It is effective in underlining the point that no place is safe: not even a school, not even a classroom, not even a library.
This week, we explore another school library in MGM’s Blackboard Jungle from 1955. This dramatic film, starring Glenn Ford, is credited to have helped launch rock ‘n’ roll music in popular media, as it played the “Rock Around the Clock” song by Bill Haley and the Comets over the title credits.
Blackboard Jungle is a very earnest film about teaching. Glenn Ford plays Richard Dadier, a veteran who wants to teach and make a difference in an inner-city school. The beginning scenes of the film go to extreme lengths to illustrate the juvenile delinquency mentioned in the title introduction.
One of the new teachers is Lois Hammond, played by Margaret Hayes. Almost a half-hour into the film, she offers to drive Dadier home and goes downstairs to wait for him. On the stairs, Ms. Hammond stops to adjust her stockings after a long day of teaching. She doesn’t notice a student watching her from below, but we, the audience, definitely get a sense of foreboding. (Plus, there were scenes earlier of other teachers — all male, of course — warning her about the way she dressed and “joking” that she was not safe among all the tough boys in school.)
As Dadier — pronounced “Dah-dee-eh” but, of course, gets switched to “Daddio” by the students — walks down the stairs a few minutes later, he notices a lone high-heeled shoe outside the door to the library.
Dadier hears a muffled scream from inside the library, and his combat training kicks in. He breaks the window with his briefcase and runs in, and he and the student chase and fight each other in the library. Destruction quickly ensues: books overturned, a window broken, a free-standing globe knocked over, Ms. Hammond’s jacket torn, and more.
The student tries to escape by leaping head-first into a window, but Dadier pulls him back in. The student is led away with blood running down his face, and we later hear that he has been expelled.
Ms. Hammond is also led away, in tears, and another new teacher is shocked at this event.
The bland reaction from one of the long-suffering (and jaded) teachers, played by Louis Calhern?
“Why, it’s the first day of school, teacher.“
There is a recurring subplot of blaming the victim for the sexual assault inflicted upon her. (Didier’s own wife — !!! — remarks that “Maybe she provoked the boy. Teachers aren’t allowed to dress sexy.” !!!) Didier defends Miss Hammond on that account, but I will not get into that (unfortunately still timely) social issue here on this blog.
The library scene, featuring Miss Hammond’s terrified reaction during the assault, also gets highlighted on one of the film’s posters (!), as seen here on the IMDb.com site.
What I will get into, however, is why was the library chosen as the setting for this scene of attempted rape? Why not a regular classroom? I think it was a study of contrasts, one that is admittedly very effective. Libraries are usually viewed — in reel AND real life — as safe, secure places. The contrast is therefore heightened between the common view of libraries as being safe places, juxtaposed with the actions of the violent sexual assault and ensuing fight. It is effective in underlining the point that no place is safe: not even a school, not even a classroom, not even a library.
Miss Hammond is seen again, the very next day, but no more scenes take place in the library, nor is there any glimpse or mention of a school librarian. Therefore, Blackboard Jungle (1955) falls into the Class V category, films with no identifiable librarians, although they might mention librarians or have scenes set in libraries.
Blackboard Jungle. Dir. Richard Brooks. Perf. Glenn Ford, Anne Francis, Louis Calhern, Sidney Poitier. MGM, 1955.
This week, I am analyzing another cult classic, 1986’s Pretty in Pink, written by by John Hughes and starring Molly Ringwald as Andie, Andrew McCarthy as Blane, and Jon Cryer as Duckie. The plot is as basic as they come: the girl’s guy friend (Duckie) has a crush on the girl (Andie) while the girl has a crush on another boy (Blane). (The plot was recycled the next year by Hughes in Say Anything, with two girls and a guy making up the film’s love triangle.)
Sixteen minutes into the film, we see a wide shot of the school library, and then the camera focuses in on Andie, who is typing into a computer.
We’ve already seen her in class — wearing glasses, which is the prop shortcut for “smart” — so we know she’s actually working on a school project and not just goofing around. She also types this herself, just to make it clear for the audience. Her computer is hijacked by an anonymous string of flirty messages. (Like texting! Only with clunky, vintage artifacts called “desktop computers” 😉 )
And who is “meeting cute” with Andie via computer? None other than Andie’s crush, Blane!
