The Telephone Book: an X-rated comedy sees the light of day

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Meet the worlds greatest obscene phone caller.
  • Meet the world's greatest obscene phone caller.
The Music Box Theatre is promoting this weekend's revival of The Telephone Book as a guilty pleasure ("Mr. Skin presents!" the website boasts), though this 1971 underground comedy is not nearly as dirty as you might be led to believe. True, the film received an X rating upon its initial release, and most of its characters are self-proclaimed perverts. Yet the humor is cartoonish and surprisingly genial—and so is the lead actress, a wide-eyed, squeaky-voiced belle named Sarah Kennedy. (Too bad she disappeared from movies after the 70s: between this and Stephanie Rothman's The Working Girls, she proved herself a gifted comic actress.) The closest points of reference might be the Robert Downey Sr. comedies Putney Swope and Greaser's Palace, which were made around the same time and project the same irreverent silliness.

Like some of Downey's early features, most of Telephone Book's production resources came from the New York advertising world. The film's producer Merv Bloch (who will attend both the Friday and Saturday screenings) was a successful adman, having designed campaigns for many successful films, most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey. One can detect Bloch's skill at creating striking images in the movie's unique aesthetic, whose high-contrast black-and-white photography seems more appropriate to a classic Look magazine spread than a raunchy comedy about the world's greatest obscene phone caller.

Adding to the movie's artistic cred are some Godardian experiments with printed text and appearances by three of Andy Warhol's superstars. My friend Joe Rubin, who worked on the digital restoration that will screen at the Music Box, tells me that an early cut even featured a cameo from Warhol himself: he appeared in an intermission sequence that parodied his own films, looking straight at the camera and eating popcorn in an uninterrupted long take. Given The Telephone Book's unusual mash-up of high and low culture, it's easy to see why neither camp fully embraced the film. That it's neither fish nor fowl makes it a fascinating one-off; that neither Bloch nor writer-director Nelson Lyon ever worked on another feature film only confirms its orphan status in movie history.

Lyon, who died earlier this year, is a particularly sad case. At one time a respected satirist, he became one of the first staff writers on Saturday Night Live. He also would be one of the people to party with John Belushi on the night of the actor's death; his association with the event permanently curtailed his career. Of course, when The Telephone Book was made, Lyon was still a promising comic talent. His movie conveys a youthful enthusiasm and a curiosity about what can be done with film comedy.

Merv Blochs original poster
  • Merv Bloch's original poster

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