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?!)
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.
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.
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
"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.
"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.
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
"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?
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.
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."
"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.
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.
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
"Mu-Cha-Cha," doesn't rely on lyrics, but rather funny choreography and reactions from Holliday. (The number was
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.
"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.
"I'm Going Back," Ella tells
As Ella is leaving, she is stopped by the two gangsters from the restaurant. They've dragged Otto
Afraid that the gangsters are going to kill them, Ella saves the day by warning the men that the police are
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
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.