Judy Holliday and Dean Martin are superb in... Bells are Ringing (1960)

Can you imagine a more creative and fun group of people than the nightclub act The Revuers? In the 1940's, Adolph Green, Betty Comden, Judy Holliday, and a few others came together in New York, working their way from performing in Greenwich Village to life-altering, history-changing success on Broadway. Comden and Green, along with Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, crafted the groundbreaking show On the Town. Judy Holliday found stardom with Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday, a stage hit that earned her an Oscar for its film adaptation. Comden, Green, and Holliday forged amazing careers in Hollywood, too, but in 1956 when Holliday became depressed about her divorce from David Oppenheim after ten years of marriage, Comden and Green gave their friend a gift: Bells are Ringing.

A lovely musical comedy constructed around the inimitable talents of its star, Bells are Ringing afforded Holliday the opportunity to get away from the increasingly typecast roles her film career was giving her. The crew behind the show was pretty darn perfect. In addition to writing the script, Comden and Green supplied the lyrics to Jule Styne's music. Jerome Robbins pulled double duty as the director and the choreographer, a role he shared with Bob Fosse. By 1956, Fosse had choreographed The Pajama Game (read about that here) and Damn Yankees. Robbins brought him into Bells so he could focus more on directing; he also wasn't quite sure how to handle the choreography for Holliday, who didn't dance. Fosse solved this problem by focusing on her personality and adapting accordingly. Years later, Robbins would discount Fosse's contributions by saying that it was all an imitation of choreography that Robbins already did. Interestingly enough, for the film version, Charles O'Curran is credited with the choreography, so it appears that Robbins and Fosse's work didn't make the translation. (Who throws out Robbins/Fosse work?!)

Holliday's leading man was Sydney Chaplin, son of Charlie Chaplin and Lita Grey. Sydney and Holliday carried on a romance during the show's run, but like many show business affairs, it ended once the show did. At the Tony Awards, Bells was nominated for Best Musical and Best Choreography, but it was Chaplin and Holliday who took home the wins for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.

Four years after the debut of Bells, MGM brought the property to the silver screen. Several songs from the Broadway production were dropped or replaced, including "Salzburg," "Hello, Hello There," and "Is It a Crime?" which had been filmed but cut before release. In a rather superfluous move, a new song called "My Guiding Star" had been written for Dean Martin, Chaplin's replacement, but it was deleted from the final cut. "Is It a Crime?" and "My Guiding Star" can be found on the DVD release, and the former can also be seen on YouTube here.

The action of the story comes courtesy of an answering service called Susanswerphone, a fictional company that depicts a real service that was offered in the 1950's and 1960's. Answering services functioned just as answering machines or voicemail do, except the calls went through a switchboard operator who would take down your messages. Instead of an outgoing message, the operator would tell callers if the store they were trying to reach was closed for the evening or the person they wanted was on vacation and so on. You would then call your answering service and have the operator relay what happened while you were out.

Although this is a concept that modern viewers may not understand, Bells are Ringing begins with an advertisement for Susanswerphone, explaining that their operators are sure to inform you of all the wonderful things you might miss if you didn't have an answering service, such as an inheritance from a rich uncle or a marriage proposal. It's purposely over-the-top and pretty funny.

While the advertisement makes Susanswersphone out to be a large operation situated in a sleek office, it's actually run by three women in a run-down basement apartment. One of those women, Gwynne, walks around fanning herself, bored and hot. Meanwhile, her co-worker and friend, Ella Peterson (Holliday), is hard at work. Call after call comes in, but we soon realize that Ella goes above and beyond the job description.
She pretends to be Santa Claus for the children of subscribers; she looks up phone numbers by paging through the directory with her foot; she uses different voices for different businesses, switching from a French accent to a calm, measured cadence within seconds. When an irritating woman named Olga calls for a Mr. Jeffrey Moss (Martin), Ella is less than friendly. Talking with Gwynne, we learn that Mr. Moss is a famous playwright who just split up with his partner. Scared that he won't be as successful, Mr. Moss hasn't been able to complete a script since, choosing to drown his sorrows instead. Ella sympathizes with him, but we can see that there's something else there, too.

