flirting, who shamelessly seizes the opportunity to obtain the books the cult members have checked out. He uses the pretense of giving gifts because “nothing nicer than a book for a gift” and gets on her good side by complimenting her hands as “so slim and capable” (such flattery!).
At first, she demurs, “I’ll have to get permission” to look at the closed-shelf books, but soon breaks out an attempt at a coquettish smile. But “since [Hoag] is over 21”, she gets the books he’s looking for, after first flipping through her card catalog files to find the names and titles he’s seeking. Basically, Miss Gottschalk sells her soul — in less than a minute! — for a few cheap compliments, breaking the rules to provide him restricted books taken from the private records of library patrons (aarrggghhhh — again, totally unethical and illegal behavior). As Ray & Brenda Tevis sum up this scene in The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999, “the extent to which filmgoers believe Gottschalk’s behavior is transferable to working librarians depends upon whether they believe that reel librarians accurately reflect the ethics of working librarians” (46). In this case, let’s hope they don’t!
She is a less extreme version of the Naughty Librarian — you can tell she wants to let her hair down after work and is seeking opportunities to do just that, with her (sadly inept) flirting. And she does engage in illegal behavior — for shame! — but it’s not to the extremes of violence as other Naughty Librarians (see Personals). She also serves the role of the Information Provider, providing Hoag with the clues he uses to follow the cult’s trail.
The Seventh Victim. Dir. Mark Robson. Perf. Kim Hunter, Jean Brooks, Tom Conway, Isabel Jewell, Erford Gage. RKO, 1943.
Tevis, Ray, and Brenda Tevis. The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999. McFarland, 2005.