Mar 2, 2017

On Blu-ray: Judy Holliday and Dean Martin Charm in Bells Are Ringing (1960)

Director Vincent Minnelli's Bells Are Ringing (1960) has its fans, but I've never felt this musical gets the love it deserves. Perhaps stars Judy Holliday and Dean Martin don't offer vocal or dancing pyrotechnics, but they are nevertheless perfectly suited to the genre, giving performances that are uniquely charming and laid back. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, I recently had the chance to revisit the jaunty tunes and lively humor of this irresistible film.

Holliday is Ella Peterson, an operator at the small-time Brooklyn answering service Susanswerphone. She is constantly irritating company owner Sue (Jean Stapleton), by becoming inappropriately involved with the customers. Ella can't help her big-hearted self: when she has a hot tip, she gives it; when she thinks a dentist should drop his practice and pursue his songwriting dreams, she uses her connections to make it happen. Her favorite customer is playwright Jeffrey Moss (Dean Martin), for whom she adopts the persona of a grandmotherly character he calls "Mom".

Of course the pair can't remain strangers forever. After logging plenty of time making dreams come true for her clients, Ella settles into finding her own happy ending. Her romance with Jeffrey, buoyed by a pair of amusing side plots, carries the rest of the film.

The score, with music by Jule Styne (Gypsy [1962], Funny Girl [1968]) and lyrics by Holliday's longtime friends and former stage mates Betty Comden and Adolph Green, is bouncy, lively and often seems more carefree than it really is. While Better Than a Dream and Mu Cha Cha are blithely joyful, the airy feel of I Met a Girl and It's a Perfect Relationship conceal a lonely vein of sadness. Just in Time is the one bonafide classic in the score; it's slick, jazzy tone is a perfect fit for Martin and Holliday adds wonderful eccentricity to this version. Perhaps the most moving moment though is Holliday's rendition of The Party's Over, which is melancholy enough on its own, but is downright tear-jerking when you realize that this is the star's last film and breast cancer would take her life only a few years later.

While many musical fans don't concern themselves too much with the bits between numbers, it's always nice when the comedy is as good as the production numbers. A bubbly supporting cast, with Stapleton as the exasperated standout, is a colorful counterpoint to the well-matched Martin and Holliday. Always funnier with somebody to play off of, the singer is greatly boosted by Holliday's warmly comic manner.

What a shame Judy Holliday didn't make more musicals; she is such a purely loveable star and music lifts her that much higher. Her unpretentious manner takes the air out of the snobs in Jeffrey's shallow showbiz crowd. Comic bits like a scene on a busy New York City crosswalk where Ella decides to introduce herself to some of the grim-faced people in the crowd, and her amusing turn as a bohemian in an underground club, all end up making the film longer and busier than it needs to be, but Minnelli keeps things moving and it is hard not to be greedy for more Holliday.

The Blu-ray is presented with sharp, clear sound and a good image that shows the bright hues of this typically plush MGM musical to nice advantage. Special features on the disc include a featurette, outtakes and alternate versions of musical numbers and a theatrical trailer.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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