Playing Sat Oct 29 at 6:50*, 9:30 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]
*Q&A with Minnelli scholar Joe McElhaney and former editor-in-chief of Cahiers du Cinema Emmanuel Burdeau
“The Complete Vincente Minnelli” series sadly winds down this coming week at BAM, but not before a screening of one of his most delightful and underrated musicals.
The pairing of Dean Martin’s hunka-man antics with Judy Holliday’s utterly unique interpretation of the dippy blonde make for a chemistry and romance quite piquantly apart from most Hollywood fare. Comden & Green originally wrote the role for Holliday, but despite 964 successful performances on Broadway she struggled mightily on set to reinvision the part for the screen. Regardless it remains one of her best, as Stuart Galbraith eloquently puts it, “Holliday’s image was the antithesis of the MGM star – she was mortal – and thus the stakes are much more personal and the impact greater,” a comment made more poignant as Bells was Holliday’s last film appearance – she succumbed to breast cancer several years later.
Some critics thought it was Minnelli who struggled with the adaptation to film. But as Joe Baltake notes, “With his shrewdly-made Bells Are Ringing, Minnelli, seemingly cognizant of changing times, serious redefines the film musical into something lighter, less insistent and virtually dance-free. Note in particular the revolutionary way in which Minnelli staged Martin’s ‘I Met a Girl’ number and what’s left of ‘Mu-Cha-Cha.'”
Bells Are Ringing is an important end to another era, as it was the last MGM musical overseen by Arthur Freed.
The name-dropping sequence alone is worth the price of admission (with a meta-rific inclusion of “Vincente Minnelli”):
Jonathan Rosenbaum selects it as one of his 10 Favorite Offbeat Musicals, for DVDBeaver:
Film academic Jane Feuer argues that the musical is mainly a conservative capitalist genre where traditional values get reinforced, so part of what’s so refreshing and singular about this winning Judy Holliday vehicle (her final role, adapted from a stage hit) is how socially progressive it is. (By comparison, even The Pajama Game, a pro-union musical, is almost terminally sexist.) This is about a lonely switchboard operator who works for a Manhattan answering service and insists on linking up her company’s various clients with one another, meanwhile helping them to straighten out their lives. The famous team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green (Singin’ in the Rain) wrote this, Jule Styne supplied the terrific tunes, and Dean Martin does a fine job with the part of a blocked playwright. As usual, Minnelli knows how to get the most out of CinemaScope framing, taking the story’s utopian notion of social interaction and literally stretching it out visually. Among the period touches are Frank Gorshin’s parody of Marlon Brando’s Method acting; among the cameos are Holliday’s own husband, jazzman Gerry Mulligan, as a blind date; and among the memorable songs are “Just in Time” and “The Party’s Over”.
The Telegraph reports that, for the record, Brando’s feelings were hurt:
Some time late in 1960, Marlon Brando went to see the Vincente Minnelli musical film Bells Are Ringing. You’ll love it, friends had told him. And since Judy Holliday and Dean Martin were never better, and Just In Time is one of the great standards, perhaps he did. At least until the moment when Frank Gorshin (gleefully funny, a few years later, as the Riddler in the Batman television show) mumbled and stumbled into his Brando routine and giggles swirled around the cinema. Brando sank down in his seat, bemused. What were these people laughing at? He hadn’t mumbled in years!
In his feature on the director for Alt Screen, Joe McElhaney describes one of the film’s best musical numbers:
Always for Minnelli there is this ambivalence, this nervous hesitation about the matters at hand, and it manifests itself at virtually every level. For example, no filmmaker quite moves his camera as he does, where it is rarely a question of the camera simply following an action and delineating a space. What one so often finds are two or more contradictory movement ideas taking place at once within a single shot or sequence. In the “I Met a Girl” number from the underrated Bells Are Ringing (1960), as Jeffrey Moss (Dean Martin) is singing in Times Square, a craning camera follows his movements down the street in a single take. But the extras in the sequence are largely moving against him, around him, and completely filling the frame so that the effect is rather like watching someone swimming upstream.
Stephen Harvey in Directed by Vincente Minnelli:
Considering the movie’s adherence to its source, the Comden and Green spirit would have dominated, no matter who had directed it. Yet it’s still unmistakably a Minnelli movie – something like The Clock with production numbers acted out by pastel-colored cousins to his favorite screen archetypes. Minnelli was drawn to self-doubting heroines whose imaginary alter egos are more confident and glamorous than they could ever be. Ella’s field trip among the upper crust was already a highlight in the play, but Minnelli shapes “Drop That Name” into one of his characteristic lamb-to-slaughter set pieces, in which a gauche outsider is swallowed up and spat out by well-heeled pagans. The scene is cluttered and airless and as blindingly lit as an operating room, the soundtrack clattering with mirthless snickers. In her demode Minnelli-red dress, Ella is surrounded by Metro’s slinkiest starlets in tight metallic-hued sheaths, gliding serenely past his camera with inhuman aplomb. Minnelli always did love a party, but as usual his heroine makes a quick dash for the exit at the first opportunity.
