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‘Birthday boy’ Bell would be amazed at phone’s impact on pop culture

Check out some of Alexander Graham Bell’s device’s high-profile appearances in movie plots, skits and pop songs.

Chuck Slocum

Alexander Graham Bell

This month marks the 165th anniversary of the birth of Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922).

 We’ve come a long way since Bell, as legend has it, made that first brief “call” — a March 10, 1876, message to his assistant: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”

In the process, he launched a communication medium that’s still revolutionizing the world — with each phone innovation making last month’s model seem a step closer to the trash heap of obsolescence.

Over the years, the telephone has played key roles in shrinking the world and connecting people at all times and places. But I wanted to concentrate on some of its high-profile appearances in pop culture, particularly movie plots, skits and popular songs.

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Check ’em out here — not a wrong number in the bunch.

Movie scenes

We’ll start with a lighter one before moving on to some really tense phone encounters:

• Billy Crystal leaves Meg Ryan a “Call Me” phone message in the 1989 romcom, “When Harry Met Sally.”

“Fail Safe,” a 1964 nuclear-age thriller, builds to the crisis scene as the president (Henry Fonda) and the Soviet premier trade tense hot-line exchanges with the help of an interpreter (the then-unknown Larry Hagman of future “Dallas” fame). Spoiler alert: This film clip includes the ending sequence.)

• Another tense story, 1948’s “Sorry, Wrong Number,” puts Barbara Stanwyck in jeopardy as she plays an invalid who overhears a phone call about an imminent murder.

• And a murder plot goes awry after Grace Kelly answers the phone in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film “Dial M for Murder.”

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Unfortunately, the “Dial M” film clip isn’t embeddable — which is also the case with my two favorite phone calls from the 1976 Watergate film “All the President’s Men.”  In both instances, Robert Redford (as Washington Post report Bob Woodward) talks to Minnesotans caught up in events, the late businessman Kenneth Dahlberg and former Congressman/Nixon Campaign Manager Clark MacGregor.


A couple of timeless routines:

•  Bob Newhart’s classic Empire State Building phone call skit about a guard’s hectic first night on the job.

Ernestine, Lily Tomlin’s persistent phone company operator from “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.”

A sampling of telephone songs

Speaking of phone operators, here are a couple of songs about them:

• Jim Croce’s “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels).”

• And Manhattan Transfer’s “Operator,” featuring a very long, long-distance call.  

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And some phone love songs:

• Two like-titled songs: Chris Montez’s “Call Me” and  Blondie’s “Call Me.”

• Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”

• Paul Anka’s “Kissin’ on the Phone.”

• Three songs about phone manners (or lack of them): The Orlons’ “Don’t Hang Up,” Sugarloaf’s “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You” and the Beatles’ “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number).”

• Four “waiting” songs: Cymarron’s Rings,” and ELO’s “Telephone Line” and two from ’60s heartthrob Shelley Fabares: “Telephone (Won’t You Ring)” and “Ronnie, Call Me When You Get a Chance.”

• A novelty song filled with double entendres: Meri Wilson’s “Telephone Man.”

• And three phone-number songs: The Marvelettes’ “Beechwood 4-5789,” Wilson Pickett’s “634-5789 (Soulsville, USA)” and  Tommy Tutone’s      “867-5309/Jenny.”

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On another topic, if you’re in the mood to celebrate April Fools’ Day on Sunday, here’s an old list of mine offering 24 “fool” songs – one for each hour of the day.