The Telephone Book is the greatest X-Rated Comedy in the history of humanity. Granted the genre is rather limited. But the simple fact is that the movie is an amazing comedy and still deserves to be given an X-rating. This movie goes to joyful extremes and yet still has heart among all the debauchery. After a history of horrible distribution deals, a complete lack of airings on HBO and no legit videotape release, The Telephone Book is finally getting a proper release over 40 years later.
Don’t feel too embarrassed if you have no clue about The Telephone Book. There are plenty of cinephiles who have no idea this film from 1971 exists. My knowledge of the film was non-existent until Adam Hulin and Matt Pennachi programmed it as part of Cinema Overdrive series. They said to trust them about the film. I did and haven’t regretted that ticket bought in pure faith. I walked out of the theater amazed that such an outrageously inventive and hilarious film could remain so obscure. This was the kind of twisted comedy that should be mentioned when filmmakers think they’re pushing the envelope.
The Telephone Book is about how Alice (Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In‘s Sarah Kennedy) fell in love with the world’s greatest obscene phone caller. She’s a sexually liberated gal living in New York City. Her apartment is wallpapered with photos from X-rated movies. While lounging around in bed, the phone rings. She answers it and her life changes. She does not know the stranger on the other end, but his voice moves her along with his naughty words. She wants to meet him in person. The obscene phone caller tells her that he’s in the telephone book. She just merely has to contact every John Smith in the Big Apple. She’s up for the challenge.
She runs off to meet a man she thinks is her her John Smith. He turns out to be an adult actor getting ready for his grand return to the erotic business. He goes by professional name Har Poon. You might know him better as Barry Morse. The man who once chased The Fugitive and flew off with the moon in Space: 1999 gets covered in naked starlet bodies. He even goes all the way naked by losing his toupee in the heat of the action. Can Alice escape the pile of people on the mattress to fine her John Smith? Alice encounters a pervert on the subway train that’s Roger C. Carmel (Star Trek‘s Harry Mudd). He gets her to tell a story about William Hickey (Prizzi’s Honor) in exchange for dimes. She plans on using them in the pay phone to find her obscene phone caller. Will she ever find the man connected to the voice? Not to completely spoil the film, but the duo do meet and have an intense evening in which he explains what drives his fetish. There’s an erotic animated sequence that is not Disney-approved.
What makes The Telephone Book such a subversive film is that the obscene phone caller is Norman Rose. His name might not mean anything to you, but his voice should. At the time the movie was being made, Rose was the voice of Ma Bell. The obscene phone caller is the man who tried to get you to dial long distance more often. What a brilliant piece of casting. The role eventually cost Rose his phone company gig, but his career was far from over. He was Star Wars toys. He even had a radio hit with National Lampoon’s “Deteriorata.”
The Telephone Book is such a delight since it merges so many genres in a tight space. It plays like a mix of an Andy Warhol flick, a stag movie, a screwball romance and a gritty New York comedy. Imagine how the world of movie comedies would been altered if The Telephone Book hadn’t been obscured. Woody Allen would have started his cinematic career being compared to Nelson Lyon. Lena Dunham’s Girls would be reviewed through the prism of Alice’s time in the city. It’s probably good for a lot of comedy directors that they not be stuck up against the measuring stick of The Telephone Book. Could Judd Apatow survive such a comparison? There are a few outdated jokes and the appearances of Warhol superstars might have to be explained. But at it’s core, the passion between Alice and her caller is immortal and twisted. What’s great about home video is that over 40 years later, The Telephone Book will finally have a chance to gain the cult audience it deserves. This is the cinematic resurrection of the year.
The video is 1.78:1 anamorphic. The transfer doesn’t clean up the grain of the black and white film. There’s a fine gritty feeling to the movie when they’re out on the streets of New York City. Most impressive is how they restored the color in the final section of the movie. The 35mm print they used had red shifted, but you couldn’t tell from their restoration work. They did Robert Harris-esque work on making The Telephone Book look brand new. The audio is Dolby Digital mono. You’ll be able to absorb the smoothness of Norman Rose’s voice.
The Blu-ray comes with a DVD that features everything that’s on the Blu-ray with a lesser resolution.
Audio Commentary with producer Merv Bloch really gets into the film. Merv has so many stories about making the film and what the heck went wrong with the distribution. He lets us know that Barry Morris wanted to perform his role in the nude. They made him wear the goofy boxer shorts. Director Nelson Lyon isn’t on the track since he died last year. This would be his only film he directed. He did write for Saturday Night Live, but his career was destroyed when he took part in John Belushi’s tragic drug binge weekend.
Reissue Trailer (2:05) tints the black and white images to give the idea that the film has a lot more color. They had also changed the name to Hot Number.
Original Trailer (0:37) is a close up of the sleeping mask coming up.
Still Gallery (3:35) is a montage of production stills and publicity materials.
Radio Spots (3:32) promotes the voice of Norman Rose bragging about his obscene phone call skills being an art. They have a still from the lost intermission of Andy Warhol eating popcorn. Barry Morris looks like he’s enjoying himself as the focus of the people puddle.
The Telephone Book is an obscure classic that deserves to be seen by all who enjoy a comedy that dares to push the weirdness factor to 11. If you buy only one unknown title on Blu-ray, let it be The Telephone Book.
Vinegar Syndrome presents The Telephone Book. Directed by: Nelson Lyon. Written by: Nelson Lyon. Starring: Norman Rose, Sarah Kennedy, Barry Morse, Roger C. Carmel and William Hickey. Running Time: 87 minutes. Rated: X. Released: May 7, 2013. Available at Amazon.com.
Joe Corey is the author of "The Seven Secrets of Great Walmart People Greeters." This is the last how to get a job book you'll ever need. He was Associate Producer of the documentary "Moving Midway." He's worked as local crew on several reality shows including Candid Camera, American's Most Wanted, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and ESPN's Gaters. He's been featured on The Today Show and CBS's 48 Hours. Dom DeLuise once said, "Joe, you look like an axe murderer." He was in charge of research and programming at the Moving Image Archive.