In just three minutes, we understand the character of Ella and we see how brilliant Judy Holliday is. Ella wears her heart on her sleeve and she adores helping others, which drives her boss and cousin Sue (Jean Stapleton, reprising her stage role) nuts. She is worried that Ella's "meddling" is going to get them into trouble someday, but she is also afraid that Ella is more invested in the lives of others rather than her own. Sue reminds her that she has a date tonight, the sixth one that Sue has arranged for her this year. Sue complains to Gwynne that Ella is always a disaster on dates -- she clams up and causes one accident after another.

We quickly find this out when we see Ella and her blind date, played by Holliday's actual boyfriend and jazz musician Gerry Mulligan. Once again, the date goes horribly, ending with the bustle of Ella's dress catching on fire. She returns to the apartment and offers to take over Gwynne's shift, especially when she learns that Mr. Moss is close to missing an important appointment if Susanswerphone doesn't wake him up. Affecting
the warbly voice of an old lady, Ella calls Jeff and we hear his sleepy voice answer. They're pretty good friends, but it isn't exactly built on honesty. Thinking that Jeff needs a maternal figure, Ella acts as though she is an elderly woman and Jeff has nicknamed her "Mom." It sounds creepy, but I swear it comes across as endearing. After she hangs up, Ella sings about her dream man, claiming that "It's a Perfect Relationship." She tries to convince herself that she's fine with not knowing what he looks like and never meeting him, but the more she sings, the more it bothers her.

A few minutes later, Jeff calls her back and asks her to wake him up at seven the next morning. He is forcing himself to stay in the rest of the night and finish his play The Midas Touch -- it's his last chance, after all. If he can't write the first two acts by tomorrow, his producer Larry (Fred Clarke) is going to drop him. Ella encourages Jeff and inspires him to sing about his determination.

"Do It Yourself" was originally "On My Own" on Broadway, but the sentiment is basically the same: Jeff simply must succeed on his own. However, by the end of the song, Jeff's bravado has wavered. Looking in the mirror, he sighs that he'll never make it alone and tears the paper out of his typewriter.

Back at Susanswerphone, two detectives are spying on Ella. They're convinced that the place is a front for a "lonely hearts club" (re: prostitution) after another answering service was busted for such illegal activities. Thinking they've got the women dead to rights after hearing an incriminating discussion between Ella and a caller, the detectives try to arrest Ella, Gwynne, and Sue. I love it when they play their recording of the
phone call and Ella becomes thrilled with her own voice. Anyway, the women prove that their operation is on the level, but Inspector Barnes warns that he'll be watching them.

After they leave, Sue's boyfriend Otto (Eddie Foy, Jr.) stops by. Head of the newly formed Titanic Records, Otto is going to have the Susanswerphone gals
take down calls from sellers. Otto's intentions aren't pure, though -- in the next scene, he meets with his group of con artists as he explains that Titanic Records is actually a bookmaking scheme ("It's a Simple Little System"). The names of composers and their compositions are code for racetracks and the amount of money a person is betting. Pretty clever, right?

The next morning, Ella attempts to give Jeff his wake-up call, but the line is busy. When Sue arrives to start her shift, she comments that Jeff probably unhooked his phone. Unwilling to let Jeff miss his big chance, she sneaks over to his apartment and, finding the door unlocked, tiptoes in. When she spots Jeff sleeping on the couch with a pillow over his face, she holds her breath and peeks underneath to finally discover what
her Prince Charming looks like. Ella lets out a dreamy sigh when she sees the handsome face of Dean Martin. Walking around the apartment, she accidentally plays loud music that rouses Jeff. He tries to go back to sleep, but when he sees a blonde crawling by him, he becomes wide awake. His threats of calling the police are short-lived, though -- really, he'd rather just go back to bed.

