This lighthearted Judy Holliday musical makes Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees want to go blonde.
You've dialed the right number, musical fans!
The tragic death of Judy Holliday in 1965 at the age of 43 made Bells Are Ringing her final film, but her talent and charm—together with her terrific castmates, a warm and funny story, and a hummable selection of songs—made it one of her best. Adapted from a stage musical crafted specifically for Holliday by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and directed by Vincente Minnelli (Meet Me in St. Louis), this delightful romantic comedy will be a welcome (and overdue) addition to the DVD libraries of both musical lovers and fans of this beloved comedienne.
Facts of the Case
Bells are ringing all around New York—telephone bells, that is. Young men everywhere are calling their girlfriends to ask them on dates, but the only phone calls pretty Ella Peterson (Holliday, Born Yesterday) gets are calls for other people. At her job in the basement office of Susanswerphone, a telephone answering service, she listens in on others' lives and adds some interest to her humdrum work by masquerading in different identities. Her cousin Sue, the owner of Susanswerphone (Jean Stapleton, All in the Family), scolds her for interfering in the customers' lives, but Ella is too tenderhearted not to get involved when she knows she can help the customers whose problems she overhears—like an out-of-work Method actor (Frank Gorshin, Where the Boys Are) and a dentist with musical yearnings (Bernie West).
Unfortunately for Ella and Sue, the police have begun keeping a sharp eye on Susanswerphone, suspecting the answering service may actually be a front for an "escort service." It's now more important than ever that Ella avoid personal contact with the clients. But she knows that charming playwright Jeffrey Moss (Dean Martin, Five Card Stud) is suffering from writer's block and desperately needs a muse. She can't resist coming to his rescue, inventing the alter ego of "Melisande Scott" to hide her identity. Jeff flourishes under her attention, but when they start to fall in love she's stricken with guilt at her own deception. At the same time, cousin Sue is falling for a fellow herself, but she's picked out a shady character (Eddie Foy, Jr.) who plans to use Susanswerphone's services for his own illegal purposes. Soon Ella may have more to worry about than losing the man she loves: She may end up getting thrown in jail too.
These days you can't throw a universal remote without hitting another "Cinderella story with a twist," but Bells Are Ringing offers one of the more creative takes on the oft-told tale that I've seen. In this modern re-imagining, the heroine trapped in an obscure and unglamorous existence is actually the fairy godmother for countless others. Instead of being oppressed by a wicked stepmother, she's held back only by her own shyness: Afraid to leave her metaphorical hearth, she can nevertheless work a kind of magic in transforming the lives of people she "meets" over the phone wires. When she applies a little of her own abilities to herself, taking on a mysterious new persona and transforming herself with a gorgeous dress, it looks like she's on her way to a happy ending.
But this is where the story really departs from the fairy tale. Her borrowed finery doesn't make Ella the socialite she tries to be at the swanky party that, like Cinderella's ball, transplants her to the world of her prince. Moreover, when the major crisis arises, Ella doesn't get rescued by the hero; instead, she draws on her own creativity and resourcefulness, and her past acts of kindness also play an important part in resolving the story. Ultimately, the Cinderella parallels are just one facet of this film's ingenious plot. All of the different plot threads—the police investigation, the different customers Ella helps, the clandestine bookmaking operation of Sue's boyfriend, even the clever framing device that sets up the film as a Susanswerphone commercial—dovetail beautifully to provide lots of surprises and a nifty final resolution. Since much of the comedy is based on misunderstanding, moreover, it's important that those misunderstandings be credible within the framework of the plot, and they always are. Unlike many musical comedies that seem to have a hard time stretching a thin plot to feature length, Bells Are Ringing has a truly rich story line.
The unfolding of the plot is enhanced, of course, by many fun musical numbers, like the ensemble piece "It's a Simple Little System" (which always reminds me of Guys and Dolls) and another great ensemble number, "Drop That Name," which wittily rhymes the names of celebrities—including Minnelli himself—to evoke the superficial chatter of high-society types. All of the songs are enjoyable, but the best belong to the leads: the lovely duet "Just in Time," probably the best-known song from the soundtrack; the wistful "The Party's Over"; the energetic dual soliloquy "Better Than a Dream"; and especially Holliday's show-stopping "I'm Going Back," in which Ella considers running away from Susanswerphone and retreating to her old job at the Bonjour Tristesse brassiere company. (It's even funnier when it's sung.) If some of the musical numbers seem rather static, and if one sometimes wishes that less of the action took place in one set (the basement office), these drawbacks are natural consequences of the stage origins of the material. In fact, in the included featurette, Adolph Green concedes that he and Betty Comden could have done more to heighten the cinematic quality of the show when they adapted it from the stage. These are small quibbles, though, when the overall experience is so enjoyable, and Minnelli does a fine job of both integrating the songs into the story and keeping the atmosphere light and whimsical. There are also livelier sequences, like Martin's song "I Met a Girl" (which he sings while pushing through crowds in the city streets), that help to counterbalance the tendency toward stasis.
