- Film & Year: Telephone Operator (1937)
- Studio: Monogram Pictures
- Starring: Judith Allen, Alice White, Grant Withers, Pat Flaherty, Warren Hymer, Greta Granstedt, Cornelius Keefe, Ronnie Crosby
- Director: Scott Pembroke
- Production Notes: Cinematography by Gilbert Warrenton, Screenplay by Scott Darling
Following a montage of switchboards, plugs, machinery, and beautiful voices answering calls, the film opens with Helen (Judith Allen), the chief telephone operator, and her co-worker Dottie (Alice White), working hard on the switchboard while their boss Tom Sommers (Pat Flaherty) is out on business. While he’s gone, Red (Grant Withers) and Shorty (Warren Hymer), two wisecracking linemen for the company and in town to put a new phone line in, swing by to see him, but their disappointment in missing him is easily smoothed over by the presence of the two girls who they waste no time in flirting with. Neither girl is impressed and shoos them away so they can get back to work. Also not upset about the boss’s absence is his wife Sylvia (Greta Granstedt), who is happy he’s away so she can carry on with her lover Pat Campbell (Cornelius Keefe) behind his back.
Later at the dance, Sylvia openly flaunts her relationship with Campbell and Red and Shorty show up and immediately start in on Helen and Dottie. Helen refuses to dance with Red which prompts him to grab her arm so forcefully that she cries out in pain (charmer). Mr. Sommers comes to her rescue and the two men throw a few punches before Red and Shorty are forcibly removed.
Red and Shorty show up the next day to meet with Mr. Sommers only to realize that he’s the same man they brawled with the previous night. They slink off to work and, while on the job, run into a 10 year old kid who they train to fight the bully who has been beating up on him. The grateful boy Ted (Ronnie Crosby) tells them he lives with his mom and sister,the news of which makes the men’s eyes light up in an extremely creepy fashion considering that they didn’t know yet whether the sister was underage or not. Coincidentally, she’s 21 and the chief operator for the telephone company – yes, she’s Helen. With ulterior motives of pestering Helen at her home now in addition to her job, Red and Shorty offer Ted a ride home and score themselves an invitation to dinner. In spite of Red taking every opportunity to call her names like “baby” and “gorgeous” when he’s not manhandling her, Helen begins to fall for him as they spend more time together.
The climax of the film comes when the dam breaks, flooding the town. A series of heavy rain has made the water levels rise in the dam, a fact that people had mentioned in passing and ignored news reports about…until it’s too late. With the water coming and a town in danger, stalwart telephone operator Helen and lineman Red work together to warn people and fix a broken phone line, putting themselves in danger in the process.
Overall, though average is the best word I can think of to describe this film on the whole, it was not a bad effort for Monogram Pictures, a small “Poverty Row” studio mostly known for its low budget films. Though nearly every male character in the film is a crass stereotype of masculinity, the actual subjects of the film, the women, weren’t so bad. I will say I enjoyed the peek into the lives of the now extinct telephone operator and appreciated that to represent them the characters of Helen and Dottie were given the film’s appropriate respect as steady, levelheaded, and brave in a crisis gals. With that said, the film was little more than a job advertisement sweetly coated with romance and imminent danger (that resolved itself in less than 10 minutes in a rather abrupt and lackluster finale). The flood footage inserted into the film made for an interesting visual experience, but the excitement and action dissipated far too quickly. It also breezed over the sexual harassment that Helen and Dottie faced at both their workplace and outside of it. Though by the film’s treatment it’s obvious that this was brushed off as mere ritual of courtship, by today’s standards it absolutely smells of a lawsuit.
I can’t help but wonder what real women working as telephone operators thought about this film. Considering that the downsides were either not mentioned or glossed over, I can definitely understand why resumes may have poured into the phone company after seeing this. After all, Helen manages to save a town, a marriage, and bag her man by the finale (however gross he may be to my 2019 sensibilities). All in a day’s good work!