Caroline Martel - The Phantom of the Operator
This wry and delightful found-footage film reveals a little-known chapter in labor history: the story of female telephone operators’ central place in the development of global communications. With an eye for the quirky and humorous, Caroline Martel assembles a dazzling array of clips – more than one hundred remarkable, rarely seen industrial, advertising and scientific management films produced in North America between 1903 and 1989 by Bell and Western Electric – and transforms them into a dreamlike montage documentary.
As the first agents of globalization, this invisible army of women offered a way for companies to feminize and glamorize what was a highly stressful, underpaid and difficult job. Not merely “Voices with a Smile,” telephone operators were shooting stars in a universe of infinite progress, test pilots for new management systems, and the face of shrewd public relations campaigns. As the work of operators has been eclipsed by the advent of automated systems, this artful piece of labor history also offers an insightful comment on women’s work, industrialization and communications technology.