True love begins in the library! 😉
There is a reel librarian seen briefly in this short scene, but we don’t hear her speak — or even see her face! All we see is the back of her, an older woman in a flowery dress, leaning over and helping another student at a computer at the carrels. This reel librarian, unsurprisingly, gets no listing in the film’s credit, but she does fulfill the Information Provider role. This film lands in the Class IV category, films in which the librarian(s) plays a cameo role and is seen only briefly with little or no dialogue.
The real star of this scene — besides the sweet expressions on the young lovers’ faces as they smile at each other over the library carrels — has to be the advanced computer graphics!
What I enjoyed most about this one-minute scene is that it plays with almost no sound. No talking at all (true to libraries in the movies!), and no sounds except for the sound effects of typing on the keyboard.
The school library setting in the film feels authentic to real life, with its rows of computer carrals, bookcases lining the walls, and the wooden card catalogs. It feels like a cheery school library, bright and welcoming, with classical touches like the bust statues scattered around the tops of the bookcases.
I was able to catch the 2007 TV movie, In God’s Country, recently on my cable subscription. It’s a film I saw ages ago, so I already had notes — but I hadn’t taken screenshots at the time. It’s interesting to go over notes I wrote years ago, to see what I focused on then and if the notes differ to how I view the film now.
This Lifetime TV movie — which has been renamed The Ultimate Sin — is an earnest but ultimately mediocre effort taking aim at a big issue, the issue of young women who feel trapped in polygamous religious communities. Kelly Rowan stars as Judith Leavitt — her last name foreshadows the plot! — who “leaves it,” leaving her community, her house, and her life as she has known it. She takes her five children with her and tries to start fresh. Of course, they struggle to adjust living “on the outside.”
The children particularly struggle at public school (Judith reveals that she wasn’t allowed to go to school past grade 7). In one short scene a little over an hour into the TV movie, Judith’s 12-year-old daughter, Alice, visits the school library. Alice wants a book on astronomy in order to teach the names of the stars to her mom. She goes up to the library counter, where the librarian (Agi Gallus) is checking out books to another student.
Librarian: Can I help you?
Alice: I’m looking for a book on astronomy.
Librarian: Astronomy is in the 520’s.
Alice: [shakes her head, clueless]
Librarian: 520’s. Dewey Decimal system.
Librarian: [Hands stack of books to the other girl.] Millie, can you show her for me?
Millie: All the books are numbered. You just have to look at the spines. I know where the astronomy ones are because I like astronomy, too. Actually, I have a telescope.
Alice: You have a telescope at home?
Millie: You should come and see it.
The librarian here is friendly — and it’s nice to see a reel librarian in a bright color! — but as clueless about service as much as Alice is clueless about the Dewey Decimal system. She essentially passes off her reference duties to a young student, who has to explain the classification system to Alice. Peer learning can be great, but there was no good reason that the librarian couldn’t step out from behind her desk and do her job. Of course, the plot required that Alice make a friend, so I understand in terms of plot why the reference duty got passed on to Millie. But in terms of real life, this is NOT a great example of a reference interview!
Ultimately, this reel librarian ends up in the Class IV category, in which librarians appear only briefly with little or no dialogue. The librarian in this film is onscreen less than a minute, and fulfills the basic Information Provider role. She doesn’t provide that much useful information to Alice, of course, but the librarian also provides information to the audience. She is yet another example of how the “real world” doesn’t really understand what goes on in these kinds of communities and the impact of different social and educational structures.
At least the script writers got the Dewey Decimal system right, as this system of classification is the most common for school and public libraries. They also got the 520’s section right, as this is the general call number area for astronomy.
There is also a scene involving the 520’s — one with a decidedly less favorable ending — in UHF (1989) and starring Conan the Librarian. Read all about that scene here in this post. When I relayed this tidbit to my husband, he laughed, and said that I might be the only person to have made a connection between this TV movie and Conan the Librarian.
I thought it would be fun to first do a round-up of school librarians.
There are many kinds of librarians in both the real and reel world, including school librarians (also called “teacher librarians” or “library media specialists”); academic librarians (who work in college/university libraries); public librarians; archivists; and special librarians (who work in different kinds of libraries, like those in businesses or government offices), among others.
I thought it would be fun to first do a round-up of school librarians. Looking through my Reel Substance lists, a majority of the reel school librarians end up in Classes III and IV, meaning most of them are supporting or minor characters. Also, most of the school librarian characters fulfill the roles of Comic Relief and Information Providers — again, no surprise there. This is common of most reel librarian roles.
