This article uses AT&T’s 1910s–30s “Weavers of Speech” campaign to read on-screen telegraph and telephone operators as vernacular translators of cinematic syntax and hypervisible avatars for the invisible cutter girls who “knitted the pieces of film together” on studio lots. While operators largely played peripheral roles in classical films, two transitional periods saw them rise to the surface of story en masse, as if temporarily hired to sew over a rupture. A comparative analysis of telephone girls’ enlistment as temp techno-pedagogues during US film’s introduction of crosscutting and European film’s polyglot transition to sound suggests women’s film-weaving labor as an alternative to the surgical rhetoric (suture) and auteur models that dominate theories of film editing. More broadly, the article suggests that the culturally conspicuous feminization of low-level information labor offers feminist film historians a crucial “mediatrix” for uncovering woman workers hidden in the cut of film.
We now know that in the early days of cinema, the day-to-day work of editing was largely relegated to young women “with little or no professional training” because, like telegraph and telephone work, it was considered menial, monotonous labor that would benefit from dexterous hands.1 As veteran Hollywood editor Walter Murch explained matter-of-factly in a 2003 interview, “It was a woman’s craft, seen as something like sewing. You knitted the pieces of film together.”2 For a time, skills that could be acquired in the cutting room offered women access to more authorial forms of editing.3 But the same domestic metaphors that opened these jobs up to women—combined with the seamlessness associated with classical editing—also assured that the techniques female film editors pioneered and any memory of their existence would be systematically absorbed into the films they assembled. As the studio system segregated along lines of creative male authorship and technical, interstitial female labor, film editing split into two subfields: the individual, male-dominated mental artistry of “editing” and the mass feminized handiwork of cutting, splicing, joining, gluing, and lacing. Noting the surprising number of women who defied this division of labor, feminist film scholars have, in recent years, triumphantly restored Rose Smith to her seat beside D. W. Griffith at the helm of complex continuity editing and Elizaveta Svilova to her coauthorship of a foundational Soviet montage film.4 Alongside these auteur restorations, an overlapping critical tradition has attempted to trace the covert rise of a transatlantic film-industrial underclass of “cutter girls.”5 Adopting the weaving imagery threaded through both kinds of work as a starting point, this essay will explore how the flexible accumulation of women’s collective linking labor has shaped filmic grammar.
Cutting and joining film was, as Erin Hill has shown, one of many “deft-fingered” linking jobs feminized across the studio system, from hand-tinting and costume work to continuity writing, research, memo typing, switchboard operation, and stenography. In her groundbreaking archival excavation of this pink-collar proletariat, Hill argues that “if film historians consider the classical Hollywood era’s mode of production a system, we ought to consider women this system’s mainstay, because studios were built on their low-cost backs and scaled through their brush and keystrokes.”6 The challenge, then, now facing feminist film historians is how to imaginatively uncover labor that is uncredited, embedded in “cultural invisibility,” and all but absent from the screen.7 To mediate my own investigation into the invisible sewing together of film, I will enlist two hypervisible cinematic icons: telegraph and telephone operators.
Over the past forty years, a growing body of film scholarship has underlined the role played by on-screen telegraphs and telephones in the codification of crosscutting, one of the essential operations of classical cinematic syntax.8 Paul Young puts the critical consensus in deceptively simple terms: “It would be difficult to imagine the earliest complex story films made in the United States without the telephone and the telegraph.” By this Young means not only that both technologies “played prominent roles in many early films,” but also that their on-screen operation made it possible for audiences to “imagine” the narrative logic those films introduced.9 One of the first broad claims I want to make is that the on-screen operator should be drawn out from behind her machine and seen as a key player in the vernacularization of this logic. Not only did telegraph and telephone operators appear in a significant number of crosscutting sequences throughout the 1910s, but their corporate and cultural construction as “weavers of speech” and genteel techno-pedagogues—there to diffuse disorientation and help with the difficulties of mastering new media—also made them singularly legible as demonstrators of an emerging narrative syntax. Moreover, the fact that operators receded into the margins of film once audiences could serve as their own “switchboard operators of narrative messages”—to quote Tom Gunning—suggests that the girl operator’s cinematic trace reproduces the contingency and flexibility demanded of feminized labor.10 Both are comically evoked in a 1916 promotional still for The Hazards of Helen, which depicts its tomboy telegrapher heroine suspended in midair between moving cars (fig. 1). Helen’s arduous balancing act—trapped in limbo while leaping proactively from one machine to another—literalizes the precariousness of the girl operator’s mobility.
This article proposes the girl operator as an essential link in film syntax and industrial history through the lens of her flexible weaving labor, which has predominantly relegated her to the peripheral role of mass replicable and iconic but fleeting intermediary: a non-character and structuring absence. But the two cinematic paradigm shifts I will draw out—narrative integration in the United States (1909–17) and sound conversion in Western Europe (1929–34)—saw girl operators suddenly rise to the surface of story and take over the screen, as if magically conjured like one of Georges Méliès’s vanishing ladies, to sew over industrial ruptures and then gracefully disappear. By tying these strange spurts of girl operator films to two transitional periods that forced the film industry and film itself to conspicuously restructure along reassuringly patriarchal lines, I hope to illustrate some of the ways that the logic of feminized, flexible accumulation has been stitched into cinema itself. To provide a corporate telephonic framework for these two cinematic transitions, I will structure my investigation around AT&T’s most famous “speech-weaver” advertisements, “Weavers of Speech” (1915) and “Weaving the World of Speech” (1933). The two ads stand in for the move I will make from the US to Western Europe, as the girl operator became a figure of global as well as national speech weaving.
While taking telegraph and telephone operators as my primary case studies, I will tug throughout on the threads of a longer, broader historical phenomenon: the rise of the modern mediatrix. “Mediatrix” is the title I use to describe the essential mediating role played by white-collar woman workers in modern clerical and communications infrastructure, a role promoted by corporations, nations, and the popular media as paradigmatically feminine for more than a century. In the 1870s, the telegraph station, switchboard, and office were all spheres united by their need for a human go-between and preference for a female one: the desired mediatrix was cheap, white, young, and single. As working-class women took over the machines of modern discourse, Taylorist measures to standardize their speech and gestures soothed widespread cultural anxieties about the calls they might spy on and messages they might falsely transcribe. Cast as public-facing domesticators and muses of emerging technologies, they were consistently called on to obscure the profit motive behind their own mass recruitment and grease the wheels of monopoly formation. Meanwhile, mass culture reveled in more deviant clerical characters, capable of massaging, manipulating, and derailing a narrative network from deep within its gears. The mediatrix was never an unthinking automaton, even though the work she performed at switchboards and keyboards was overwhelmingly automated by the end of the twentieth century. The transitional films I highlight reinforce capitalist interests, most often through the marriage plot, but they also rely on excessive mediatrix imaginaries to catalyze their narratives. Adopting the mediatrix as a theoretical tool allows us to recover lost links between real women workers and apparitions on the screen across the shared motifs and conditions of gendered labor. For feminist film history, it also offers a chance to leave the individual male authorship model behind, along with its glaringly un-industrial values of vision, credit, and genius.
