Smooth Operator: Telephones in Film

By Meaghan Walsh Gerard

Someday, and probably soon, film scenes with telephones will feel like a strange sci-fi. But there was a time when landlines and handsets were cutting edge technology and phone booths were a staple of modern life. The ability to speak to someone across miles seemed like magic when it debuted. Soon, every household had the device wired into their walls.

Whether calling over a long distance or a couple of blocks, every handset had its own code. Before dials, users needed help from an operator who would literally connect the ends of wires via a switchboard. Phone numbers were combinations of words (an exchange) and numbers, like Pennsylvania 6-5000, Murray 5-9975, or Butterfield 8. Swanky.

There were also party lines, common in rural areas. These communication loops serviced multiple households, meaning one could pick up the phone and hear other people already having a conversation. It was common to eavesdrop as well as share important information with neighbors.

Phones indicated someone was calling by literally ringing a bell. The term “ringing off the hook” referred to a phone ringing so much that it rattled the handset loose. There was also a time when one got a ‘busy signal’ if the number you were trying to call was in use. There was no call waiting, or getting an answering machine.

Now, phones are wireless, and do much more than make calls but these films make telephones an integral part of the plot. The scenes are ones that will never be made again because the cultural use of phones and communication has changed so much.

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