This category includes reel librarians who are major characters, but their profession does not directly affect the plot. It’s interesting to note that all three in this category are actually student library workers at their school libraries.
Student library assistant, Nora (played by Samantha Mathis), investigates the new high school student’s identity through the books he checks out. Nora is a cool character and fulfills the role of a Spirited Young Girl.
This coming-of-age story features a young prep school boy (Chris O’Donnell) and an alcoholic blind man (Al Pacino). O’Donnell is a student library assistant at a private prep school and is another Liberated Librarian.
This category includes supporting, minor characters, and includes a mix of Comic Relief, Spinsters, and Information Providers.
In this comedy, a writer (Rick Moranis) returns to his Minnesota hometown to teach a creative writing course to middle schoolers. On his first day, he revisits the school library and encounters Mrs. Rumpert, who remembers the book he never returned to the school library. This crude, stereotypical portrayal serves as Comic Relief.
School bullies steal a book that functions as the portal between worlds, and a young boy must find the book. In the opening scene, the boy hides from the bullies in the school library. Freddie Jones plays Mr. Koreander, the school librarian and typical Information Provider.
This film features a memorable opening scene, with perhaps the most crass behavior from a reel librarian! Justine Johnston plays school librarian Mrs. Whitman, who gets all handsy in her memorable Comic Relief role.
In this fictionalized account of Bill Clinton’s presidential candidacy, the film begins with a visit to an urban school and an introduction to a “very special librarian,” Miss Walsh, a klutzy but dedicated teacher and school librarian.
Ex-marine John Shale (Tom Berenger) goes undercover as a high school substitute teacher in order to investigate a gang. The middle-aged librarian has her own “Liberated Librarian” moment and stands up to the hoodlums, who start a shoot-out with John in the school library.
The school librarian in this film, the aptly named “Miss Wolf,” appears in several short scenes as the school librarian at a tough, inner-city high school. Not a flattering portrayal of a Spinster Librarian/Comic Relief reel librarian.
An ex-Marine (Michelle Pfeiffer) struggles to connect with her students in an inner city high school. There is one scene set in the school library, and you can glimpse two school librarians in the background, more Information Providers who help set the school library scene.
A new kid hires the school outcast to protect him against a school bully. There’s a brief scene in the school library, and the school librarian provides background to the setting.
Wherefore art thou, Giles?
If you’re wondering about a big hole on this list, as it does not feature Giles — the famous Giles — on the TV series Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). It’s because he’s a main character on a long-running TV series, rather than in a film or TV movie. But fear not, you can read more about my post on the first episode of the long-running TV series by clicking here.
The Amazing Spider-Man. Dir. Marc Webb. Perf. Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Martin Sheen, Rhys Ifans. Columbia, 2012.
Big Bully. Dir. Steve Miner. Perf. Rick Moranis, Tom Arnold, Julianne Phillips. Warner Bros., 1996.
Carrie (TV movie). Dir. David Carson. Perf. Angela Bettis, Patricia Clarkson, Rena Sofer, Kandyse McClure. MGM Television, 2002.
Christine. Dir. John Carpenter. Perf. Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul. Columbia, 1983.
Dangerous Minds. Dir. John N. Smith. Perf. Michelle Pfeiffer, George Dzunda, Courtney B. Vance. Hollywood Pictures-Buena Vista, 1995.
High School High. Dir. Hart Bochner. Perf. Jon Lovitz, Tia Carrere, Louise Fletcher, Mekhi Phifer. TriStar, 1996.
Killer Movie. Dir. Jeff Fisher. Perf. Paul Wesley, Kaley Cuoco, Jason London, Leighton Meester. Peace Arch Home Entertainment, 2008.
The Last American Virgin. Dir. Boaz Davidson. Perf. Lawrence Monoson, Diane Franklin, Steve Antin.Golan-Globus Productions, 1982.
Mad Love. Dir. Antonia Bird. Perf. Chris O’Donnell, Drew Barrymore, Joan Allen. Touchstone—Buena Vista, 1995.
My Bodyguard. Dir. Tony Bill. Perf. Chris Makepeace, Adam Baldwin, Matt Dillon, Ruth Gordon. 20th Century Fox, 1980.
My Science Project. Dir. Jonathan Butuel. Perf. John Stockwell, Dennis Hopper, Fisher Stevens, Danielle von Zerneck, Raphael Sbarge. Buena Vista, 1985.
