You have to give up what you want to become a great librarian

This week should wrap up our look at films featuring libraries and librarians at least for the time being ; remember there are at least 500 of them and you will horrified to discover that we have barely scratched the surface so we may come back to them when we are desperate for subjects for future posts . Next week we will move on to something slightly different but this week librarians and the battle against evil. Not the usual stuff; noisy readers, coffee stained paperbacks and obnoxious precocious kids. No real evil… obnoxious pretentious parents. Sorry that was a joke I meant real evil like the forces of darkness. Sorry for proper effect that should be The Forces of DarknessTM voiced by Vincent Price and accompanied by lots of loud spine-chilling reverb.

Something Wicked This Way Comes is the 1983 film of Malcolm Bradbury’s dark horror fantasy about a demonic carnival that mysteriously appears in a small US town.  For UK and younger readers a carnival is a travelling collection of entertainments; rides that go spinning out of control and far too fast; cars where drivers bash into each other and nobody cares, trips down dark scary tunnels where you never what you will meet and even guns in the hands of complete novices firing at random targets. In the US they are carnivals, in the UK we call them funfairs in the Middle East they are called Baghdad.

Dr Dark indulges in a spot of wanton vandalism just for the sheer devilment of it

Dr Dark indulges in a spot of wanton vandalism just for the sheer devilment of it

Jason Robards finds himself an unlikely hero pitted against Jonathon Pryce’s splendidly satanic Mr Dark who turns up literally out of the blue with his travelling carnival and persuades the unlikeable townsfolk that he can make all their secret dreams can come true.  The sort of Party Political Broadcast that all the credulous love and even if it seems too good to be true the venal townsfolk can’t see it but two young boys have seen through the demonic Mr Dark and are now on the run from him.  Enter the hero who is the only one who can protect and help the boys and it turns out defeat Dr Dark. Jason Robards is grouchy and deeply unhappy about his life and about his relationship with his son (one of the boys now on the run from Mr Dark) and he is especially bitter about growing old. It is Charles Holloway (Robards), the librarian who discovers the sinister secret of the carnival, that Mr Dark is a toxic cocktail of two parts Pied Piper, two parts Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Child Catcher, and about 10 parts Mephistopheles from the Faustus myth who will indeed make your dreams come true but the in the small print it just happens to mention that there is the small cost of sending your soul to damnation or if you really upset him, to Baghdad.  How will a mere librarian and a couple of young boys defeat the Devil when he can crush your hand in a second and the Dust Witch (it is a fantasy all right, and we don’t have time to explain)can stop your heart at will; will the librarian be tempted by the offer to regain his lost youth and surrender the boys,  or will he be more upset by the memorable scene in the wonderfully atmospheric library where Dr Dark confronts Holloway to show him how powerless he is mainly by destroying a valuable book before the librarian’s eyes as he offers him his youth. Well, because this is a classic Walt Disney librarian v evil allegory and not real life the librarian wins but not before ending up near to death thanks to that Dust Witch and by realising just in time that in the best Disney traditions laughter and love are the most powerful weapons against the heartlessly demonic ambitions of the carnival. No longer gloomy but forced to laugh and be happy and loving just like real people the librarian manages to destroy not only Dr Dark by literally loving him to death but also his sidekick, the Dust Witch, by laughing at her, the carousel that does tricky things with your age if you ride on it and the equally tricky Mirror Maze (watch the film it will all make a bizarre kind of sense) as well as save his son and become a happy singing and dancing librarian all in a matter of minutes. They don’t make films like that anymore…or librarians come to think of it.