The girl operator on the screen reproduces the labor of the mediatrix most simply by miming the handiwork of repetitive, mechanical mediation. Indeed, I would argue it is precisely because operators’ role in classical cinematic infrastructure has largely replicated their professional role that neither their systematic marginalization within films nor their uniquely literal mediating role in film grammar has received much critical attention. Switching in and out of shots with discreet efficiency, classical operators put “real” characters into conversation and take care, upon departing, to mend the cuts created by their appearances. To illustrate what this means in grammatical terms, before moving on to the material metaphorics of weaving, I will analyze two canonical cinematic switchboard sequences that exemplify the classical operator’s narrative marginalization (these are isolated instances within otherwise operator-less feature-length plots) and establish the operator, dash, and ellipsis as uniquely intertwined agents of cinematic syntax.
The first sequence, from Alfred Hitchcock’s British melodrama Easy Virtue (1928), has long been cited by film scholars as a virtuosic example of silent film language.11 Hitchcock famously described this sequence, which lasts all of one minute and ten seconds, as a “monologue without words” because of his operator’s rapturous reaction to the marriage proposal she hears over the line.12 Her expressive face translates an invisible telephone conversation between the film’s romantic leads into a visible conclusion: the answer is yes (fig. 2). The conditions for this “monologue” are set up by a prefatory intertitle, which informs us that our hero is eagerly awaiting his heroine’s phone call: “As the evening wore on, so John’s patience wore out, until—.”
After an abrupt cut, we see a medium shot of the operator in profile, lifting her right hand to the switchboard as if taking hold of the trailing dash to complete her own shot transition. While the intertitular dash presages this cut, reassuring us in advance that the marriage plot is under way, it also opens up a lack the operator must sew over manually. Through the meta-technology of the telephone, she appears to pop out of the cut and hook herself into the narrative network, where she takes on the role of audience avatar, turning her attention from the open novel on her desk to the romantic dialogue in her ear. The dash’s deployment here as a kind of proto-cut corresponds to the way montage theorists textualized shot breakdowns throughout the 1920s, as in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1924 shorthand for a “chain” of shots: “the gun is cocked—the shot fired—the bullet strikes—the victim falls.”13 More generally, Hitchcock’s pairing of the dash and operator invites us to apply film semioticians’ preferred terminology of cinematic “language” and “syntax,” through which editing operations that register graphically become legible within an implied narrative framework as “punctuation marks.”14 Hitchcock’s operator can thus be seen, on a number of levels, as a translator (from linguistic to cinematic syntax, from textual to body language) and a connector (across characters, shots, and narrative worlds).
In the second fleeting but canonical classical switchboard sequence I will highlight, the titillating extent of the telephone operator’s reach is simultaneously evoked and elided through the use of switch-like punctuation marks. The opening title of Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) offers a portrait of the telephone network and its infinitely receding lines of telephone girls, overlaid by a grandiose message of telephonic connectivity (fig. 3). Significantly, the graphic lines created by the ellipsis and dashes mimic the structure of switching, like the dash in Easy Virtue. But while the fetishistic image seems to solidify the link between girls and machine, the text effaces their bodies and labor behind the all-consuming significance of the telephone: “the telephone is the unseen link between a million lives…It is the servant of our common needs— —” (my emphasis). In a bit of baroque overkill, the word “unseen” even obscures one operator’s face. This gap between image and text is echoed in the film’s plot, which is devoid of operators because the conflict is catalyzed by an “open line.” The operators are, in other words, the structuring absence of the entire film, which creates all its suspense out of the housewife heroine’s bedbound entrapment, alone in the middle of a sprawling telephone network filled with unreachable female helpers. This paradox encapsulates the diegetic operator’s defining dialectic as a hypervisible, eroticized popular icon of invisible industrial linking labor. Like the opening titles above, which brazenly play peekaboo by juxtaposing lines of operators with a description of the telephone as the “unseen link between a million lives,” film scholars have largely ignored the vital formal function performed by gendered linking laborers. This would seem to be a significant omission, given the field’s abiding obsession with the editing operations through which a reconstructed piecemeal reality becomes a seamless narrative whole.15 For feminist film theory in particular, the idea that this seamless whole was mediated by weaving women offers an urgent alternative to the surgical rhetoric and patriarchal narratives typically used to describe women’s place in film form.
Weavers of Speech
From 1915 to 1941, AT&T ran one of its most successful and enduring advertising campaigns: the “Weavers of Speech” series. As April Middeljans has shown, Bell’s campaign not only defined the operator as a genteel, domestic figure—a “midwife of messages”—it also introduced “speech weaver” and “thought weaver” into popular discourse as synonyms for “operator.”16 While later slogans, like “The Voice with a Smile” and “Hello Girls,” would emphasize telephone workers’ dulcet tones, “Weavers of Speech” highlighted their hands, perpetually in motion, always invisibly at work, threading calls through the network. If the company’s nickname for its telephone operators caught on quickly and stuck, it was likely because it carried over the central metaphor that had been used to market women as “natural” telegraph operators for more than fifty years.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, Americans had been inundated with depictions of female telegraph operators that tamed their technological mastery by coupling it with a familiar domestic task. In industry literature from the 1860s, when women’s eligibility for telegraph work was still a topic of heated debate, so-called lady telegraphists were primarily figured through the tasks they performed while waiting for messages, “employing their spare minutes with knitting pins, light needlework and books.”17 In popular literature, while they wove “a girdle round the globe,” their intimate access to a bustling communications network spun out into the “mental weaving of untold tales” and “piec[ing] together [of] all sorts of mysteries.”18 In visual culture, they appeared as electric goddesses of manifest domesticity laying spools of metal wire across the country. John Gast’s widely reprinted painting American Progress (1872, fig. 4) epitomizes the heroic imagery of such works. Manifest destiny, classical republicanism, and the techno-utopian promise of telegraphy are wedded in the figure of Columbia, whose steady gait guides rows of men across vast plains and into the future, literally carrying enlightenment (note the sun at her back) from East to West. Like the white heroines of nineteenth-century sentimental fiction, this telegraph operator mediates the permeable border of separate spheres by ceremonially enacting “the process of domestication, which entails conquering and taming the wild, the natural, and the alien,” embodied by the Native Americans running from her aggressive glow.19
It seems clear, in short, that AT&T’s “Weavers of Speech” campaign used the telegraph operator’s metaphorical armature to extend the conceptual space of the home to the switchboard and establish the telephone operator as a serene seamstress. The original 1915 ad reads:
Upon the magic looms of the Bell System, tens of millions of telephone messages are daily woven into a marvelous fabric, representing the countless activities of a busy people. Day and night, invisible hands shift the shuttles to and fro, weaving the thoughts of men and women into a pattern which, if it could be seen as a tapestry, would tell a dramatic story of our business and social life.…Out of sight of the subscribers, these weavers of speech sit silently at the switchboards, swiftly and skillfully interlacing the cords which guide the human voice over the country in all directions.20
In this description, telephone operators are simultaneously cast as capable weavers of a vast, sprawling national pattern, “skillfully interlacing the cords which guide the human voice over the country in all directions,” and as blindly embedded within that pattern, unable to see the whole themselves: “a pattern which, if it could be seen as a tapestry, would tell a dramatic story of our business and social life.” In short, while the advertisement plays on analogies between sewing, switching, and storytelling—implicitly conjuring mythic models of tale-weaving women like Arachne, Penelope, and Philomela—it also refuses to identify its speech weavers as storytellers. Instead, Bell’s tapestry, woven “skillfully” by “invisible hands,” audaciously weds the language of artisanal spinning to a textbook example of alienated labor in which none of the weavers can see the pattern they are all a part of designing. Domesticity operates as the central mystifying medium in this exchange, turning an underpaid industrial workforce into silent sewing fingers.