Ella refuses to let this happen and she chatters away. Freaked out by how this mystery woman knows so much about him, Jeff asks if she's psychic to which Ella replies "yes" emphatically. She introduces herself as Melisande Scott and before long, she has Jeff sitting at his typewriter. She agrees to stay while he works, leading them into one of my favorite musical moments,
"Better Than a Dream." With a grin on her face, Ella sings to herself about how Jeff has surpassed her expectations. She moves around the apartment with Jeff always in the background. Suddenly, the camera switches -- now Ella is in the background and Jeff is singing about this new woman in his life.
Comden and Green were exceptional at using lyrics as extensions of their characters, and "Better Than a Dream" is a great example of this. Just look at Jeff's lyrics:

Can this be a dream?
Can I still be asleep on the couch there?
Can this girl be really here?
She seems to know by sheer intuition how I landed in this condition
Or does she know me?
The way I think, the way that I drink, the fact that I slept all year
But it's not a dream 'cause, look, I've got some words on the paper
Steady, boy, don't faint or scream
Don't ask who sent you this angel
It's better, better than a dream

Ella and Jeff then sing a reprise of their sections, except they're laid over one another. It's really fantastic. On Broadway, the tune that occurred in this scene was called "Long Before I Knew You." "Better" had been written during the original run and is usually incorporated into newer stage productions, sometimes performed right after "Long Before I Knew You."

Anyway, Jeff finishes his script and takes it to Larry. Ella is waiting on the busy sidewalk when Jeff comes out of the meeting in a daze -- Larry liked it! He wants Jeff to go to his country house for a few weeks to polish it, but still, he liked it! As the couple continues walking, Jeff makes a comment about how cramped and unfriendly the sidewalks are. "Everybody wants to be friendly, but nobody wants to make the first
move," Ella replies. At a stoplight, she demonstrates her point by saying hello to a stern-looking man. He responds enthusiastically and soon it's a chain-reaction of people shaking hands and introducing themselves. Basically, Ella is a drop of sunshine everywhere she goes.

When Jeff mentions calling "Mom" to tell her all of his great news, Ella lies that she has to leave immediately for Brooklyn Heights, the furthest location she can think of. Jeff hates to see her go, admitting that she is the only honest person in his life. He makes her promise to see him when he comes back from the country in two weeks, then he kisses her on the cheek, and they part. Thrilled about "Melisande," Jeff
bursts into song as he goes through the city's crowds. "I Met a Girl" has some really interesting staging. Dean Martin isn't allowed to just walk straight ahead with no problems -- he has to seriously fight his way through these people! Instead of being at the center of the frame, sometimes he is near the top of it or off to the side; wherever the crowd pushes him, that's where he'll be. You feel like you're actually there watching him.

At the switchboard the next day, Ella learns about a song contest at the Pyramid Club. When she remarks that she should inform Dr. Kitchell, a dentist who longs to be a songwriter, Sue chides her -- Inspector Barnes is still watching them and it's best that Ella doesn't interfere in their clients' lives. After her success with helping Jeff, though, Ella is emboldened.
She goes to Dr. Kitchell's office and, thinking he forgot their appointment, he begins looking at her "hurt" tooth, all while singing and composing. He tells her that he can make a song out of anything, so she offers "the Midas touch" as a suggestion. Ella then informs him of the contest and slips away as he takes down the information.

Some time later, Ella is at work again when Larry calls for his messages. She notifies him that actor Blake Barton (Frank Gorshin) called about The Midas Touch, but Larry refuses to listen because he is "sick of actors who mumble and don't wear suits." That familiar twinkle enters Ella's eye and pretty soon, she is wearing her best bohemian outfit and swaggering into the cafe where Barton hangs out. Pretending to be a fellow actor, she asks the Brando imitator if he has auditioned for The Midas Touch yet. When he answers that the producer didn't dig him, Ella suggests he wear a suit -- and that's just for starters.

