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April Showers: Telephone Operator (1937)

Though April showers may come your way, they bring the flowers that bloom in May, so if it's raining, have no regrets. It isn't raining rain, you know. It's raining violets. Join us as we play in the rain this month.

ADAM WILLIAMS: Monogram Pictures’ 1937-38 season was announced with surprising fanfare for the small studio. The previous year was a wash; Monogram had laid dormant as the studio heads attempted to work as part of the newly formed Republic Pictures. That arrangement quickly fell apart, and company President W. Ray Johnston unveiled comeback plans for Monogram at their sales convention in Chicago. Alongside 16 Westerns (subdivided between “Lone Star” and “Fast Action” series), there would be a “Profit Series,” “Success Series,” and an upscale “Certified Attractions” series with “outstanding players.” In this latter group, Monogram was proud to announce they had signed then-teenage Jackie Cooper. The former child star may have been a mite less adorable in 1937, but Cooper was still a big name. To add to the sales pitch, these 42 anticipated features had 25% higher budgets than the 1935 season. Of course, it would have been impossible to have lower budgets than those ’35 films, but a favorable development, nonetheless. So, did the Poverty Row studio transcend the budgetary limitations and create something comparable to what the “Big Five” were churning out? This week we watched Telephone Operator, one of the films under Monogram’s 1937 “Profit Series” banner, to find out.

Monogram's head honcho.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: When you settle in to watch a Monogram film, us film buffs know that it’s wise to have a certain set of expectations in mind. We here at the Columbus Moving Picture Show pride ourselves on celebrating all kinds of classic films, so I see no reason why Telephone Operator shouldn’t be given a fair shake. I mean, this is the studio, that in the same season, gave us notable pictures such as Luck of Roaring Camp, The Port of Missing Girls and Female Fugitive. It’s a pretty fair opinion to state that Telephone Operator boasts a better cast than those films, and also a script by Scott Darling, who was no slouch at turning out a decent script on a modest budget, so this should be a pretty decent way to spend an hour, right?

AW: The title is intriguing. I always love switchboard operators in movies, and I know I’m not alone in enjoying their sassiness and nimbleness with the plugs. Also, it’s such a bland title that it enters a sort of mysterious realm. What’s going to happen to the Telephone Operator? They're typically parked in front of the switchboard.

Grant Withers, Warren Hymer, & Judith Allen.

The cast includes two women whose careers were marred by scandal, a difficult ex-leading man, and Warren Hymer, the troubled character actor who declared bankruptcy a couple months prior to the film’s release. In other words, it’s a typical Monogram assemblage of Hollywood flotsam. All four perform admirably given the leaden dialogue and uninspired direction. Pudding-head Hymer and plucky Alice White make for a cute couple, but they’re not given much screen time. When they are together, such as the scene at the dinner table, the stationary camera is positioned so that their faces aren’t visible. Little Ronnie Cosby, as the young shortwave-enthusiast, is given similar indifferent treatment in the following scene. He spends the entire sequence in the living room with his back to the camera. This was director Scott Pembroke’s final film—it’s safe to say the old-timer from the days of the Kalem Company may have been coasting towards retirement at this point.

Alice White on the switchboard.

RB: I’ll be honest. I’m not sure that the film was actually directed. One gets the impression that after the cameras were set up and “Action!” was called, Pembroke went out to the commissary for a drink or three leaving the cameras rolling and the actors to languish. I agree with you that the cast certainly tries their best with what they’re given to work with. It’s a competent bunch, and at the very least, Alice White could’ve done more in films than she did were her career not marred by scandal. She’s cute in this and doesn’t act too badly all things considered.

AW: If I were in the Academy in 1937, I’d have strongly considered Cornelius Keefe as Pat Campbell for Best Supporting Actor if only for his line, “If it’s any satisfaction to you, I realize I’m pretty much of a heel.” With his exquisitely shaped moustache, it’s the film’s funniest moment—the heel having a moment of self-clarity.

In the foreground: Cornelius Keefe as Pat, the heel.