The illustration featured in the advertisement, presiding majestically above its text, offers a clearer picture of the speech weaver’s designated role in the pattern (fig. 5). As we can see, she is quite simply holding the whole thing together, her arms outstretched to thread bunches of telephone tendrils into multiple cities at once. Trapped between the telephone poles and public life, she is simultaneously central and anchored to an uneasy middle, unable to adopt a perspective of her own. Borrowing Bernhard Siegert’s term for the bureaucratization of in-betweenness, we might call her a “third person,” a conduit with no subject position beyond those she weaves together.21 But as the only human figure in the illustration, she also takes on the pivotal function of demonstrating a figurative syntax of telephony. The threads she holds up materialize the ephemeral magic of electrically collapsed time and space. Her presence domesticates the sprawling landscape of modern communication.
Narrativization Era: The Telegraph Operator Teaches Crosscutting
By 1915, the same year AT&T branded its invisible women workers weavers of speech, so-called girl operators had become a familiar fixture in US films and serials, swiftly and skillfully interlacing the cords of complex narratives, guiding spectators from one telegraph station to another, across the country and back again. Indeed, during the single-reel era, melodramas structured formally around the adventures of girl operators switching, sending, and tapping frenetically from their stations became so popular that the phrase “girl operator story” was a common feature of film trade journals and fan magazines.22 In the context of a budding international film market of mass-reproduced shorts and serials, themselves drawn from a transnational mélange of literary and theatrical sources, many plot devices reappeared identically across company and national lines.23 The girl operator is in peril, the girl operator is saving the day, the girl operator is distracted, the girl operator is vengeful, the girl operator is gossiping. These forms of agency—which in a Taylorist communications network can only be categorized as excess—were the tropes that catalyzed crosscutting. The appellation “girl operator,” initially applied to female Morse telegraph operators, was by the 1910s an umbrella term that reflected the global gendering of a spate of low-level communications roles, from Morse telegraphy and teletype to wireless and switchboard operation. The continuous circuit of femininity it evoked also disguised the obsolescence encoded into each apparatus and each kind of girl operation.
With the caveat that most films from the silent era have been lost and many remain to be identified, a preliminary selection of the most successful and widely seen girl operator films in the United States from 1908 to 1917 would include The Medicine Bottle (Biograph, 1909), The Express Envelope (Kalem, 1911), The Lonedale Operator (Biograph, 1911), The Girl and Her Trust (Biograph, 1912), The Grit of the Girl Telegrapher (Kalem, 1912), The Yeggman (Reliance, 1912), Lea Telefonista (Leah the Telephone Girl, Società Italiana Cines, 1912), Le Nain (The Dwarf, Gaumont, 1912), My Baby’s Voice (Thanhouser, 1912), The Telephone Girl and the Lady (Biograph, 1913), A Desperate Chance (Kalem, 1913), The Telegraph Operator (Éclair American, 1913), The Treasure Train (IMP, 1914), The Express Messenger (Reliance, 1915), A Tragedy of the Rails (Edison, 1915), The Girl at the Key (Edison, 1915), The Woman (Paramount, 1915), The Telegraph Operator’s Daughter (Bison, 1916), With a Life at Stake (Mustang, 1916), and all 119 episodes of The Hazards of Helen (Kalem, 1914–17), the longest-running serial ever made.24
Film scholars have by no means ignored all these films. The Lonedale Operator and The Girl and Her Trust in particular, directed by D. W. Griffith, the self-proclaimed inventor of the switchback (now called crosscutting), were canonized long ago and are still used in introductory film courses to illustrate the function of the train and telegraph as diegetic tutors of audiences learning to read narrative films. This tradition can be traced with some specificity to Raymond Bellour’s 1979 structuralist analysis of The Lonedale Operator, which made Griffith’s first girl-operator short a particularly popular pedagogical example of “alternation” as narration.25 That said, as I have already suggested, most scholarship on silent film telegraphy and telephony has highlighted the agency of the apparatus, rather than the girl operator, who typically gets fleeting mention as a recurring character, along with train conductors and robbers, or as a symptom of social anxieties about gendered misuses of technology writ large, which groups her with hysterical housewives and oblivious little girls.26
The major exceptions to this rule are Lynne Kirby and Tom Gunning, who both highlight the human mediating labor behind The Lonedale Operator’s alternations and extend Bellour’s single-text analysis to the “split trajectory” that loomed over girl operator films throughout the 1910s.27 As Kirby demonstrates, “one path pulls our filmic heroines into ever more active scenarios and public action,” culminating in the virile stunts performed by serial queens like Helen Holmes, who played railroad telegraphist “Helen” to great acclaim in The Hazards of Helen. The other path, augured by Griffith’s infamous fetishization of vulnerable, white femininity, traps the girl operator in a “girl-train” circuit of alternation that links “gender-coding” with classical storytelling, ultimately displacing her from her temporary role as mechanical intermediary to the dyad structure of heterosexual romance.28 Following Bellour, Kirby, and Gunning, I will use The Lonedale Operator to make a few points about the girl operator’s unique shot-weaving skills and what I would characterize as her planned obsolescence out of narrative film.
Like many of the melodramas for which it became a blueprint, The Lonedale Operator triangulates around three figures: criminals, rescuers, and an intrepid telegraph operator trapped at her station, desperately trying to get in touch with the rescuers in order to alert them to the presence of criminals outside her door. Throughout the suspenseful span of the rescue, our sense of the operator’s physical entrapment is increasingly undermined by the far-reaching crosscutting sequences launched by her hand at the sounder. The four consecutive shots in figure 6, taken from the film’s earliest crosscutting sequence, show that her first taps establish a visible rhythm, geographic center, and diegetic crisis (SOS!) from which all subsequent alternations are launched. Moreover, her theatrical finger tapping creates an audiovisual link for accompanists to synchronize the sounds of the telegraph to her choreography, and then use them to stitch over the ruptures created by quick cuts.29
Something more ephemeral, the female telegraphic imagination, also clearly plays a role in the film. After mobilizing her rescuers, our heroine continues to mediate the story’s syntax from a single location. While other characters run in and out of shots, she remains in one place, but her absorbed, distant expression betrays a restless mind leaping from one station to another. Indeed, what I want to suggest is that the girl operator’s imagination provides a central apparatus of alternation for the entire story, holding the threads together even as they split into multiple frames and planes of action. This is conveyed during the rescue sequence by the constant motion of her hands and absentmindedness of her gaze, but we can also trace it to her first appearance in the film, strolling, daydreaming, and reading a novel. Film scholars, it must be said, rarely emphasize this entrance, which casts the heroine as a consumer of thrilling pulp fiction before her beau enters the frame, almost as if she has conjured up a hero for herself (fig. 7).