Apart from a few inserted shots, Minnelli doesn’t have the luxury of authentic backgrounds to evoke Comden and Green’s Manhattan. So instead, he peoples those sound-stage streets with dozens of anonymities as vivid and eccentric as his romantic leads. It’s hard not to figure out that his version of Times Square is a facsimile But the throngs racing past this set testify to his gift for treating extras like quirky character players, who give texture to the frame, rather than take up space. The energy of the city street sets the tempo for Martin’s exultant solo, “I Met A Girl,” but Minnelli dispenses with the set entirely. Seen from his high-angle perch, Martin is the central dot in a pointillist sea of people running, laughing and shoving. For all his outre tastes, in one crucial sense Minnelli’s alertness to realities made Bells Are Ringing a more persuasive portrait of the city than the stage version could ever have been. Similar to many Broadway musicals of the 1950s, the ensemble had consisted of two dozen homogenized singers and dancers – all young, all pert, nearly all white. Even if it was a reconstituted Culver City, Minnelli’s New York is a carefully stirred melting pot of every race and all ages, from kids to crones. Minnelli makes sure that for the uninitiated movie theaters everywhere, these characters distill the idea of New York as forcefully as the high-lifers in Gigi‘s Maxim’s did for Paris.
Thomas Elsaesser in Vincente Minnelli – the Art of Entertainment:
Despite the difference between Judy Holliday’s blunt vivaciousness in Bells are Ringing and Leslie Caron’s spiritual and graceful sensibility in Gigi, both films share the common drive for a liberation that inevitably leads to the spectacle, and both films are, in this sense, concerned with the ethics of the mise-en-scene – in one film understood as the (benevolent) influence on other people’s lives, in the other as the assumption of a role in a formalized and stylized society. Judy Holliday wants to play the good fairy to the clients of a telephone answering service, but at first she creates merely confusion, chaos, and mischief. But although her role-playing makes her seem unreal to herself, her clients eventually bind together – to produce a theater play. In an important aspect, however, her predicament highlights one of the inspirations of Minnelli’s art. Through Judy Holliday’s escapades we see a dichotomy between the richness of the American imagination and the restrictive fore of conventional morality. Significantly, the police handcuff her for her flight of fancy, ironic symbol of society’s attitude to the creative artist.
Jean-Loup Bourget, also in The Art of Entertainment:
The convention in Bells Are Ringing derives from fairy tales, fairy tales that are supposed to transform the lives of average Americans. Bells Are Ringing, however, doesn’t oppose reality and fantasy, which go hand in hand in the film. Judy Holliday was well known for always playing down-to-earth characters, and several sequences rely on the populisme, the unanimism that characterized The Clock and which is supposed to be so foreign to Minnelli’s sophistication. As she waits for Dean Martin, Holliday cheerfully greets passerby, walks by a movie theater that plays Gigi, and through example prompts Dean Martin to start singing among the crowd. The scene is filmed in a nigh-angle shot that stresses the unanimous sharing of happiness on the smiling faces of the New Yorkers, Later, however, an awkward situation opposes “Melisand Scott’s” plebian simplicity to the name-dropping sophistication of show business people at a party. The interest of this sequence doesn’t lie in its hypocritical satire of Hollywood but in the fact that Minnelli’s sympathies are ambivalent: at that specific moment, the film proves unable to work either as a satire of Hollywood or a satire of Judy Holliday; as a result it becomes dramatic[…] the shit from naturalness to sophistication, the film constantly seems on the verge of rebelling, of becoming more of a bitter dramatic comedy than a musical.
It is true that some of these devices are commonplace in musicals; with Minnelli, however, the conflict is present in the very style of the film and now only in the dramatic structure. Moreover, Minnelli’s musicals are far from always producing the kind of exhilaration audiences experience in other musicals, and their conclusions don’t always affirm the triumphant reconciliation of nature and artifice that is the rule of the genre.
Raymond Durgnat for Film Comment (March/April 1973) – a famous piece defending the musical genre:
A conspicuous form of communication is art, and the film abounds in creative artists of one kind or another. Jeff can‘t write for drinking. ln fact he drinks so deep that he can’t even communicate with himself—he has to leave rude notes to himself via Susanswerphone. Another client, Otto, pretends to be selling classical music to the masses-Titanic records—but in fact he’s an illegal off-track bookie, using classical music titles as a code (“Humperdinck is Hollywood”). Another artist is the dentist, who daydreams about making the hit parade and composes little melodies to himself on his airhose. And the embittered Method actor breaks into the big time when he finally consents to stop starving for his art and instead uses his art to get some food (he pretends to be a Fred Astaire type). Matching the cops’ impersonation–only this is repersonalization.