Certainly Minnelli's cast could hardly be bettered. Holliday is completely endearing as Ella, a role that allows her to do something different from the dumb blondes she was mainly known for playing. Here she really gets the chance to show her range as a performer—she sings and dances, puts on different voices and characters (including Santa Claus), does physical comedy, and evokes romantic pathos. She makes Ella a heroine who is as imaginative and funny as she is kind, and instantly lovable. It's not surprising that Holliday won a Tony award for her stage performance in the role. Dean Martin is (appropriately) charming as the male lead; although some critics consider him an odd casting choice, his distinctive screen presence works for the character, giving him a relaxed and suave appeal that nicely complements Ella's nervous insecurity. (Apparently the latter was not feigned: I've read that Holliday was convinced she wasn't right for the film and begged to be replaced, but her anxiety works perfectly for the role.) The supporting cast is filled with terrific comedic talents, from Jean Stapleton as the plaintive Sue to Bernie West, in a rare film appearance, as the musical dentist—and especially the one and only Frank Gorshin, who will always be the real Riddler, doing a spot-on Brando parody as inarticulate actor Blake Barton. There's even a cameo appearance by jazz great Gerry Mulligan, Holliday's sometime boyfriend.
The treatment of this delightful film on DVD is all that its fans could wish. Audiovisual quality is very strong, starting with the new 5.1 surround mix of the soundtrack, which offers robust, clean sound, well distributed to create a natural-sounding field. The musical score and accompaniment are especially lively and crisp in this new audio mix. The visual transfer, which preserves the CinemaScope aspect ratio, has vibrant color and is admirably clean and sharp; some very rare, minor flicker and a low level of speckling are the only imperfections. Altogether this film looks and sounds terrific.
Among the extras, it's particularly exciting to see two sequences that were cut from the completed film: Dean Martin's ballad "My Guiding Star," sung against the beautiful backdrop of the New York skyline by night, and a humorous scene in which Ella tries to convince suspicious Inspector Barnes (Dort Clark) of her bona fides through the song "Is It a Crime?" The color in the latter sequence is unstable, but both deleted scenes look exceptionally good otherwise and are presented in widescreen like the main feature. Audio is also very clean in these sequences. Also offered is an alternate take of the nightclub number "The Midas Touch," in which the camera is fixed in front of the stage for the duration of the song (in the feature film, the latter part of the number is shunted to the side as our focus shifts to dialogue among other characters). This is a rough cut, with some missing audio and some elisions, but it's fascinating to see how thoroughly choreographed this number was when so little of the choreography is visible in the finished film.
The new 11-minute featurette "Bells Are Ringing: Just in Time" is hosted by Hal Linden (Barney Miller), who understudied the Dean Martin role during the musical's original Broadway run and appears in the film as the vocalist in the "Midas Touch" number. This retrospective speeds us through the story of the creation of the stage play and its adaptation into film; it features new reminiscences by Frank Gorshin and vintage interview footage of Comden and Green, as well as behind-the-scenes photos and film clips. It's a short but sweet bit of background, and also touching in that both Gorshin and Linden pay tribute to Holliday's real-life kindness and professionalism. (Martin, however, gets short shrift; there's scarcely a mention of him.) The original theatrical trailer rounds out the extras satisfyingly; even here there has been an effort to clean up the source print and offer the best possible transfer. The disc menus also deserve mention for their fun, colorful design, which incorporates many whimsical production photos of the two leads.
In its lighthearted way, Bells Are Ringing shows what a far-reaching influence one generous person can have, and that makes it fitting that it should be the film to mark the close of its leading lady's film career—a career that had brought delight to so many. It's also surprisingly timely in its subject. Even though answering services like Susanswerphone have been supplanted by answering machines and voicemail, the message that human contact is irreplaceable in an increasingly impersonal society is more applicable than ever due to the depersonalizing impact of technological advances like the internet. There's nothing, as this charming musical reminds us, quite like the human touch.
The employees of Susanswerphone are hereby exonerated of all charges of improper conduct. Warner Bros. gets an ovation for this pleasing DVD treatment of a timeless feel-good movie.
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• "Bells Are Ringing: Just in Time" Featurette
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