Like The Lonedale Operator, The Girl and Her Trust and Lea Telefonista each begin with a lone heroine “engrossed” in the latest lurid novel until her reading is interrupted by a male interloper.30 The “real” story can only begin once she puts down her book and begins to flirt. In these and other single-reel-era melodramas, we might argue that the girl operator’s fantasy world—metonymized as a paperback—is the fuel the film story runs on, which can only take cinematic form through the medium of her telegraphic mind. Novelistic language becomes filmic language, in other words, through the girl operator’s “double conscience” and “feeling for connection”—modern, gendered skills that allow her to hold multiple codes, locations, and plot points in her head at once, all while demonstrating the manual labor of flashing between shots.31 Thus, the shot weaver emerges, directing cinematic operations from a small room behind the scenes, forging imaginative as well as mechanical connections across cuts.
Kirby and Gunning correlate the marginalization of girl operators from center screen by 1917 with the marginalization of women’s labor in all kinds of rationalizing industries, including Hollywood, but I would argue that a number of elements in The Lonedale Operator suggest that these shot weavers were, from the first, enlisted as a stopgap measure. For one, the heroine is not the titular character, but an impromptu substitute for her father, the actual Lonedale operator. At the very inception of the girl operator’s cinematic reign, in other words, we find a convivial wink of reassurance to displaced male workers and bourgeois viewers: the girl is not a permanent agent, but a temp. This detail is crucial to draw out because it bridges the gap between the girl operator as an emerging cinematic linking apparatus and low-level communications work as a field that required women to leave the workplace once they wed. Teleologically stitched into the marriage plot, Griffith’s daughter-heroine reifies the “marriage bar” policy instituted by Western Union and Bell to keep their operator workforces young, single, and entry level.32 Indeed, in its structural adherence to this policy, the girl-operator story phenomenon begins to look less like a proto-feminist heterotopia on the edge of a Fordist film cliff and more like a corporate campaign designed, in Ned Schantz’s words, “to regulate the necessary but risky business of setting woman in motion, so as to transfer her from her father’s to her husband’s house.”33 By naming his heroine the “Operator’s daughter” and then neatly curtailing her fledgling career with a kiss, Griffith subsumes the public network she navigates into a single domestic transfer (fig. 8).
The rural circuit of daughter-operator-wife through which Griffith channels his film also epitomizes the anachronism of telegraph girl films made from 1911 to 1917. It is no accident The Lonedale Operator takes place in the country, rather than the city, and that its heroine embodies a correspondingly nostalgic femininity, as if to blunt the bite of her inherent modernity. One key to understanding this paradox is that the female Morse operator was already becoming obsolete by 1911. Like reanimated phantoms of a fading workforce, the rise of cinematic girl telegraphers actually coincided with the disappearance of women from Morse telegraphy across the United States. From 1900 to 1915, as Thomas Jepsen has shown, teletype’s automatic translation of Morse messages steadily wiped out the need for operators fluent in the language of dots and dashes.34 By the end of World War I, a new gender division in commercial telegraphy was naturalized between the skilled, semiotic work performed by a few lingering male Morse operators and the deskilled, automatic labor performed by assembly lines of female teletypists.
Teletype has not taken over but clearly waits in the wings of The Lonedale Operator, even peeking out now and then. As Gunning points out, Griffith hems in his imaginative mediatrix with a single threatening shot of her Taylorist future in the form of a typist huddled in a dark corner of the payroll office.35 This flash of the “future,” however, calls the category of the “present” into question. Framed by the heroine’s temp status, it offers a fairly literal visual syntax for the schizoid temporal logic the film seeks to occupy. As Morse operators, Griffith’s girls and their ilk float uncertainly in relation to their time. While their electric heroics and montage messaging fuel cinematic modernity, they are never allowed to exist in the present.
Meanwhile, switchboard operators, an expanding gendered workforce still very much installed at the nodes of national discourse in the 1910s, invariably get coded as disruptive, vain, and gossipy, arguably because their organized labor still presents a threat to the network.36 From this perspective, the sub-generic split in the 1910s between heroic lone operator and gossip-at-the-switchboard films shows us two seemingly opposed methods used to demonstrate the logic of crosscutting while managing the female communications worker’s access to coworker solidarity: either isolate her in the country, put her in danger, and couple her with a male engineer, or put her in a room with other women and code their talk as disruptive.37 The only way for a telephone operator to be heroic is if she is alone at her station, like Griffith’s “telephone girl” at the top right of figure 9.
As female Morse operators faded from mass cultural memory, switchboard operators became iconic on a global scale. By 1933, AT&T’s newest speech-weaver ad, “Weaving the World of Speech,” announced their transnational legibility as cultural characters and pioneering purveyors of long-distance telephone service, binding continents together by carrying subscribers’ voices to “London, Paris, Berlin—Madrid, Rome, Bucharest—Capetown, Manila, Sydney” and “many other cities overseas.”38 Although cinematic switchboard operators were largely reduced to mediating the margins of narrative film in the 1920s, they also had a shadow career throughout the decade as stars of advertisements and industrial films. Riffing on Miriam Hansen’s concept of “vernacular modernism,” Jane Gaines has insisted we resurface the female screenwriters behind the “serial queen fast-paced editing” that influenced Soviet montage filmmakers for a better understanding of how their work was used to turn Hollywood style into an exportable, adaptable syntax and then efficiently replaced by “the narrative structure they had helped to develop.”39 By locating Helen the telegrapher and her fellow serial queens at the intersection of continuity editing, montage, and female redundancy, Gaines also evokes the girl operator’s exportable formal legacy. In the 1930s European conversion-era films I will highlight in the next section, this legacy comes through as a kind of irrepressible vernacular modernism. All five films open with telephonic montage sequences meant to evoke contemporary industrial films, and as a result, their operator heroines are trailed by an ambiguous mixture of corporate and modernist syntax, making them particularly potent vessels for early sound films that anxiously clung to montage aesthetics in the context of talkie cacophony.