All these artists are on their inspirational uppers, and it’s Ella who brings them new inspiration, simply by putting them in touch with one another. She describes the dentist to the playwright, who puts him in his play, where he’ll be played by the Method actor. The intrigue builds up into an intriguing meeting —face-to-face—between the actor, the author and the living original—such a meeting might well be awkward. Remember Old Joshua, in Prevert’s Les Enfants du Paradis, savagely reviling Baptiste for “stealing his identity” by putting him in his play? And certainly any playwright will recall all the legal dangers involved in unintentionally describing someone. The dentist might well feel edgy at being studied by the actor. But their sensible symbiosis—and commensalism, over a meal or a drink—occurs in a setting offering further reflections on the theme of art/entertainment encountering reality. They’re in a bunny club where chorus girls come down off the stage and start drawing mustaches on our heroes’ faces—the three faces of one character. But our friends take no notice of all these fake intimacies, this pseudo-happening; they just carry on talking as if the bunnies weren’t there. The name of the number the bunnies are singing is “The Midas Touch”—Midas being the patron saint of the profit motive, and no friend of natural togetherness.
Bells are Ringing is highly ingenious and inventive, for not only every situation, and therefore (given Hollywood’s discipline, in the interests of directness, clarity and strength) every line of dialogue, but every conspicuous visual detail or configuration opens up intriguing aspects of the basic theme. There are two scenes at railroad stations-railroads being another form of communication line, and railroad stations being switchboards for people rather than voices. Jeff, going off to the country to work undisturbed (so that communication becomes separation!), says goodbye to Melisande, and pushes his way through a suddenly-busy swirl of crowds; the world is full of people, a bustling but human world. Later, alone and forlorn in search of her, he stands in a telephone booth, centrally placed in the left-hand side of the Cinemascope screen. The empty right-hand side is filled by the long length of a train, which slows to a halt. The doors open automatically, directly opposite the telephone cabin. It occurs to us that maybe, by Hollywood magic, or by the magic of l’amour fou, or by the magic of prayer-by-telephone, Ella may step off the train. But no. The carriage remains empty. The doors slide close. The steel train slides out. Jeff hangs up. Communication-by-separation went with crowds, people like corpuscles of blood, circulating, pulsating. But this desert of empty steel and plateglass is an Antonionian eclipse (as Kim Novak was an orchidaceous icon of alienation before l’avventura. And isn’t Judy Holliday an ebullient, unfrozen semi-double of Kim Novak? a converse, in sympathetic energy, to the affectations of Monroe? halfway between Novak and Monroe, and devoid of a neurosis which can reasonably be regarded as not merely personal things, but as having social determinants or reinforcements also?).
Bells Are Ringing certainly doesn’t feel like the product of book-learning. Its clear and economical structure betrays the play of sensitive and agile intelligences, of a director perfectly attuned to the theme underlying the diversity of the writers’ situations, scenes and terms. The composer (Jule Styne) certainly gets the point–after Ella has sung, “l’m in love with a man — Plaza oh, double-four, double three, what a perfect relationship – I can’t see him-he can’t see me” The music switches to a passionate tango to And yet I can’t help wondering – What does he look like?” – the tango implying the archaic absurdity of expectation, of daydreaming. The communications network is also a labyrinth, offering so many options that one easily becomes the slave, not of the lamp, but of the switchboard. Certainly the film has too much common sense to subscribe to McLuhan’s idiotic myth of the global village. The woman who slaves over a hot switchboard has to cool her skirts over an electric fan.
That the film’s thematic unity is likely to “communicate before it is understood” indicates the absurdity also of Truffaut’s erstwhile, and much admired, disdain of the well-constructed script. Probably most spectators find Bells Are Ringing a relaxed, even sprawling film, compared with, for example, Singing in the Rain, although that Comden-Green story is thematically the more diffuse. It answers to the underlying theme of friendship vs. show-business. It often happens that a film working with the grain of comfortable myths and ambiguities can work up a greater animal energy and emotional subtlety than a film which, without resorting to the counter-energy of scandal, as Wilder so brilliantly does, works against the grain, and so may jolt and fumble and, by trying to be tactful, seem awkward. In defending, Bells Are Ringing I am in effect defending another category of film—the film which, accepting all that is true in the conformist myth, nonetheless does so with an intelligence and sensitivity which reveal at least the outlines of those parts of reality against which the myth is braced. It may thus involve one emotionally as well as intellectually in a way which musicals have too rarely explored, and which critics have too often resented.
– Compiled by Brynn White