The next time we see our leading lady, she is at the switchboard when she receives a call for Titanic Records. Carl, a neighbor who often brings the women's groceries, overhears Ella writing down orders for Beethoven's 10th symphony and lets her know that Beethoven only wrote nine symphonies. Ella calls shipping and changes all of the orders to correct the oversight. Gwynne arrives and asks Ella if she is going
to keep her date with Jeff, who came back to the city today. Ella believes she shouldn't see him anymore because she would have to tell him the truth and he would hate her. With perfect timing, Jeff calls to thank "Mom" and to ask if "Melisande" called. As they're talking, Ella hears Olga barge into Jeff's apartment. Jealous, Ella starts to rush over... but then stops... then moves forward... Finally, she lets out a
scream and runs straight to Jeff's.

Meanwhile, Olga is prying Jeff with liquor. In a telling shot, he is holding onto his typewriter when she offers him the drink she made. He is caught between the productive, fulfilling life that writing and Ella promise and the empty, boozy existence that Olga represents. Olga is trying to convince Jeff to take her to
the races when Ella bursts in, claiming to be his secretary. She imitates Olga and screeches at her and then furiously types while he dictates nonsense and pushes Olga out. Turning to Ella, Jeff admits, "I can't believe you're really here," having thought she might have been a figment of his imagination.
He excitedly talks about the work he accomplished and how he incorporated that songwriting dentist she told him about into his play. Ella is happy for him, but she still wants to follow through with what she told Gwynne. When she starts to push Jeff away, he angrily asks why she bothered coming over at all. He tells her that he has changed from the partying playboy and he thinks he has found The One at last. Unable to
hear anymore, Ella says she has to go, but Jeff pleads with her: "You can't. You dropped into my life like a miracle. You saved me from drowning. You just can't toss me back to the sharks! Mel, I love you." Without a word, Ella leaves, steps into the elevator... turns around, marches right back in, throws her purse down, jumps on the couch, and kisses Jeff. It's a moment I never get tired of seeing.

That night, Gwynne and Ella are preparing Ella for a dancing date with Jeff by fixing a dress that she received from Madame Grimaldi, an opera singer and -- of course -- a subscriber she has helped. Carl comes over and offers to teach Ella how to cha-cha when she says she doesn't know how. The result, "Mu-Cha-Cha," doesn't rely on lyrics, but rather funny choreography and reactions from Holliday. (The number was
shortened from its original length in the stage show.) I love it when the taxi drops Ella off to meet Jeff and she's still doing the cha-cha steps for fear that she'll forget them. Anyway, Jeff lets her know that Larry liked all of the work he did in the country and the show is progressing nicely. Although Jeff said they were going dancing,
he tells Ella that he promised Larry they would stop by his party. Ella is terrified and completely intimidated by the thought of it, so Jeff relaxes her by slow dancing in the park across from Larry's mansion. It also helps that he begins to sing "Just in Time," one of the sweetest songs out there. This number might be the best one from Bells are Ringing, song-wise and performance-wise. Martin and Holliday had terrific chemistry and
nothing illustrates their beautiful rapport better than this scene. When other park-goers start clapping and ask to see the couple do more, they put on a little show that is full of snappy banter and silly choreography. It's very breezy, but by the end, it turns back to serious and romantic as Jeff and Ella embrace. You can listen to Holliday and Martin's recording here.

At Larry's doorstep, Jeff promises they will only be at the party for five minutes. Overwhelmed with guilt, Ella tries to spill her guts but all that comes out is "I'm not an old lady." (Amused, Jeff replies, "That's funny, I thought you were Whistler's mother.") Before she can get any further, Larry appears and soon after that, all of the guests jump out -- the party is for Jeff! Looks like it'll be more than five minutes after all...

It becomes a total nightmare for Ella. Women fawn over Jeff and they all seem to be wearing tight, fitted skirts, making Ella's full skirt stick out like a sore thumb. It doesn't help when she cuts off her dress's tulle material because she is also the only one wearing anything other than black or earth tones, making her even more noticeable as well as the only person who has a vibrant personality all her own. Ella's uniqueness is further accentuated when she can't keep up with the celebrity names that everyone is dropping ("Drop That Name").