Sound Conversion: The Switchboard Operator as Montage Mistress and Translator
From 1929 to 1934, European film companies scrambled to compete with Hollywood’s monopolistic expansion by forging links across borders to negotiate cheap, efficient models of transnational coproduction that might make up for the fall of Babel, now that intertitles could no longer be cut out and woven back in, as they had been for decades, to “translate” a film into another language. While the United States, France, Britain, Italy, and Germany divided up the European market, newly formed sound film companies like Tobis-Klangfilm adapted microphones, tube amplifiers, and telephones from communications industries to film production.40 Meanwhile, early experiments in dubbing and subtitles met with little success. French audiences, especially, expressed concern that the limitations of on-site sound recording would compromise the sophisticated expressivity of silent film editing.41
Between 1932 and 1934, no fewer than five European romantic comedies about switchboard operators premiered: Âllo Mademoiselle (Hello Miss, 1932), Allo Berlin? Ici Paris! / Hallo Hallo! Hier Spricht Berlin! (Hello Berlin? Paris Calling! / Hello Hello! This Is Berlin!, 1932), Fräulein – Falsch Verbunden (Wrong Number, Miss, 1932), La Telefonista (The Telephone Girl, 1932), and Give Her a Ring (1934). All five boasted synchronized sound, musical numbers, and (even more novel at the time) complex, rapid editing sequences throughout that did not destroy the illusion of continuous conversation.
Among these conversion-era operator films, Allo Berlin? Ici Paris! / Hallo Hallo! Hier Spricht Berlin! received the most press coverage, likely because it was directed by Julien Duvivier, an up-and-coming auteur often compared to René Clair. French and German critics alike praised Duvivier for his self-conscious reliance on montage to structure the leads’ telephonically mediated flirtations, a choice that set the film apart from the much-maligned cinéma parlant (talking cinema).42 As one French journalist enthused, “We rejoice to finally see a film that is not primarily defined with respect to a play, but is, in fact, a cinematic film, conceived for the cinema and executed cinematographically. This might seem like a banal compliment. But it isn’t! Today, it’s almost…a miracle for a film to be cinematic instead of theatrical.”43 While most reviews emphasized the film’s “pure” cinematographic properties, particularly its editing, many also celebrated the Franco-German friendship advertised by its conditions of coproduction and diegesis (a romance between switchboard operators stationed in Paris and Berlin).44 With half the cast from Germany and half from France, the film was shot in both languages and released in two versions, one with French subtitles and the other with German subtitles. Newspaper advertisements laden with wires, lightning bolts, and telephone poles suggested that the true form of “true cinema” was telephonic (fig. 10).
If the press was reticent about how very many operator films showed up at the box office in the early 1930s, it was likely because at least three were different versions of the same film, a phenomenon explained by the prevalence of multiple language version (MLV) films among US, French, German, English, Austrian, and Italian studio releases at the time.45 For European studios in particular, MLV films seemed to offer the last hope for resistance against Hollywood’s global market domination. In reference to their capacity to transcend national bounds, UFA producer Erich Pommer called them the Esperanto of sound cinema.46 Most articles on the subject from this period are elegiac but tentatively hopeful. An article published in the Neues Wiener Journal in August 1932 mourned a prelapsarian era when “the silent film was the international link between nations,” but also gestured toward the heterotopian possibilities suggested by the new Babel in formation on studio lots outside Berlin. It offered Allo Berlin? Ici Paris! as an exemplar of the MLV’s potential to restore the broken link between French and German film industries.47
Significantly, Duvivier’s film was also an exception to most MLV productions because it incorporated two languages at once, justifying their comingling through a bilingual plot (most other polyglot films from this time were war dramas with soldiers speaking in their native languages).48 More often, MLV films followed the trend exemplified by Fräulein – Falsch Verbunden, La Telefonista, and Give Her a Ring, three separate films with three separate casts, released in three different countries, but all adapted from the same screenplay and produced through a coalition of German, Italian, and British film companies. All three are musical comedies about a telephonic romance between a comely young switchboard operator and the director of the telephone office where she works. From one version to another, scenes line up shot for shot and musical numbers retain their original melodies.
For all these echoes, the single most significant bridge among all three versions is the girl operator, whose presence activates montage, modernity, and the marriage plot. The year 1932 witnessed not only a multiplicity of polyglot and MLV operator films; the box office success of Âllo Mademoiselle and Un coup de telephone (A Telephone Call) suggests that telephones and their operators were broadly perceived as agents of technological, historical, and cultural continuity, perfectly poised to smooth over ruptures created by the crisis of conversion. These films exploited the switchboard operator’s US origins and globalization to cast her as a kind of transnational technological diplomat—a mediatrix of multiple languages, nations, and cinematic forms.
But as with the rise of cinematic Morse operators in the midst of real Morse operators’ transfer to teletype, there is an odd synchronicity at work between the switchboard operator’s cinematic activation and professional obsolescence. In the 1930s, the transition to sound and expansion of long-distance calling were accompanied by the installation of the first automatic dialing systems across Europe.49 This did not mean that switchboard operators disappeared completely, but it did mean that male sound engineers would take over the discourse of manual, mechanical expertise, leaving operators with only their voices and smiles to sell their service. In figure 11, taken from the GPO film unit’s 1933 montage-heavy industrial film The Coming of the Dial, we see this transition staged as a competition between two gendered skills: engineering and operation. The male engineer is pictured alone and absorbed at his station, delicately threading wires through a switchboard. With his fingers in focus, he resembles a skilled artisanal weaver. The rows of leftover female operators, by contrast, register primarily as mass-replicable, promotional aesthetic icons, multiplying kaleidoscopically out of the background. Beneath glowing faces and shining headsets, their hands fade from focus under cover of darkness.
While a number of female film editors survived the transition to sound, Kristen Hatch has shown that they too felt crowded in by a new class of “experts,” the sound engineers sent from studios and communications companies to “teach” women how to edit sound films. Hatch quotes Margaret Booth, one of the most famous female editors who made the transition, on the subject of these engineers: “Sound was their background, and they all knew everything. And they didn’t know a damn thing, but they ‘knew everything.’”50 These new forms of gender segregation offer one possible historical lens through which to read Allo Berlin? Ici Paris!’s structural illusion of a heterosexually gender-balanced telephone network. Although the film opens with a montage sequence riffing on contemporary industrials that evokes the vast, sprawling expanse of the global telephone network and its multiracial, female-dominated workforce, the rest of its narrative is organized around a white, domestic quartet: two German boys and two French girls (fig. 12).
In this transitional film, as in The Lonedale Operator, montage is first catalyzed by the girl at her station but ultimately funneled into romantic dialogue. The contrast between our naive protagonists and their mischievous coworkers also establishes a moral dichotomy between good (honest, pure, romantic) and bad (interfering, misleading, spying) telephone use that pedagogically transfers the switchboard operator’s training to a civilian populace newly equipped to make direct calls. In a finale that definitively marks the film world’s transition from switchboard operation to automatic dialing, Allo Berlin? Ici Paris! ends with its operators relieved of their headsets and restored to in-person communication through the timely appearance of a room full of rotary phones.