Actually referring to our next bad guy as the Forces of EvilTM is a bit strong to be fair because Professor Harry Hill (no not that one) played by Robert Preston is not evil just cynical and greedy and besides it’s a musical. Harry breezes into River City in Music Man (1962, not to be confused with the significantly inferior 2003 remake with Matthew Broderick)with a plan to save the youngsters of the town from the from the depravity of a life playing pool in the town’s pool hall by creating a boys band starting by raising the money for instruments and uniforms. He starts to charm the town with his plans to rescue their young people and everyone thinks this is a terrific idea apart from the pool hall owner obviously and Marian the piano teacher played by Shirley Jones who already has her own plan to bring culture to the backwoods community but has failed to persuade the dull townspeople.  Aware that he will have to win over Marian for his plans to succeed the Professor cynically decides that seducing her is the best approach. Marian is not unattractive but she is prim and unmarried and not at all sure about men so obviously she is also the town librarian. I had also assumed the name Marian was some sort of subtle reference to Maid Marian until I realised that Hollywood doesn’t have a word for subtle.

The professor has some success with Marian even after he disrupts her quiet library by singing at her and with his corny pick up routine which includes the immortal lines – Exasperated Librarian “What do you want to take out?”, Dodgy Customer, “The Librarian” but because she is a librarian Marian also has the resources and is smart enough to check on the Professor’s credentials and discover that he is up to no good.  When someone who knows the Professor’s crooked past confirms that he is a career con man who plans to head off on the next train just as soon as he gets his hands on the money raised for the band of course Marian doesn’t expose him but keeps it to herself.  When you play fast and loose with the truth like you can be sure it either means you are in love or you are a

Marian the Librarian researches the Dewey number Annoying Singing Con Man

Marian the Librarian researches the Dewey number for Annoying Singing Con Man

politician and of course Marian has fallen for the dodgy professor. Even when the truth comes out and the professor is faced with being tarred and feathered it is Marian who sticks by him and of course this being Hollywood the Professor realises that he has actually has fallen for Marian too. So of course they all live happily ever to the sound of the boys’ band playing 76 Trombones .It is hard to take seriously a film that features a song entitled Marian the Librarian, a song that would struggle to make the Azerbaijan entry for the Eurovision Song Contest but at least any quiz fans reading this will now know from which film the song 76 Trombones  comes.

Now you would think librarians would be delighted that there is an entire series of made-for-cable films under the banner The Librarian but I had decided that it all sounded to implausible to feature whilst researching the original book on which I was working. However my wife spotted one of the films on some obscure niche channel whilst desperately searching for anything worth watching on our 60 odd channels and settled on this because it was the best she could come up with. Surely I would be interested in a film called The Librarian: Return to King Solomon’s Mines! So we watched it despite my misgivings, all of which were more than fully realised over the next 90 minutes or so.

If you are a librarian and you also watched any of this the series in eager anticipation you will have asked yourself “what on earth this has to do with libraries and librarians”. If you are a film fan you will have asked yourself “how on earth did this get made” and if you are a film fan and a librarian you will no doubt be more worried that your profession should be associated with such a load of derivative old twaddle.  For a start the job that Floyd Carsen (Noah Wyle) ends up with isn’t really a librarian despite the job advert, because although his library does have some rare books the film chooses to focus on its collection of admittedly bizarre, and literally fabulous artefacts including, in no particular order of risibility, The Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, Pandora’s Box, Excalibur and the Goose that Laid the Golden Egg. Oh and a Unicorn obviously! In fact it is so complete a collection of impossible fantasy items that you will probably find the UK government’s education policy in there somewhere. But at the risk of appearing professionally snobbish over-sensitive, nerdy or just pedantic isn’t that what a museum is for and so shouldn’t he then be called a Curator. I can only presume that the producers thought that a film franchise entitled The Museum Curator – The Quest for the Spear, or perhaps The Bloke Who Looks after Weird Old Things – The Quest for the Spear was not as catchy and marketable as one entitled simply The Librarian. Given all that we have explored here about image and Hollywood’s use of “librarian” as shorthand for a particular kind of character I am bemused about just what sort of audience they hoped to attract naming it after a bunch of badly dressed, mean-spirited mousey and insignificant professionals. Only they and the marketing people will know the answer to that