Needing some air, Ella goes to the balcony, where she comes face-to-face with Olga. The awful woman proceeds to mock her, leaving Ella feeling even worse. The last straw happens when Jeff sends the butler over with this adorable note:

Disbelieving that she deserves such a proposal, Ella writes "goodbye" on the back of the note and leaves. Back in the park, she commiserates by singing "The Party's Over." It may have been economical to reuse the park set here, but it is heartbreaking too -- just a few minutes ago, Ella and Jeff were laughing and having a wonderful time, and now things look so bleak.

Things aren't looking great for Otto, either. At dinner with Sue, two gangsters threaten him after losing money from the Titanic Records front. Oblivious to everything, Sue offers up her life savings to Otto and he happily takes it. Meanwhile, at the Pyramid Club, Jeff and Larry are having a drink after looking everywhere for Ella.
Jeff decides to stay for another drink and as Larry leaves, Blake Barton comes in wearing a sharp suit without any marbles in his mouth. When he sees Jeff, he gushes about how much he loves the part of the dentist that Larry sent him. He then divulges that he had really been down on his luck until a miracle happened. Just then, the guys are surprised when the floor show starts and the song they hear is
called "The Midas Touch." They spot Dr. Kitchell singing and dancing along, and when they overhear him say that he wrote it, Jeff asks him to join them. Kitchell begins talking about how he just quit being a dentist because he is now a composer despite his father's wishes.

Jeff and Barton recognize this as the plot of The Midas Touch. When Kitchell says he got the title for his song from a girl who came into his office, Barton reveals that a girl changed his life too. Pretty soon, Jeff realizes that all three of them are talking about "Melisande." Thinking he can track her down in Brooklyn Heights, Jeff has the men give him their phone numbers so he can call them once he finds her. The best part of this scene is that while the boys are putting their heads together, chorus girls are throwing glitter at them, drawing mustaches on their faces, and gyrating all around their table, and they remain completely unaware. So funny.

As soon as Jeff leaves, Inspector Barnes picks Kitchell and Barton up, having tailed Ella this whole time and believing that the guys are part of some nefarious thing that Ella is masterminding. After searching for Ella unsuccessfully, Jeff calls Kitchell but gets his answering service instead. Realizing it is Susanswerphone, he rings Barton's number and gets the same outcome. Finally, Jeff connects the dots and figures out that "Mom" and "Melisande" are one and the same.

Over at the Susanswerphone apartment, Sue is begging a packing Ella to stay. "The subscribers won't even know I'm gone," Ella reasons. "That's not true!" Sue counters. "They all ask for you! They call me 'the other one.'" Ella believes it is time she lived her own life rather than be what everyone else wants her to be, mirroring Jeff's struggle at the beginning of the narrative. Singing "I'm Going Back," Ella tells
us that she is planning on returning to her old job as a switchboard operator at the Bonjour Tristesse brassiere company. Although the number is sparse, with only Holliday dancing around the room, the woman's star power is more than enough to fill up the screen.

As Ella is leaving, she is stopped by the two gangsters from the restaurant. They've dragged Otto
with them and they want their money yesterday. When Otto notices that the books don't quite add up, Ella explains that she had corrected some of his orders, causing Otto to angrily confess Titanic Records' real purpose.

Afraid that the gangsters are going to kill them, Ella saves the day by warning the men that the police are
listening to their conversation and Inspector Barnes will be arriving any minute. Luckily, Barnes picks that moment to come arrest Ella and Sue. Ella informs him of Otto's operation and the inspector finally realizes that Susanswerphone is clean. As he is being led away by the police, Otto returns Sue's savings.

Sue is asked to come to the police station, leaving Ella in charge of the switchboard. To her horror, she soon sees Jeff pull up in a taxi. Ella's disguise of glasses, a mop head, and a shawl doesn't fool Jeff at all. When the mop head falls off, Ella bursts into tears, but Jeff assures her that he still loves her. He doesn't care that she lied to him because she was always wonderful to
talk to and he valued her support.