One of the most remarkable links among the five 1932–34 European operator films highlighted here is that at least three of them, and likely four (I have yet to find a viewable version of Give Her a Ring), conclude in a Berlin telephone bar, with a word of love shared over the Tischtelefon (table telephone). A Weimar-era fad that had apparently become a major continental tourist attraction by the early 1930s, telephone bars offered patrons the chance to sit at numbered tables, call each other over their table telephones to flirt from across the room, and circulate discreet messages, champagne, or cocaine through ornate pneumatic tubes.51 In Allo Berlin? Ici Paris!, Duvivier uses the table telephone to resolve the film’s romantic narrative and the cut at the heart of its titular binary. While the emcee explains how the telephone bar works, the camera pans 180 degrees from one side of the room to the other, demonstratively not cutting between any of the tables, which are arranged in a circle to mimic a dial. The last pan, which follows the operator heroine’s gaze to a table telephone user across the room, suggests that cinematic continuity can only be fully restored by forcing the mediatrix to face her own formal obsolescence. With a pensive face overlaid by the subtitle “Regardez cette nouveauté” (Look at this novelty), Lili the operator gives way to the newest machine invented to replace her (fig. 13).
As cyberfeminists like Donna Haraway and Sadie Plant have shown, under racial, patriarchal capitalism, automation and “feminization” go hand in hand: “Since the industrial revolution, and with every subsequent phase of technological change,” writes Plant, “it has been the case that the more sophisticated the machines, the more female the workforce becomes.”52 Plant and Lisa Nakamura both read weaving as an ur-craft for this palimpsest, a kind of material and metaphorical tissue that links the first “spinsters” (women at spinning wheels) subjected to the mechanical rhythms of the power loom to the “flexible labor of women of color” whose “nimble fingers” still disproportionately bear the burden of electronic manufacturing.53 While weaving has most often been invoked by employers as a force of domestication to naturalize profit-motivated policies, it also offers today’s feminist media historians a thread to follow through the feminization of telegraph and telephone operation—one that highlights the gendered handiwork hidden at the heart of modern media infrastructure and narrative form. The invisible work of women of color in the globalized, integrated circuit thus become legible as “the latest in the long and twisted line of micro-processes which emerge from a tangle of telephone lines, dials, operators, cables, tones, switches, and plugs; the keys, carriages, and cases of typewriters; the punched-card programs of calculators, pianolas, and looms; flying shuttles, spinning wheels.”54 By approaching telegraph and switchboard operation as tangles in a “long and twisted” line of feminized weaving labor, we can recover a repressed history of the feminine fingerprints left on texts, textiles, and other new narrative media.
The only major film I know of that is framed didactically by the handiwork of a woman at an editing bench—Man with a Movie Camera (1929)—also adopts weaving women as its central mediating mechanism. Brimming with mediatrixes, this iconic Soviet montage film’s attention to cuts, the means of production, and the largely female workforce that makes the whole system go offers a telling counterexample to classical cinema’s systematic stitching over of the feminized linking labor on which it runs.55 I interpret the final sequence—in which the weaver, typist, telephone operator, and film editor are all woven into a rhythmic continuum of synchronized hands and machines, so that every gesture becomes an echo and rhyme of another feminized form of work—as an invitation from Elizaveta Svilova, the darting eyes overseeing the sequence, to replace film theory’s preferred language of “suture” with industrial weaving, which materially and laboriously undergirds both montage and continuity editing (fig. 14).56 Approaching the operator as a weaver of film and film itself as a woven medium at once exposes the layers of feminization underlying classical cinematic syntax and offers a way out of the violent, medicalized signifying practices of most twentieth-century film theory, from Walter Benjamin’s description of the film editor as a “surgeon” who penetrates into the flesh of reality to Laura Mulvey’s theorization of woman in classical cinema as perennial splice victim, cut up and sutured on-screen.57
Over the course of this essay, I hope, among other things, to have offered some context for an understanding that it is no accident that the heroine of Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), Mulvey’s most famous counter-classical editing experiment, is a switchboard operator. As we see in figure 15, the intertitles that frame the switchboard sequence are very different from the domestic frame that encloses classical and transitional cinematic girl operators. Oddly cropped, as if to mimic the fragmented sensory experience and constrained communications of women at switchboards, the text offers us access to the mind of the mediatrix, but the camera—panning orbitally instead of penetrating the space—restricts access to her industrially fetishized face. With capitalism’s dialectical “need” for and “punishment” of its female intermediaries verbalized as a fragmented internal monologue, the occluded images and dispersed sounds of women’s telephone work resist formal and aesthetic mystification. In this canonical retort to patriarchal film editing, switchboard operators are restored to a space of worker solidarity, protected from the camera gaze, and woven into a sonic envelope of women’s talk.
I will conclude with one last pair of crosscutting sequences. Released in 1913, a year Charles Musser has called “the mid point in a dissolve” for the early studio era, Thanhouser’s The Evidence of the Film is the only evidence I have found in a narrative film of the gendered history of film editing.58 As a conspicuous anomaly, it proves the general rule of the cutter girl’s invisibility, but also covertly hooks her up to the transitional telephone girl.
Set on a studio lot, The Evidence of the Film has a melodramatic plot structured around a meta-cinematic investigation: exploiting the chaotic environment of the film set, a corrupt broker robs a messenger boy in transit with twenty thousand dollars, replacing the envelope he drops on the ground with a dummy package. The crime happens to be caught on camera, but the film is sent to the studio before it can be seized by the police. So, the messenger boy calls his sister, a cutter girl, on the telephone to enlist her detective skills. With resourceful efficiency, she uncovers the cinematic evidence of the crime, cuts out the relevant shot, and shows it to the judge. A screening at the studio is then arranged, where the film crew and police triumphantly watch the crime unfold as a cinematic spectacle.
Figure 16 summarizes the two crosscutting sequences at the heart of the film that hook our heroine into the plot and ensure its resolution. The first, like many made during the narrativization era, uses a girl at the telephone to model the logic of interlocking shots. The message has been received. Help is on the way. The second, like a crazy bridge from the cinema of attractions to continuity editing via Man with a Movie Camera, turns self-reflexively on the process of editing itself. After witnessing the scene of the crime through the cutter girl’s eyes, we are jerked back into the studio, where we see her stand up from her bench, as if still processing what she has detected. Together, the two sequences create a puckish link between the alternations activated by the girl at the telephone and the girl at the editing bench.
On one level, this link highlights the standardization of the white-collar woman worker in the age of her cinematic reproducibility; note that the cutter girl’s uniform is almost identical to the one worn by Griffith’s iconic girl operator (fig. 17). But on another level, it offers critical insight into the essential reflexivity of the imaginative shot-weaving work the mediatrix is periodically enlisted to perform on-screen. The final point I want to make, then, is about a dominant form of feminized mediation in another sphere of the film industry: spectatorship.