RB: It’s okay though. There’s plenty of redemption to be had in Telephone Operator, a film that in retrospect takes itself pretty seriously. I think this may be the only genuinely unintentionally funny line of dialogue, which is something that you do sorta tend to expect when you queue up a Monogram or (especially) a PRC film. It’s yet another example of most of the people involved here really giving it their all.

AW: We haven’t really discussed the plot and I’m wondering if it's necessary. The film is a comedic thriller, and I’m using both those descriptors extremely broadly. The climax—again, I’m choosing these words for convenience—is mostly stock footage of floods. The flooding is caused by torrential rain, hence the film's inclusion in our April Showers month.

My video copy of Telephone Operator looks to be transferred from a 16mm print salvaged from a garbage dump. It runs just under 53 minutes and it’s obvious that a few scenes were clipped short. Contemporaneous listings give it a runtime of 62 minutes (the 70-minute listing on IMDb is an error), so we’re missing a few minutes which I’m sure are just vital. I have no problem watching these Poverty Row extravaganzas in degraded form, in fact I often prefer it this way. There’s a pleasurable trance-like quality to these run-of-the-mill movies. The scratches, unstabilized image, and warping all become part of the story—how these rundown actors and veteran technicians were assembled by a shrewd businessman to eke out a profit in small-town theaters before being unceremoniously tossed into oblivion. In this print of Telephone Operator, the last bit of dialogue is abruptly cut off by a generic replacement title card. “The End,” seems unusually harsh here.

"Gee whiz!" Ronnie Cosby, ham radio operator.

RB: I viewed an uncut 61-minute copy, that I believe to have picked up in a trade with a fellow buff some years ago. I doubtlessly selected it based on the title and running length, and then promptly slid the disc into a binder where it has languished for a good number of years, unwatched. My copy is unfortunately much more washed out than the shortened version on YouTube, but is all the more puzzling because it has a “Motion Pictures for Television presents” header, but lacks the tell-tale white cue marks of a print that had been used and abused many times over via assorted late-late-shows. It also contains an appropriate Monogram closing title, for those of you who care to keep track of such things.

I couldn’t agree more with you about the pleasures of watching a worn print of a certain type of movie, and this is definitely one of those films. This certainly wasn’t a favorite, but I would probably have liked it even less if it were presented in a sterling 2K restoration. Watching a poverty row B via a transfer of a worn 16mm print transports the viewer back to a second-run small town theater in the 40’s, or maybe a late show, where you nod off to sleep right before the climax, only to be jarred awake by the Star-Spangled Banner. It may even take you back to a crowded room in a hotel with a few hundred other friends sitting rapturous as the ancient print is trotted out to be screened one more time for an audience before being placed back in a canister where hopefully the vinegar syndrome will stave off for at least a couple more decades. Yes, not to get too poetic about it, but I love watching this type of movie on film, or at least a proximation of film.

Exposing the high-powered world of linemen!

AW: Monogram ballyhooed Telephone Operator as a “live-wire exploitation feature on a new theme of powerful interest.” Contrast that with Flomaton, Alabama theater manager Sammie Jackson’s review in Motion Picture Herald, “Good picture for Bargain Night and that’s when I played it.” Mr. Jackson’s summation is succinct and honest; this movie deserves to be exhibited at cut-rate prices, used as fodder for late-night television, and relegated to the video bargain bin. It was made with very little ambition for an audience that has low expectations. Approach accordingly. Two stars.

RB: If you set your expectations correctly going into this, it’s a perfectly fine film. It was never going to win any awards. Nobody ever intended for it to. The goal at the time was for the film to entertain for an hour, and more or less, that’s what it still does. Yes, there are many other films that entertain for an hour in a better way, but this film, does okay. Audiences likely watched it, then walked down the block to the drugstore for a malted before heading home, and, I doubt they talked about the movie. But it was a distraction from the pace of every day life, and for that, I give it two and a half stars.

Dames, thrills, and fun in Sandusky, Ohio.

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