Their embrace is interrupted by all of Ella's cherished subscribers flooding the apartment to thank her. Although Ella is thrilled, she and Jeff sneak off to their spot at the park for a slow dance.

Bells are Ringing is important for a lot of reasons. It was the last musical produced by MGM's famed Freed Unit, and sadly it was the final film of Holliday's. Within a year of its release, the actress became very ill and was diagnosed with cancer. She died in 1965 at the age of 43. Gerry Mulligan was still with her, although they never married. Astoundingly, Holliday had made less than ten films during her lifetime. Although I hate that her career ever had to stop, Bells was a magnificent way for it to end. The film excels as a showcase of the tour de force that was Judy Holliday. The match between an actress and her character has never been more perfect.

During the film's production, Holliday was experiencing a lot of difficulties. Not only was she nervous because she hadn't done a film for four years, she also believed that she needed to change how she played Ella for the big screen. Her stress led to fits of crying and sicknesses that would delay production. No one seemed to resent Holliday for it, though. The cast and crew treated her delicately and it became the reason why her boyfriend got the part of her blind date. Hal Linden was Sydney Chaplin's understudy during the original show and he said that "Judy was probably the most generous actress I ever worked with. ... Anytime you get the chance to see a Judy Holliday performance, jump at the opportunity." At Holliday's suggestion, Linden ended up getting the part of the man who sings "The Midas Touch" in the movie. Frank Gorshin appreciated Holliday, too, by calling her "so gracious, so unassuming."

Despite being completely delightful, Bells was Vincente Minnelli's least profitable film since 1948's The Pirate. Musicals were no longer box office guarantees and were considered old-fashioned. After 12 incredible films together, Bells became the last collaboration of producer Arthur Freed and Minnelli. The film displays Minnelli's usual mastery. The camerawork is fluid and modest, while the staging is engaging and appealing. Minnelli always knew how to employ color in his movies and Bells is no exception. Pastel blues and pinks make Ella stand out in her surroundings and represent her gentle nature. Red is used in many ways, from Ella's dress to the Titanic Records poster in the apartment to the background of the bohemian cafe. The film just looks gorgeous.

Just two years prior, Minnelli had worked with Dean Martin in Some Came Running, a film that gave us one of Martin's best performances. An underrated actor, Martin could do drama just as beautifully as he could crack a joke or croon a song. While Bells is undoubtedly The Judy Show, without a strong male lead, the film wouldn't be nearly as much fun as it is. Holliday's charisma and talent could have devoured a lesser performer. Plus, the audience needs Jeff to live up to Ella's expectations or else we won't understand why she is so in love with him. If we don't get that, the whole plot comes to a stop. Who better to play a dream man than Dino?

It might be surprising to know that we can kinda thank Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis for some of Bob Fosse's success. The comedy duo saw Fosse and his first wife and dance partner Mary Ann Niles perform at the Pierre Hotel in New York and scheduled the dancers on The Colgate Comedy Hour. Soon thereafter, Fosse came to the attention of MGM. He signed a contract with the studio in 1953 and he was part of a handful of divine musicals before becoming the iconic choreographer and director we know and love.

Bells are Ringing is a must for fans of Minnelli, Holliday, Martin, and just musicals in general. There are no big, showy numbers, but there is plenty of heart and humor. Everybody was at the top of their game and there is hardly a misstep to be found. If any film deserves to be more well-known, I'd argue that Bells are Ringing is it.


This is my contribution to the Dean Martin Centenary Blogathon. Celebrate and swoon over Dino by reading all of the splendid tributes here.


  1. Great review and wonderful photos. I love this musical too. The songs are so good. I'm glad Judy got to recreate her Broadway role.

    1. Thanks! It's always a challenge when the films I review are in CinemaScope because of the screenshots' width, but I'm pretty happy with how it came out.

      Isn't it wonderful she got to be Ella again? I always wonder if she changed the part much from stage to screen.

  2. Wonderful review of a criminally underrated movie. I enjoyed reading it!

    1. Thank you so much! "Criminally underrated" is a great descriptor for it.


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