Like the telegraph and telephone operators we have seen switch seamlessly between novelistic and cinematic imaginaries, cutter girls in the early studio era were perceived as intuitively attuned to “what the public wants to see.” As Florence Osborne explained in a 1924 Motion Picture Magazine article about the quickness and resourcefulness of female film editors: “They can sit in a stuffy cutting-room and see themselves looking at the picture before an audience.”59 With this evocative image in mind, which recalls the Lonedale operator’s ability to hold two locations in her mind at once, we can see Thanhouser’s cutter girl not only as a diegetic techno-pedagogue equipped with telephonic and filmic prostheses, but even more tantalizingly as a vital mental mediatrix for the film industry’s female-dominated audience. Suture theory, as we may recall, holds that the final resolution of a film’s ruptures and lacks happens in the mind of the spectator, not on the screen. One way to read the two crosscutting sequences above is through the cutter girl’s ability to visualize what she hears over the phone, which leads her to correctly identify the footage her public wants to see. Far from forcing us to pursue a claim to editing as authorship, this rare scene of the double-minded cutter girl stitching herself and the audience into the cinematic illusion offers us the chance to expose a forgotten feedback loop of girl-on-girl mediation hidden in the cut of industrial film form.
This is an abridged version of a dissertation chapter, first presented as a work-in-progress talk before the Yale Film and Media Studies department over Zoom on May 28, 2020. Many thanks to Feminist Media Histories, the Gender & Feminisms Caucus, and my readers and guides: Mal Ahern, Susie An, Dudley Andrew, Francesco Casetti, Christopher Grobe, Lucy Hunter, Anastasia Kostina, John Mackay, Yahel Matalon, Brian Meacham, Charles Musser, John Durham Peters, Barbara Pohl, Joseph Roach, Masha Shpolberg, Eric Smoodin, Jenny Tang, and Katie Trumpener.
David Meuel, Women Film Editors: Unseen Artists of American Cinema (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016), 8. Meuel seems to have launched a wave of scholarship tying “sewing” and “knitting” to the early gendering of editing.
Walter Murch and Michael Ondaatje, The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Editing of Film (New York: Bloomsbury, 2003), 26.
Kristen Hatch, “Cutting Women: Margaret Booth and Hollywood’s Pioneering Female Film Editors,” Women Film Pioneers Project, ed. Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, Center for Digital Research and Scholarship (New York: Columbia University Libraries), https://wfpp.columbia.edu/essay/cutting-women/.
Hatch, “Cutting Women.” See also Su Friedrich’s new website, Edited by: Women Film Editors (Princeton, NJ: Lewis Center for the Arts, 2017), https://arts.princeton.edu/events/women-film-editors/; and Karen Pearlman’s short film Woman with an Editing Bench (2016), which can be viewed on Kanopy (with membership): https://www.kanopy.com/product/woman-editing-bench.
See Lilya Kaganovsky, “Film Editing as Women’s Work: Esfir’ Shub, Elizaveta Svilova, and the Culture of Soviet Montage,” and Alla Gadassik, “Ėsfir' Shub on Women in the Editing Room: ‘The Work of Montazhnitsy’ (1927),” in “Women at the Editing Table: Revising Soviet Film History of the 1920s and 1930s,” special issue, Apparatus: Film, Media, and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 6 (2018): http://www.apparatusjournal.net/index.php/apparatus/article/view/114/303; http://www.apparatusjournal.net/index.php/apparatus/article/view/125/304. See also Ursula Höf, “Die Arbeit einer freien Cutterin,” and Renate Brackhahn-Witt, “Cutterinnen im NDR: Organisierung, Kämpfe, Bezahlung,” in “Cutterinnen,” Frauen und Film 9 (October 1976): 5–7, 8–11.
Erin Hill, Never Done: A History of Women’s Work in Media Production (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016), 3, 5. See also Jane M. Gaines, Pink-Slipped: What Happened to Women in the Silent Film Industries? (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018).
Karen Pearlman and Adelheid Heftberger, “Editorial: Recognizing Women’s Work as Creative Work,” Apparatus 6 (2018): http://www.apparatusjournal.net/index.php/apparatus/article/view/124/276.
See Raymond Bellour, “To Alternate/To Narrate (on The Lonedale Operator),” in The Analysis of Film, ed. Constance Penley (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 262–78; Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, 1907–1915, History of American Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 2:53–72; Tom Gunning, “Heard over the Phone: The Lonely Villa and the de Lorde Tradition of the Terrors of Technology,” Screen 32, no. 2 (Summer 1991): 184–96; Tom Gunning, “Systematizing the Electric Message: Narrative Form, Gender, and Modernity in The Lonedale Operator,” in American Cinema’s Transitional Era: Audiences, Institutions, Practices, ed. Charlie Keil and Shelley Stamp (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 15–50; Lynne Kirby, Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 75–131; Jan Olsson, “Calling the Shots: Communication, Transportation, and Motion Picture Technologies in the Teens,” in The Cinema: A New Technology for the 20th Century, ed. André Gaudreault, Catherine Russell, and Pierre Veronneau (Lausanne, France: Editions Payot, 2004), 273–81.
Paul Young, “Media on Display: A Telegraphic History of Early American Cinema,” in New Media, 1740–1915, ed. Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003): 229–31.
Gunning, “Heard over the Phone,” 195.
Christopher Morris, “Easy Virtue’s Frames,” in Framing Hitchcock: Selected Essays from the Hitchcock Annual, ed. Sidney Gottlieb and Christopher Brookhouse (Detroit: Wayne State University Press), 86.
From Hitchcock’s iconic 1962 interview with François Truffaut. See https://the.hitchcock.zone/wiki/Alfred_Hitchcock_and_Fran%C3%A7ois_Truffaut_(Aug/1962).
Sergei Eisenstein, “The Montage of Film Attractions,” in Selected Works, ed. Richard Taylor (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 1:47.
Noël Burch, Theory of Film Practice (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981), 4.
Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and other Writings on Media, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2008), 35.
April Middeljans, “‘Weavers of Speech’: Telephone Operators as Defiant Domestics in American Culture,” Journal of Modern Literature 33, no. 3 (Spring 2010): 39.
Katherine Mullin, Working Girls: Fiction, Sexuality, and Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 22.
Katherine Stubbs, “Telegraphy’s Corporeal Fictions,” in New Media, 1740–1915, 94; Justin McCarthy, “Along the Wires,” Harper’s Monthly Magazine, February 1870, 416; Henry James, In the Cage (London: Duckworth, 1898), 12.
Amy Kaplan, “Manifest Domesticity,” American Literature 70, no. 3 (September 1998): 582.
“Weavers of Speech,” American Telephone and Telegraph, December 1915, box 2061, AT&T Archives, Warren, New Jersey.
Bernhard Siegert, Relays: Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 190.
See for example this Moving Picture World synopsis: “THE EXPRESS MESSENGER (1915) – A girl operator story, with Florence Crawford in the leading part. The crooked express messenger and his pal try to make away with the big sum of money, but she manages to outwit them.” Moving Picture World, February 6, 1915, 828.
For an excellent analysis of the transatlantic circuit of telegraphic theater see Christopher Grobe, “Every Nerve Keyed Up: ‘Telegraph Plays’ and Networked Performance, 1850–1900,” Theater 46, no. 2 (2016): 7–33.
