Essay by Caroline Martel
Initially called “Central!” or “the Hello Girls”, telephone operators were eventually nicknamed “the Business Girls” as they were for a time treated as sort of long-distance secretaries for the primarily business-based subscribers. How Business Girls Keep Well demonstrates how they were treated to company weekends in the country. The film opens on an amusing lengthy shot of some twenty young operators (between about the ages of 14 and 25), as they smilingly come out of a tent, “bright and early,” in their white summer pyjamas. Their outdoor exercise regiment cuts to a close-up shot of fruits and vegetables, then to a “frolic in the water” scene where the girls — sporting swimming suits featuring the Bell Telephone Company of Canada logo — are seen bathing. One of the operators starts drowning in the lake, and as she is rescued by her colleagues, the film’s intertitle explains: “The regular training of Bell Telephone girls makes for radiant health and quick action in emergencies.” Each time the film could be read as a Scouts and Guides portrait, or a health and hygiene promotional short, glamour and conventional femininity peak in, and intertitles are quick to bring us back to the point of How Business Girls Keep Well. The climax/high point of the film is a “dancing on the green” sequence: in large white gowns, the telephone operators perform a choreography reminiscent of serpentine dances. The film concludes with a shot of the Business Girls at their switchboards, as the final intertitle reads “Back to the office, refreshed and invigorated, ready for the week's work.”
How Business Girls Keep Well was shot on location in the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec by Millar Studio, a Montreal photographic studio that produced images for the Bell Telephone Co. of Canada for more than three decades. It is the sole documented film production by Millar Studio (1).
However, there is more to this charming film than meets the eye. Produced in times of controversy about the poor working conditions of Bell’s women employees, this short served as a form of counter-propaganda. In 1907, a strike instigated by Toronto operators — and then adopted by their colleagues in Kingston, Peterborough, Ottawa, and Montréal — garnered the support of the general population as well as that of the future Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (who was then part of the Minister of Labour). When Bell threatened to fire the operators, King stood with the striking workers; to him, the stressful conditions under which the women were working were simply “a crime against nature itself.” In 1918, following years of exclusion, the operators were finally allowed to join the International National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union. Facing an unsympathetic government and a powerful union and striving to appease them, Bell instigated paternalistic “corporate socialist” programs of “off-the-job” activities such as these out-of-town camps, choirs, and war-time volunteer work. It then attempted to persuade the operators to sign a collective agreement and form their own organization. In 1921, one year after the production of How Business Girls Keep Well, Bell managed to have them adhere to a company union, the Telephone Operators Association, which stayed in place until the late 70’s.
(1) From the elements that can be retrieved in archival collections such as the ones of Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ), Library and Archives Canada (LAC), and the McCord Museum, Millar was a photography studio active between about 1900 and the 1950’s. Its legacy ranges from portraits of Montrealers practicing liberal professions (Collection Félix Barrière, BAnQ, around 1900), to female nudes (Fonds Conrad Poirier, BAnQ) and most importantly to Montréal historical buildings (Fonds Office des congrès et du tourisme du Grand Montréal, BAnQ, and at the McCord Museum). It seems to have had The Bell Telephone Company of Canada as a client for photographic work between 1930 and 1950, with How Business Girls Keep Well (1920) as the only filmic instance found (so far) in the archives. It is to be noted that LAC spells the company name on occasion as « Millar Studios », and mentions at some point « Millar Studios - Toronto ». It seems however that the company is unrelated to Charles Howard Millar, an amateur photographer from Drummondville, who in the 1880’s introduced to photography his sister-in-law, Annie Grey McDougall, who became a photographer after an apprenticeship at Notman's studio in Montréal.
Note: excerpts of this film form a sequence in the montage essay The Phantom of the Operator (Caroline Martel, productions artifact, 2004, 65min).