Sunday, October 14, 2018

Heartland ’18: The Hello Girls

We forget how much effort once went into telecommunications (a word we hardly use anymore). These days, we can take a phone out of our pockets and call anyone we want, but why bother when we can just text? Yet, during the early 20th Century, a live person was physically required to connect parties. These people were called telephone operators and for reasons that are now obscure, it became socially acceptable job for women. Of course, communication was critically important for the American military chain-of-command during WWI, so a small but dedicated contingent of operators was dispatched to Europe. Their largely forgotten service is chronicled in James Theres’ The Hello Girls: America’s First Female Soldiers (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Heartland International Film Festival.

It is nice to have troops that are crack shots, but nothing beats communication. That is why Gen. John J. Pershing had telephone lines set up, connecting him to his officers along the front. However, someone had to connect those calls—and there were very few men who knew how. Like two-hundred-some other women, Grace Banker answered the call for volunteers, but much to her surprise, she was appointed their commander.

At the time, the so-called “Hello Girls” were issued uniforms to serve as part of the Signal Corps. Banker and the first wave of volunteers survived an air raid soon after their arrival and remained well after most of the troops had been shipped home. Yet, it took decades for their service to be officially recognized by the U.S. Army. In fact, it would take an act of Congress, sponsored by the great Sen. Barry Goldwater (as part of a larger bill also granting recognition to the WASP pilots of WWII).

The story of the Hello Girls is a fascinating episode of military, sociological, and tech history. It obviously demonstrates how far women have progressed within the American military, but it also vividly illustrated the importance role information technology plays in successful warfighting.

Theres devotes as much time to the Hello Girls’ fight for recognition as he does to their wartime service, which is understandable, but it would be nice too hear more about their boots-on-the-ground contributions to the Allied victory. Frankly, at just over fifty-five minutes, it feels all too brief. Yet, it should be easy for local PBS stations to find an hour to program it, if that hopefully becomes an option for them eventually.

In production terms, Theres mostly makes respectful but safe aesthetic choices. He incorporates some terrific archival stills, but the soundtrack sounds like blah stock music. Regardless, the important thing is telling the women’s stories—and Theres and his talking heads do right by them in that respect. Highly recommended, The Hello Girls screens today (10/14), Wednesday (10/17), and Saturday (10/20), as part of the Heartland International Film Festival.