What is even more astonishing than all of this is that enough people paid to watch the first in the franchise, The Librarian -The Quest for the Spear all about how Wylie ends up with the Librarian job and how he and his library sidekicks including Bob Newhart keep all of this stuff from the Brotherhood of the Serpent; sorry I mean from the Sinister and EvilTM Brotherhood of the Serpent, (more Vincent Price and reverb) that they produced two sequels and a TV series spin off. Not only that but it became the top cable film of 2004 which presumably asks questions about just what was the competition. In the first sequel, The Librarian: Return to King Solomon’s Mines, the collection of impossible artefacts has grown to include amongst others the Head of the Medusa and the Turin Shroud and if you look closely possibly a Labour Government.

Noah Wylie as the Librarian. Not to be confused with Indiana Jones or even a real librarian

Noah Wylie as the Librarian. Not to be confused with Indiana Jones or even a real librarian

The film was a curious experience which my wife enjoyed because it was the usual unbelievable hokum that somehow seems all the more entertaining on a rainy Saturday evening.  It was a sort of Indiana Jones Lite or to be more accurate Indiana Jones Featherweight put together it seemed from the floor sweepings of a particularly unsuccessful Indiana Jones script conference. The eponymous Librarian, played by Noah Wyle has an expression of permanent bewilderment whatever the circumstances and is spectacularly inept as an action hero as you would expect of a librarian. In fact in the first film he is protected by the Librarian’s Guardians whom I mention solely because her name is Nichole Noone. In particular Wyle must have been bewildered at just how many other famous films were referenced by the director/screen writer presumably to help disguise the paper thin plot.  There was a faithful Native American sidekick in the opening sequence straight out of The Lone Ranger, the “when-I-say-jump-jump” moment as they approach a cliff above a fast lowing river borrowed from Butch Cassidy, the wicked uncle from Aladdin as well as the chase through the bazaar by obviously evil henchmen searching for a vital document in the hands of a good spy that finds its way into the hands of our hero from Casablanca, and just in case you missed that reference they chuck in the airport tarmac farewell scene at the end too. And no, I’m sorry I can’t remember any of the plot, if indeed there was one.

The Bob Newhart character is an avuncular wizard who could be Merlin or Gandalf, take your pick, only here in a smart suit and there is the woman from Human Resources who is Miss Moneypenny in all but name. And although it is not entirely clear why such a fabulous organisation would actually need someone from Human Resources at least Charlene, played by Jane Curtin, has the good grace to acknowledge how bonkers all this is. Asked to call the police to the Library she reminds our hero that this might mean mentioning the Golden Goose, the Unicorn and Ali Baba’s Flying Carpet and that the police understandably might decide what the caller really needed was to be locked up under close supervision for their own benefit. There are the deliberately set up, unexpected attacks borrowed from Clouseau and Kato in Pink Panther only here the assailant is played not by Burt Wouk but by the magic sword, Excalibur. By the time the second sequel The Librarian: The Curse Of The Judas Chalice was produced the library has pretty much disappeared  and the plot was beginning to sound even more like it was written by an 18 year old on powerful hallucinogens featuring as it does Dracula, a beautiful and alluring jazz singing vampire, the satanic chalice of the title and a decidedly dodgy professor in a wheelchair borrowed from The Rocky Horror Show or whichever film they borrowed it from.

Of course we also have to have the inevitable piece of sententious philosophy clearly intended to set the scene for the plot as well as to inspire a new generation of cataloguers and subject experts in our library profession. “You are a good librarian but you have to give up what you want to become a great librarian,” so that will be dress sense, romance and any semblance of a life then. I’ve seen worse and I suppose its saving grace is that it is a light-hearted spoof on the classic old B movie adventure and peril yarns we used to watch as kids at the cinema but as a grown-up it definitively tests the willing suspension of disbelief well beyond destruction.

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