264. THE TELEPHONE BOOK (1971)

AKA Hot Number

“I said, anybody who makes dirty phone calls as a life’s project is a pretty weird person. So where am I going to get the kind of material that he would be speaking? He wouldn’t be speaking anything we know. He would be talking the kind of stuff that you see on men’s room walls. “–The Telephone Book lead animator Len Glasser on his inspiration for the final sequence

DIRECTED BY: Nelson Lyon

FEATURING: Sarah Kennedy, Norman Rose

PLOT: Oversexed Alice receives an obscene phone call and falls in love with the mellifluous caller, who reveals his name to be “John Smith” of Manhattan. She searches the telephone book to find him, encountering stag film producers, perverts and lesbian seductresses in her quest. When she finally tracks him down, they share the ultimate obscene phone call, whose orgasmic power is depicted symbolically as a crude, sexually explicit surrealist cartoon.

Still from The Telephone Book (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • “superstars” Ultra Violet and Ondine appear in small roles in the film. An “intermission” scene showing Warhol himself quietly eating popcorn was cut, and the footage lost. (Still photos of the scene do exist).
  • Writer/director Nelson Lyon went on to write for “Saturday Night Live” in its earliest years, but his career ended after he was involved in an infamous speedball binge that ended with John Belushi’s fatal overdose.
  • The film was a complete flop on release and quickly disappeared from circulation, preserved in rare bootlegs and only resurfacing as a curiosity in the new millennium.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In the animated sequence visually expressing the ineffable ecstasy aroused by John Smith’s erotic patter, the bottom half of a gargantuan woman—with rivets in her thighs, suggesting she’s an automaton—squats on a skyscraper and pleasures herself, while a man whose entire head is a tongue watches her with drooling interest. Sights like that have a tendency to stick in the mind.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: “Superstar” pontificating over a nude; rotating pig-masked man; tongue-headed cartoon libertine

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The last twenty minutes. Up until then, The Telephone Book is a mildly absurd pre-hardcore sexploitation comedy with art-scene pretensions; a long confessional monologue from a pig-masked pervert followed by a surreally obscene, obscenely surreal animated climax launch it into a different stratosphere of weirdness.


Original trailer for The Telephone Book

COMMENTS: The Telephone Book is a sex comedy dirty enough for David F. Friedman but avant-garde enough for . In its seedy black and white universe, subway flashers, lesbian predators, and nymphomaniacs exist alongside surrealism, social satire, and cameos from Warhol superstars Ultra Violet and Ondine. It’s a strange mix that flopped badly on release, but it could work for the right audience; there’s enough flesh and vulgar humor for the heavy-breathing crowd, and just enough wit and artistry to give the adventurous art house patron an excuse to keep watching. More than anything, however, The Telephone Book is a pre-porno-chic relic of the dawn of the sexual revolution: an in-your-face, jocular swinger’s rebellion, but already with a hint of foreboding melancholy about the pursuit of selfish sexual pleasure as America’s unofficial new religion.

Young Alice lives alone in a room wallpapered with porn and a giant breast hanging from her ceiling. She’s exactly the kind of sexually liberated girl who, according to early 1970s understanding of female sexuality, might be turned on by a dirty phone call; and indeed she is, for she gets a random ring from “John Smith,” the self-proclaimed greatest obscene phone caller in the world. The first part of the movie, which starts strong but soon bogs down in repetitive sex sketches, involves Alice going on an odyssey through the phone book to find Mr. Smith. The search immediately lands her in a fleshpile with ten other nude lasses at a stag film audition; later exploits bring her in contact with a sleazy psychiatrist who’s both exhibitionist and voyeur and a lesbian pick-up artist who sends Alice into a vibrator-induced trance. The girl’s erotic adventures are interrupted by confessionals from various members of an Obscene Phone Callers Anonymous support group, and by Ondine narrating while a naked man lies on his desk. Skinny Sarah Kennedy is a game nympho with a voice pitched somewhere between Marilyn Monroe and Betty Boop, but although she’s more than cute enough in a girl-next-door way, she doesn’t have the sex goddess quality that would put the movie over-the-top erotically. Fortunately, for this film’s offbeat comic tone, she’s fairly perfect.

