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Monday, November 5, 2007

The Marian Paroo Syndrome (originally published 6/99)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a column inspired by the recent release of "The Mummy." I suggested then, not unreasonably I thought, that those who enjoyed that film might also enjoy earlier mummy movies. Since then, however, my wife has called my attention to a point that I had missed. What makes that movie distinctive, she says, is not that it is a mummy movie, but that it is a movie featuring a non-stereotypical portrayal of a librarian. While the former are common as dirt, she points out, the latter are exceedingly rare.

I had to admit that she may have a point. In any case, it's easy enough to examine the evidence. Consider, for example, the following titles, each of which is available on home video, in which librarian characters figure prominently.

"The Music Man" (1962). Let's begin with the full-blown stereotype as a baseline. Shirley Jones plays Marian Paroo, head librarian of River City, Iowa. (Get it? "Marian the librarian.") She's prim and proper, shushes people in the library, and is cold as ice in the face of the flirtatious advances of fast talking salesman Harold Hill (Robert Preston). This is the image with which real librarians have had to contend ever since the days of the ancient library of Alexandria, I suppose.

"Good News" (1947). June Allyson is remembered largely for her roles as a loyal and steadfast wife, usually married to Jimmy Stewart. Early on in her career, in this MGM college campus musical, she portrayed a logical precursor to those roles, a student librarian. She is tutoring the star player on the football team (Peter Lawford), but his attention is distracted by a sexy co-ed played by Patricia Marshall. Here again, the stereotype is upheld.

"No Man of Her Own" (1932). Carole Lombard plays a small town librarian who falls for a city slicker (Clark Gable), marries him, and goes back to New York to live with him. If you know Lombard's work, you'll know that she could never get away with playing a prim, prissy, frigid librarian. Her character is restless and uncomfortable with her small town existence and ready to get out. This was the first on-screen teaming of Gable and Lombard, who would go on to become one of Hollywood's most legendary couples.

"The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag" (1992). The title character, played by Penelope Ann Miller, begins the film as the stereotypical librarian. Soon, however, frustrated with her life and unable even to hold the attention of her police officer husband, she takes a startling step out of line. When she discovers, quite by accident, the murder weapon for which her husband has been searching so single-mindedly, she impulsively turns herself in as the killer.

"Only Two Can Play" (1962). In this British comedy, Peter Sellers plays a Welsh librarian who, like Lombard in "No Man of Her Own" and Miller in "The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag," is restless and bored. His escape takes the form of daydreams, mostly about elaborate affairs with exotic women. When a gorgeous woman actually does come into his life, however, he ends up choosing to return to his wife and family.

"You're a Big Boy Now" (1966). Another screen librarian who becomes caught up in his fantasies is the lead character in this early Francis Ford Coppola film. Bernard Chanticleer (Peter Kastner) takes a job in the New York Public Library, where he navigates the stacks on roller skates. Instead of returning the flirtatious attention of a pretty young librarian with whom he works, Bernard chooses instead to indulge himself in lurid sexual fantasies, culminating in a disastrous fling with a go-go dancer.

There's no doubt that we've strayed a bit from the pure stereotype of Marian the librarian from "The Music Man," but you'll notice that even those characters who don't fit the stereotype seem to be reacting against the role in which life has cast them. Even if the particular librarian doesn't fit the stereotype, then, it seems that the job itself does remain largely stereotyped in the movies. On balance, I'd have to say that my wife's observation about the rarity of the librarian role in "The Mummy" was an astute one. Did I mention, by the way, that my wife is a librarian?

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