In the TV remake of Carrie (2002), a plodding by-the-numbers mediocrity filled with actors too old to play high schoolers, the school library serves as the setting for several small scenes throughout the film.
Three minutes in, a teacher calls out Carrie (Angela Bettis), saying she’s been excused as per her mother’s request (Patricia Clarkson, too little seen in this remake). “You might as well head down to the library right now.” This introductory statement sets up the library as a more social place, and indeed, we soon see the school library filled with students, hanging out throughout the library, at tables and computers and in group and individual study spaces.
In this school library scene, the camera peeks in behind Carrie, busy doodling pictures of a boy named Tommy Ross, and looks up. Her perspective reveals the real-life Tommy (Tobias Mehler), and in the background, a peek at the school librarian (played by Irene Miscisco).
A boy — credited as “Obnoxious Student,” and billed right above (!) the school librarian — starts poking fun of Carrie and making loud sex noises and gestures. Tommy responds by throwing a book at the kid’s head, causing a string of profanity from the obnoxious student. This very loud scene garners NO response at all from the school librarian. SIGH.
Twenty minutes later and after a traumatic scene in the school gym, Carrie rounds the corner into the school library. The camera’s perspective, once again, peeks over a character’s shoulder, this time introducing us to the back of the school librarian’s head. We also see that the librarian is reading a tabloid magazine!
Carrie, obviously nervous, is brave enough to ask the school librarian a question.
Carrie: Mrs. Johnson?
Librarian: Yes, dear? [hurriedly stashing away the magazine]
Carrie: Can you show me how to do a search?
Besides my annoyance at yet another librarian character not being allowed a character name in the credits — even though she’s referred to by her personal name in the film! — I frowned at the significance of this scene. Why show the librarian reading a tabloid? By the guilty way she puts it away, Mrs. Johnson is obviously embarrassed to be caught reading the tabloid.
Is the reason for this shot to demonstrate the ineptitude of everyone in the school? Every authority figure in the school, however well-meaning, is shown in a not-so-flattering light in at least one scene. The gym teacher (Rena Sofer) sticks up for Carrie more than once but also shoves a student into gym lockers and verbally threatens her. The school principal (Laurie Murdoch) stands up for Carrie in front of an angry parent but can’t remember her name — even when corrected by Carrie herself. The school librarian apparently helps out Carrie in searching, but is also seen looking at a trashy tabloid on the job.
And how about that searching? The next shots reveal closeups of a woefully outdated search screen interface, as well as search results for the keyword Carrie types in, miracles. She gets a librarian to help her search, and all she can think to type in is the word miracles?! No wonder she gets wildly different search results, including:
Result #6, “Jesus – Man of Miracles,” which puts the keyword in a religious context…
… while result #22, “Miracle Underwear,” conjures up visions of Victoria’s Secret…
… and finally, Result #26, “Miracles: Hidden Powers of the Mind,” combines the keyword with paranormal activity.
And even though I didn’t get a good shot of it, after the 26th search result — the one Carrie clicks on about telepathy — there is a line that reads: End of results. That made me laugh out loud! Even in 2002, there would have been more than 26 results for a generic search for miracles!
However little actual help the librarian provided, we do see Carrie in the school library one more time (42 minutes into the film), researching another web site about telekinesis. This time, she’s in a darkened room at the back of the library, writing in a (blank) notebook. When Tommy comes into the room and calls out her name, Carrie rapidly shuts her notebook — oddly mirroring the earlier gesture of the school librarian closing up the tabloid magazine! She also lies to Tommy about what she’s reading; she says she’s reading about sewing, foreshadowing her self-made prom dress.
In the middle of the library, Tommy asks Carrie to go to the prom with him, which attracts the attention of a gang of popular mean girls. Although the librarian is not pictured, it’s interesting how this very public scene — set in the library, already well-established as a popular place — sets in the motion the rest of the plot and the prom finale. Reel librarians often propel plots forward, but in this case, the library as place serves this function more than the librarian herself.
And by the way, even though we see other school officials at the scene of the prom, the school librarian Mrs. Johnson doesn’t appear to be one of the chaperones. But Mrs. Johnson does get to help chaperone Class IV, with other reel librarians seen only briefly in their respective films, and hang out with the other Information Providers.
Carrie (TV remake). Dir. David Carson. Perf. Angela Bettis, Patricia Clarkson, Rena Sofer, Kandyse McClure. MGM Television, 2002.