In the final reels, the emphasis shifts from Alice to loquacious Lothario John Smith, who shows up at Alice’s apartment wearing a pig mask to hide his identity. Smith, played by dulcet baritone Norman Rose, sounds like a radio pitchman (Rose was in fact a voiceover artist), and has an interestingly precise erotic delivery (“…now, run your right hand over the previously described area…”) His appearance marks a big shift in the movie, taking it from mildly loopy sexcapades into totally alien erotics. Sparked by Alice’s unusually-phrased question, asked as Smith bathes her—“how did you come into being?”—he explains the origin of his X-rated calling career. As it turns out, he used to be quite the establishment square; ex-military, even, though given to kissing the enlisted men under his charge (“not like a fag—like the way a man would kiss another man”). His epiphany comes when he’s asked to become an astronaut, and, while ecstatically floating in the weightless chamber, he realizes that what he really wants in life is… “a tit.” As he tells his story, his porcine face spins in a black void, fetishistically juxtaposed beside various disembodied body parts supplied by Ms. Kennedy. His long monologue is totally absurd, and juxtaposed with portentous, arty camerawork implying existential depth. It sends the viewer into a confused vortex more disorienting than Smith’s own NASA-induced hedonistic vertigo.

This is all a teasing lead-in to the film’s startling climax. John won’t physically make love to Alice, but they can stand in side by side phone booths and swap dialogue so profoundly filthy that it can only be expressed symbolically with animation that looks like something a thirteen-year old might have doodled in his notebooks after reading a copy of Screw magazine. The film goes to color and we watch a parade dirty pictures consisting of nesting phalluses, a lusty couple with tongues for heads, and a lady/robot hybrid who makes explicit love to a skyscraper. Len Glasser’s animations, inspired by men’s room graffiti and rendered in a style reminiscent of both Robert Crumb’s underground comix and Saturday morning cartoons, are explicit, though abstract. They were enough to earn the film an “X” rating. Here, high and low art collide, in a sublime eroticism conveyed through the crudest anatomical drawings, transformed by a childishly surreal imagination that swaps and reconfigures body parts at will. Tongues grow out of starched shirts, a pyramid of tiny men sport penises taller than they are, and a four-legged, three-vaginaed, seven-boobed creature dodges a pecker with teeth like a snapping turtle. The entire segment is only five minutes long, interspersed with color reaction shots of John and a climaxing Alice, but the effect is unforgettable. Some things have to be seen to be believed.

Novelty is The Telephone Book‘s biggest selling point. As a funny movie it doesn’t completely work, nor is it a hit as a sexy movie. As a weird movie, though… well, that’s another matter. It could only have come out of a period of profound sexual confusion. On the surface the movie appears to celebrate the new sexual permissiveness, but Lyon supplies the affair with an air of humorous cynicism. At the dawn of the 1970s, it seems everyone in New York is obsessed with sex, but very few people are actually getting together; for the most part, they’d rather talk about it than do it. Everyone is imprisoned by their own fetishes. A housewife confesses that, in the afternoon, she stuffs herself with a banana and calls up strangers on the phone before she makes dinner for hubby. Sex is a monologue. It’s no wonder Alice is (almost) doomed to be perpetually unsatisfied; it’s not the world’s greatest lover that she’s after, but a lover, period—someone who will actually touch her. As flighty as The Telephone Book is through most of its leering comic interludes, there is a serious undercurrent of alienation that “Midnight Only”‘s Jeff Kuykendall sees as conveying “an authentic loneliness.” Consider a strange scene from the very opening: Alice is alone in her apartment, lounging around in a one-piece bathing suit. Her walls are lined with pornographic wallpaper, her floor covered in smut mags, and her bedspread is an American flag. In a long shot, she is seen curled up in the corner on the phone. She’s calling the “dial-a-prayer” hotline. “Hasten with thy protection to those who are sorely tempted. Make them strong to resist and to conquer,” drones the recorded voice at the other end of the line. Patriotism, sex, religion, sin, loneliness—that’s a lot of conflicted priorities stuffed into a single frame. And a lot of bizarrely significant themes to weave into an underground sex comedy that looks for laughs from the sight of a porn star wearing Groucho glasses and mustache servicing a gum-chewing woman while proclaiming “it’s a living.” 1971 was a weird time.

