The Telephone Book
It’s dirty in the sweetest, goofiest, and funniest ways.
Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned. I’ll be shining a light in two directions ‐ I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.
Last week’s entry was a genre blending thriller from South Korea, so in an effort to keep things varied this week’s is a black & white, soft-core comedy from the early ’70s. Obviously.
“Hello there. I’d like to talk to you very seriously for a moment about your beautiful tits… then I want to take my toes and put them right in your… then you hold your nose between thumb and forefinger and put your head right in your… now, while your right hand is in the previously described area take a nice big chocolate sundae with those little, you know, crunchy cashew nuts and lots of whip cream, and smear the entire thing all over your…”
Alice (Sarah Kennedy) is a young lady in the Big Apple whose libido is constantly on the lookout for the next arousing adventure, and she finds it when an obscene caller targets her for the erotic tongue-lashing quoted ‐ verbatim ‐ above. She tells a friend (an eye-masked Jill Clayburgh) about her new phone buddy saying it was the most refreshing conversation of her life, and when the man calls again the next day she demands to see him. He says his name is John Smith (Norman Rose) and that he’s in the Manhattan telephone book, and that’s all the information Alice needs to set out on a journey that brings her in contact with some truly eccentric characters and ultimately… in touch with herself.
Theatrical audiences and critics alike aren’t always the arbiters of quality that they (we?) sometimes appear to be, and like many great films before and after, writer/director Nelson Lyon’s 1971 film The Telephone Book is a wickedly smart and extremely funny gem that flat-out failed to find an audience upon release.
There’s a terrific absurdity to it starting with the leading lady. Kennedy does her best “young Goldie Hawn” combining an adorable goofiness, a real sexiness, and a high-pitched delivery to engage and hold our attention. (Diane Keaton auditioned for the role but insisted on using a body double for the nudity which essentially killed her chances.) Alice’s interest and affection for the man behind this voice on the phone is a delight. Her enthusiasm is tangible and first leads her to a man in boxers and Groucho Marx glasses who’s auditioning women for his return to the world of stag films. He waxes poetic about his work being an ode to the human condition ‐ all while thrusting away at a growing number of nude women. She almost joins in but is stopped by a call from her mystery man.
Later she crosses paths with a subway pervert who exposes himself before she turns the tables on him and does the same causing him to run away in confusion. She chases after him though, and desperate for quarters ‐ “I’m in love but I’m broke,” and there are a lot of John Smiths left to call ‐ she trades him sexy talk for change. Obscenity is all in the mind as far as she’s concerned though, so when he asks for a dirty word she replies “sidewalk.” She then shares a saucy tale with him about a man and his enormous erection, and the story comes to life with a young, hugely-bonered William Hickey telling his own story before being interrupted by Alice.
It’s goofy, naughty fun that somehow still manages to feel somewhat innocent. It’s not of course, but it’s amusing and romantic enough to deceive.
And did I mention the “testimonials” from dirty callers a la When Harry Met Sally? Alice’s journey is periodically interrupted by people talking directly into the camera and relating their experiences as telephone pervs. One called nuns because “they’re good listeners,” another is a creep who remembers writing girls’ names in toilet bowls, and one is even a woman who recalls doing incredibly crass things with bananas. (Like, seriously crass ‐ and apparently improvised.)
The dialogue gets frequently racy, and the visuals keep apace with an abundance of naked flesh on display. It’s not porn ‐ there’s no penetration ‐ but it’s not shy either and reveals plenty of women in all of their fleshy glory. Is it sexy? I vote yes, but the film’s artistic and humorous bent might have left audiences scratching their heads back in the ’70s despite the copious nudity. Alice telling her masked suitor to “Ravish me in the vernacular!” probably didn’t help either with crowds craving simpler pleasures. No doubt viewers who came looking for the expected X-rated content were turned off by the lack of graphic detail, so why exactly was it rated X to begin with?
Blame the film’s final act that begins with a tryst between Alice and Smith ‐ the pair talking to each other via phone booths side by side ‐ which soon descends into an animated segment featuring explicit animation in bright, dreamy color. (Ralph Bakshi reportedly caught an advance screening and was furious that they beat his Fritz the Cat to market by one year, thereby claiming the title of first X-rated animated film.)
The screen fills with various body parts being stretched, inserted, and otherwise aroused as Smith explains his approach to dirty phone calls. “I’ve perfected this highly specialized art,” he says, “to the point that if I wanted to I could seduce the president of the United States, his wife, his children, and his grandparents, but I have no political ambitions.” The cartoon sequence is easily the film’s most extreme, but even here with animated tongues lapping at hand-drawn lady bits the film retains something of a loose, fun atmosphere.
It’s labeled as an erotic cult classic ‐ and maybe this is a commentary on me ‐ but I find The Telephone Book to be surprisingly funny and sweet. It’s a strange time-capsule back into the early seventies and manages to display a wit and intelligence atypical for the soft-core genre. Steve Martin is a reported fan, and while Lyon’s feature career essentially died with this debut he did go on to write for a single season of Saturday Night Live.
This is a highly entertaining and impressively odd film that moves deftly between laughs, T&A, and interesting character beats, and its refusal to be easily categorized is an admirable feat. It’s also part of the reason the film disappeared upon release of course, but that individuality remains evident even today.
The Telephone Book was thought lost for some time to the point that most people have probably never heard of it before. It ended certain key players’ careers ‐ Rose, a recognizable voice talent, lost some lucrative gigs after certain companies saw or heard about the film ‐ and disappeared into the ether before some enterprising Europeans found the trailer on YouTube and helped power a DVD release. More recently, Vinegar Syndrome released the film onto restored Blu-ray, and it is absolutely worth picking up.
The Telephone Book [Blu-ray/DVD Combo]
Read more entries in last year’s The Essentials, and follow along every Monday with Missed Connections — my appreciations of movies that failed to find an audience despite how much they deserve to.
Related Topics: Missed Connections