Bells Are Ringing (Blu-ray Review)20 Feb, 2017 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Judy Holliday, Dean Martin, Eddie Foy, Jr., Jean Stapleton.
In his masterful combination of scholarly tome and coffee table book about a director who always mattered from his first movie forward, author Stephen Harvey calls Bells Are Ringing the most ingratiating of Vincente Minnelli’s minor musicals (emphasis mine). This is to say — and rightfully — that it isn’t Meet Me in St. Louis, The Pirate, An American in Paris, The Band Wagon or Gigi, as if many non-Minnelli’s have ever been. But in a slight distinction, I myself am far more inclined to put Bells at the bottom of that Minnelli top rung and not with his musical duds (Kismet, anyone?), also-rans or cultist causes like Yolanda and the Thief (which maddening though it can be, does have my favorite Fred Astaire number ever: “Coffee Time”). It also ought to be said, right up front, that for such a frequently ingratiating movie, Bells exudes an air of melancholy that can’t be denied, no matter how sublime its Judy Holiday-Dean Martin teaming was and is.
I know about the “was” part because in one of the most fondly remembered brief streaks of first-run movie-going during my formative years, I managed to see Elia Kazan’s Wild River, Budd Boetticher’s Comanche Station and Bells all theatrically within the same three-or-four-day period in the early summer of 1960 just after I’d turned 13. This, turns out, made me part of the limited audience that caught Bells outside of New York, where it is said to have broken house records at Radio City for that time of year. Then it reached the sticks, and it was another story — due, perhaps, to the vehicle’s strong New York sensibility but also because pop tastes were changing. Which is to say that Chubby Checker’s rendition of "The Twist" was about to hit No. 1 for the first of two times, and Schubert Alley screen musicals were on the way out unless maybe (in what turned out to be a brief window in the ’63 future) you could cast a 21-year-old Ann-Margret as jailbait. Bells was, in fact, the last MGM musical not just of Minnelli but also of producer Arthur Freed, who tried to go with the times by mounting a concurrently released screen adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans. You know — the one that starred everyone’s favorite bohemian: George Peppard.
Written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who teamed on the music with Jule Styne, Bells also features the final screen performance of Judy Holliday, who died of cancer at 43 in 1965 after years of bad health — which may have contributed to her fretting about her appearance here during production of her only color film, aside from a pre-stardom bit in 1944’s Something for the Boys. The original Broadway Bells had won Holliday a 1956 Tony in a role tailored specifically for her: a vulnerable but wackily eccentric telephone answering service employee from back in those quaint days when you could leave a phone message on a missed call with a real person (or, for that matter, get a real person on the other end of the line under any circumstances). Working out of an obscure apartment in Brooklyn Heights, she courts trouble by magnanimously involving herself in the problems of her clientele: a frustrated dentist who wants to write showtunes; a Method actor trying to win an audition; and a playwright afraid to go solo after losing his partner and now dealing with writer’s block. Atop all this, her boss (Jean Stapleton, in a larger big-screen role than she usually had) has a boyfriend (Eddie Foy, Jr.) who has secretly turned the office into a front for a bookie operation.
Sydney Chaplin had the slightly less than co-central writer’s role on stage, but here it goes to Dean Martin — this not too long after he scored for all time in the “Bama” role from Minnelli’s Some Came Running to the delight of Jean-Luc Godard, among many others (though can’t you just hear Dino going, “Jean-Luc Whoooooo?”). I won’t say that Bells has Martin’s best screen performance, but I do think it’s his most appealing — offering proof with Holliday (but see also Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine) why he was the greatest straight man ever atop Billy Wilder’s assertion that Martin was also the funniest person in Hollywood. This may be a Holliday vehicle, and I love her in it, but it’s also true that the picture doesn’t start to sail after a borderline sluggish beginning until Martin makes his first appearance a ways in. It’s also true that the Martin-less scenes in the Brooklyn Heights work station are stagey when the rest of the picture isn’t — and the half-inevitable lack of cinematics in this drab setting is a problem Adolph Green concedes in one of the disc’s bonus extras. The other problem is (at 126 minutes) moderate overlength, and author Harvey talks in his book about the struggle the editors had whittling the rough cut down to even that.
Yet fascinatingly, at least from a dissection point of view, the movie has a split visual personality, and there are scenes here (the telephone opening, the wild-ass “Drop That Name” and “The Midas Touch” numbers) that have the instantly identifiable Minnelli stamp. There are times when Minnelli could make even Metrocolor look like a first-rate process, and he really does it here in the set pieces where he’s given his head. And though it doesn’t come with the same level of color intensity, costuming and art direction due the nature of its modest outdoor backdrop, the movie’s high point is Holliday and Martin performing the standard “Just in Time” with some beguiling soft-shoe — a scene that provided the apt visuals for both the ads and the tie-in Capitol soundtrack LP (which is still one of my favorites). The conductor/music adaptor credits here go to Andre Previn, and this time I noticed that he uses one riff for Martin that he later recycled effectively for Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid. Martin and Previn must have gotten along because earlier in 1960, the latter had comfortably gone with the flow on Martin’s memorable January TV special (the one with Fabian, who didn’t work all that often with Previn) when host Martin purloined Tim Moore’s “Kingfish” voice from the “Amos & Andy” TV show and called Previn “Andy” instead of Andre.
Holliday has three big solo numbers, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it’s also true that the movie’s at its best when she and Martin are together on screen — even if the romantic pairing of their characters is something we have to take on faith, given Dino’s then Rat Pack image as a Joi Lansing kind of guy. Still, their buddy chemistry is sweet, as are a couple standout members of the supporting cast: Bernard West (carried over from the stage version) as the dentist with Broadway in his soul and Frank Gorshin channeling his definitive Marlon Brando imitation into his role as the struggling actor. Minnelli was working so hard in those days (he had three pictures in 1958) that Bells hit theaters only three months after the Texas-based family melodrama Home From the Hill, which is well up there on the list of his non-musicals. It was a huge hit, which perhaps took a little sting out of Bells’ disappointing box office performance, but Minnelli wouldn’t have many more, and next up was colossal bomb The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, where lead Glenn Ford looked about as lost as, say, Martin would have in the lead role.