See Lynne Kirby on Kalem’s rerelease of The Grit of the Girl Telegrapher (1912) as an episode of The Hazards of Helen: Kirby, Parallel Tracks, 113. The transnational list of girl-operator films assembled here suggests that telegraph girls were an exclusively North American export, while French and Italian film companies participated in the telephone girl tradition early on. This is likely because Morse operation was feminized in the United States, Canada, and England during the late nineteenth century, but not globally, like telephone operation. I curated this list primarily from synopses in Motion Picture News and Moving Picture World.
Bellour, “To Alternate/To Narrate,” 262.
The other major body of work on telephonic film comes out of feminist psychoanalytic film theory on women’s voices. See Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988); Amy Lawrence, Echo and Narcissus: Women’s Voices in Classical Hollywood Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Britta Sjogren, Into the Vortex: Female Voice and Paradox in Film (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005). For an intermedial analysis of the “classical Hollywood telephone” that highlights the underexplored gender of the telephone operator see Ned Schantz, Gossip, Letters, Phones: The Scandal of Female Networks in Film and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
Gunning, “Systematizing the Electric Message,” 43.
Kirby, Parallel Tracks, 106. For more on the extraordinary impact of serial queens like Helen see Jennifer Bean, “Technologies of Early Stardom and the Extraordinary Body,” Camera Obscura 16, no. 3 (2001): 8–57; Shelley Stamp, “Ready-Made Customers: Female Movie Fans and the Serial Craze,” in Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture after the Nickelodeon (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 102–41.
The index finger tapping that became the standard technique for theatrical and cinematic Morse telegraphy was inaccurate; a real Morse operator would press down on the sounder with her thumb and palm in a subtler fashion. My speculation on the audiovisual function served by this convention is based on Eileen Bowser’s note: “The advice given to the musician in the case of rapid alternation of scenes was to select the dominant mood and stick with it.” Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, 58.
“‘Hello, hello,’ shouts the enraged colonel, but no response. This is because Leah, the prettiest girl at the switchboard, is too much engrossed in an interesting novel, and will not be interrupted.” “Leah, the Telephone Girl,” Moving Picture World, April–June 1912, 954.
Sadie Plant, Zeros + Ones: Digital Women + the New Technoculture (London: Fourth Estate, 1998), 111, 115.
Thomas C. Jepsen, My Sisters Telegraphic: Women in the Telegraph Office, 1846–1950 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000), 44.
Schantz, Gossip, Letters, Phones, 62.
Jepsen, My Sisters Telegraphic, 11.
Gunning, “Systematizing the Electric Message,” 40.
Stephen Norwood, Labor’s Flaming Youth: Telephone Operators and Worker Militancy, 1878–1923 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 128–215.
Jan Olsson, “Framing Silent Calls: Coming to Cinematic Terms with Telephony,” in Allegories of Communication: Intermedial Concerns from Cinema to the Digital, ed. John Fullerton and Jan Olsson (Rome: J. Libbey, 2004), 162.
“Weaving the World of Speech,” American Telephone and Telegraph, October 1933, box 2061, AT&T Archives, Warren, New Jersey.
Gaines, Pink-Slipped, 182, 192.
See Douglas Gomery, “Tri-Ergon, Tobis-Klangfilm, and the Coming of Sound,” Cinema Journal 16, no. 1 (1976): 51–61; Donald Crafton, “Mindshare: Telephone and Radio Compete for the Talkies,” in Allegories of Communication, 141–56.
See Charles O’Brien, Cinema’s Conversion to Sound: Technology and Film Style in France and the U.S. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005).
O’Brien, Cinema’s Conversion to Sound, 65.
J. C., “Allo! Berlin! Ici, Paris! aux Miracles,” Le Semaine à Paris, November 25, 1932, 22, my translation.
For example: “The parallelism between the Paris Central and Berlin is well mapped without becoming systematic.…The premise, though simple, serves the cause of Franco-German rapprochement much better than a giant, declamatory machine.” La Femme de France, “Poil de Carotte / Allo Berlin? Ici Paris! / On N’a Pas Besoin d’Argent,” Le Cinema, January 22, 1933, 20, my translation.
The only acknowledgment I have found of the phenomenon is this review of Allo Berlin? Ici Paris!: “The telephone is very useful for filmmakers, at least for the purpose of providing a title. Maurice Tourneur calls his latest production Allo! Mademoiselle!” “L’Ecran et Ses Vedettes,” La Vie Parisienne, September, 17, 1932, 777, my translation.
Nancy P. Nenno, “Language, the Voice and Esperantism in Early German Sound Film: The Case of ‘Niemandsland,’” Colloquia Germanica 44, no. 3 (2011): 283.
“Französische Filmstadt Berlin: Verbrüderung zwischen deutschen und französischen Künstlern,” Neues Wiener Journal, August 5, 1932, 9. This journalist uses the word Bindeglied, which I have translated as “link.”
Ginette Vincendeau, “Hollywood Babel,” Screen 2 (1988): 27.
The technology for automatic dialing was available from 1891 onward, but most countries were slow to use it to replace female operators, who provided a PR service that far outweighed the benefits of automation. The question of why the United States was particularly slow frames Kenneth Lipartito’s canonical essay “When Women Were Switches: Technology, Work, and Gender in the Telephone Industry, 1890–1920,” American Historical Review 99, no. 4 (October 1994): 1075–111.
Hatch, “Cutting Women.”
Helen Josephy and Mary Margaret McBride, Beer and Skittles: A Friendly Guide to Modern Germany (London: GP Putnam’s Sons, 1932), 35.
Plant, Zeros + Ones, 39. See also Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Manifestly Haraway (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 3–90.
Lisa Nakamura, “Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture,” American Quarterly 66, no. 4 (December 2014): 919.
Plant, Zeros + Ones, 75.
While the cutter girls of the Soviet film industry are conspicuously absent from Elizaveta Svilova’s artisanally edited film, we can imaginatively weave them in with the help of another recently recovered mother of montage. In Esfir Shub’s 1927 ode to the montazhnitsa (montagess), we find a haunting echo of Bell’s speech-weaving verse: “Film winders spin ceaselessly.…Her head bowed, arms ceaselessly moving, eyes intensely focused on the film strip, the montazhnitsa is at work.” Gadassik, “Ėsfir' Shub on Women in the Editing Room.”
See Kaganovsky, “Film Editing as Women’s Work.” As Kaganovsky illustrates, industrial cutting was gendered female in both French (monteuses) and German (Cutterinnen, Kleberinnen) in addition to Russian. For an overview of how suture theory has been deployed by film scholars see Kaja Silverman, “Suture,” in The Subject of Semiotics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 194–236.
Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and other Writings on Media, 35; Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Visual and Other Pleasures (New York: Palgrave, 1989), 14–28.
Charles Musser, “On ‘Extras,’ Mary Pickford, and the Red-Light Film Filmmaking in the United States, 1913,” Griffithiana 50 (May 1994): 149. The Evidence of the Film can be viewed on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/20262650.
Quoted in Hatch, “Cutting Women.”