Latter-day Saint Video Vault celebrates decades of uplifting, funny, weird, and sometimes cringe-worthy Mormon-related videos, most of which are now found on YouTube. Join Jared Jones every other Friday as he breaks down one of these classics.
Note: This article previously misidentified the director of The Phone call as Reed Smoot. The correct director and producer was Douglas G. Johnson.
Welome back, videophiles! This week we head from bleak to meek with a look at my wife’s favorite LDS film of all time—The Phone Call. The Phone Call is based on a short story by Jack Weyland published in the New Era in February of 1976 and was released as a short film by BYU Motion Picture Studios in 1977 with Douglas G. Johnson producing and directing. This film has it all: painfully awkward dialog, a pretty prominent star as the male lead (check the notes at the bottom), action, and a quirky sound track.
I asked my wife why she liked it. She said, “It just captures so much of the awkwardness of high school. And it has some great lines. But I don’t know what it has to do with the church!” She captures it spot on. It’s a church-free tale full of teen angst and awkwardness.
The film opens on Scott, your average bassoon-playing teen, in search of a date with his dream girl, Pam. We know Pam is his dream girl because she is shown in soft focus in a quick cutaway. He tries calling her but then hangs up; he can’t muster up the courage to talk to her.
Each of Scott’s actions throughout the film are in service of building personal confidence and asking Pam out. He earns money by delivering papers. Badly. He gets a different job at Ripple’s Drive-Inn but has a lot of problems learning the ropes. A training montage shows that the word “hapless” might very well have been created specifically for Scott. Nothing seems to work out for him but you find yourself rooting for him nonetheless. You actually believe (maybe) that buying that video karate course with his hard-earned cash will solve all of his confidence needs.
While working at Ripple’s he meets Becky. Becky trains him on the job and then befriends him. Their conversations produce some of the film’s best one-liners:
“I play the bassoon. It’s like a balloon with 2 s’s.”
“I sound bigger in the metric system.”
“The bassoon hasn’t made it to the big rock groups yet.”
Becky also invites Scott to call her at home for practice. The interaction highlights Scott’s complete inability to hold a conversation. Becky encourages him to practice by talking to the customers at the Drive-Inn. He engages two girls in a train wreck of a conversation that starts with the future of the California citrus crop and ends with a passionate plea for knowing one’s own gas mileage (the latter perhaps a bit more commonplace in our efficiency-driven culture nowadays). She keeps encouraging him and giving him friendly advice along the way, especially when his initial phone calls to Pam revolve around lawn care.
But Scott helps Becky too. We meet Becky’s jerk-with-a-cool-car stereotype boyfriend, Joe. Becky and Joe have a fight and Scott offers to cheer her up by playing something on his bassoon, as one does. He also lectures Becky about dating someone who could treat her better. Delivered by anyone else this speech could have been very mansplainy, but Scott’s humble-bumble delivery saves it.
The film culminates with Scott asking Becky to his orchestra benefit, much to the chagrin of Joe. We are treated to an intense karate battle and Scott surprising his bandmates with the presence of the lovely Becky. Her arrival shot at the dance has some great cinematography that looks as it was lifted from a Love Boat arrival scene. The date with Becky cements his confidence and he finally manages a somewhat normal phone call with Pam.
In the final assessment, this film is sweet, funny, and a bit ridiculous—reinforced by bumbling bassoon underscoring throughout. Through playing with extremes it teaches that talking to others and building social relationships takes effort and doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Today’s teens and tweens may not find the appeal (What’s a phone book? Wait I have to TALK to someone and not text?), but perhaps seeing someone SO awkward would make them realize it’s okay to take risks and it’s okay to be the friend who helps others take risks. The Phone Call (or clips from it) could still serve as a humorous way to open up a dating standards night. Have church health unit doctors and nurses standing by in case of debilitating eye-rolls.
Thoughts, Musings and Trivia
- Marc McClure as Scott was a pretty big “get.” He starred in Disney’s original Freaky Friday a year earlier and went on to star as Jimmy Olson in the original Superman movies as well as Dave McFly in All 3 Back to the Future movies, where in a better 1985, he “always wears a suit to the office” but still lives with his parents.
- The film was shot in various locations around Provo, Utah, including Ripple’s Drive-Inn, which is still in business today.
- In the short story, Scott plays the oboe. Clearly it was too cool and edgy so they geeked it up and changed it to the bassoon.