Terri McSorley  adds: “I have spent the last two years exploring the little known film titles distributed through Vinegar Syndrome. The Telephone Book has, bar none, been my favorite of the lot. Alice receives a most satisfying dirty phone call and seeks to find the man behind it. He divulges his name is John Smith and dares her to find him in the telephone book. Alice meets all manner of interesting folks on her journey which ends with the mother of all orgasms complete with animated sequence! The Telephone Book is a great looking film and the aforementioned animated sequences are top notch. Sarah Kennedy, who plays Alice, is very watchable; she is quirky, cute and charismatic. Odd at every turn, The Telephone Book made me laugh regularly and heartily. Thoroughly entertaining and one-of-a-kind.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Brilliant. Hilarious. Daring. Bizarre.”–The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

“…plays like a more explicit variation on Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy… it’s clear that Lyon also drew inspiration from the surreal dreamscapes in Lewis Carroll’s books.”–Budd Wilkins, Slant Magazine (DVD)

“About as arousing as a tax audit and funny as jury duty, the picture is a surreal journey into random confessions and pig-masked monologuing, imagining itself to be a wonderland of carnal delights and cutting satire, wafting over its audience like a wave of marijuana smoke… With its outlandishness napping and its sense of humor missing, this X-rated relic is best served to fans of obscure exploitation cinema, those brave souls able to somehow appreciate the feature’s idiosyncrasies and its Vietnam-era taboo-smashing tastes.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com [Blu-ray]

IMDB LINK: The Telephone Book (1971)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Telephone Book [Blu-ray/DVD combo] – Vinegar Syndrome’s The Telephone Book page has stills, two NSFW re-release trailers made specifically for this release, and critical quotes

STUDIO LAMBL HOMBURGER|Project|THE TELEPHONE BOOK – A look at the surprisingly elaborate German special edition release of The Telephone Book

CU: The Telephone Book Q&A Part 1 – Part one of a five-part Q&A session from 2010 with director Nelson Lyon, producer Merv Bloch and animator Len Glasser

Nelson Lyon dies at 73; director of sex comedy ‘The Telephone Book’ – The L.A. Times‘ obituary of Lyon considers The Telephone Book as his great legacy

LIST CANDIDATE: THE TELEPHONE BOOK (1971) – This site’s first take on The Telephone Book

DVD INFO: Almost lost to the ages, German art studio Lambl Homburger rescued The Telephone Book from obscurity in 2009. A short tour followed, succeeded by a 2013 DVD/Blu-ray combo release (buy) by porno/exploitation distributor Vinegar Syndrome. The print, mainly in glorious black and white, looks beautiful for such an old and badly neglected movie. It includes commentary from producer Merv Bloch, who although perhaps delving too much into his own career as a film marketer (including his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey), nevertheless provides almost everything we know about the film today in a snappy ninety minutes. Extra features include the original trailer, reissue trailer, radio spots, and an extensive still gallery that includes shots of the lost scene with Andy Warhol.

2 thoughts on “264. THE TELEPHONE BOOK (1971)”

  1. Great selection! I found this film to be astonishing and hilarious. A gem. While there are many great scenes, the scenes where Mr. Smith is shampooing Alice’s hair blew me away.

    Thanks so much for bringing this to my attention.

  2. I saw this when it used to be on Netflix and was blown away. There’s some actual profound art in this bawdy sex comedy and it follows no rules but whatever zany idea it can come up with. It was also surprisingly fresh and wonderfully vintage at the same time. I fell in love with Sarah Kennedy, who had all the ditzy charm and sexy cutes of young Goldie Hawn (I think she even replaced Goldie Hawn on Laugh In). It embraces perversity in the same way John Waters did, but with more charm and more art.

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