The get-up in New York's get-up-and-go comes from the switchboard operators of Susanswerphone. Need a wakeup call? Your appointments? Encouragement from "Mom"? A racetrack bet? It all comes from that dutiful nerve – or noive – center that keeps enterprises enterprising and, maybe, wedding bells ringing. Judy Holliday reprises her Tony-winning Broadway role of irrepressible switchboard girl Ella in a jubilant adaptation that marked her final movie and the final teaming of movie-musical titans Arthur Freed and Vincente Minnelli. Dean Martin costars as a struggling playwright in for a surprise when he learns "Mom's" identity. The sparkling Jule Styne/Betty Comden/ Adolph Green score includes Holliday's heartfelt "The Party's Over" and the jolly Holliday/Martin duet "Just in Time." You've dialed the right number, musical fans!
The best musical you've probably never heard of is 'Bells Are Ringing.' This sprightly, tuneful show about an endearing, busybody answering service operator who improves the lives of her clients has flown under the radar for decades, and for the life of me, I can't understand why. A Broadway blockbuster in the mid-1950s (it ran for 924 performances), the Jule Styne-Betty Comden-Adolph Green musical oozes charm, radiates warmth, and boasts an array of snappy tunes, including two perennial standards, 'Just in Time' and 'The Party's Over.' The optimistic, comedic story captivates from the get-go, and though the film version, directed by Vincente Minnelli, runs slightly more than two hours, it breezes by, propelled by the irresistible personality and boundless talent of its iridescent star, Judy Holliday, who recreates her Tony Award-winning role. And yet in the retrospectives of great Hollywood film musicals (that means you, 'That's Entertainment' I, II, and III), 'Bells Are Ringing' never even merits a mention. After watching it a few days ago - and then watching it again and enjoying it just as much the second time through - I asked myself, "Where has this musical been all my life? How has it eluded me? And why doesn't it enjoy a loftier reputation?"
That last question is the toughest to answer. Though it scored at the box office when released in 1960, 'Bells Are Ringing' arrived at the bitter end of the golden era of studio musicals, and its intimate presentation allowed it to be easily overshadowed by splashier productions. It's the last musical to emanate from MGM's legendary Arthur Freed Unit, which mounted such iconic productions as 'Meet Me in St. Louis,' 'On the Town,' 'An American in Paris,' 'Singin' in the Rain,' 'The Band Wagon,' and 'Gigi' (to name but a very few), the last MGM musical directed by Minnelli (who helmed four of the aforementioned films), and the last movie in which Holliday would appear. (She sadly died of cancer five years later in 1965 at the tender age of 43.) When discussing MGM musicals, 'Gigi' - which won the Best Picture Oscar a couple of years earlier - is always considered the studio's swan song, while 'Bells Are Ringing' is always wrongfully - okay, criminally - ignored.
But please don't equate its anonymity with mediocrity. 'Bells Are Ringing' is first-class entertainment, the kind of musical that lifts the spirits and nourishes the soul. And because it eschews big production numbers, opulent sets, and stuffy pretense, we can concentrate on the cute story, buoyant songs, lovable characters, and considerable talent and chemistry of the ensemble cast, many of whom were imported from the Broadway show. Known for his lavish visions and impeccable sense of style, Minnelli wisely dials down his trademark artistry and remains faithful to the musical's downtown roots, which makes 'Bells Are Ringing' all the more accessible.
It's also very relatable, and that's largely due to the inimitable Holliday, who instantly and intimately connects with us through her vulnerability and wacky sense of humor. She's perfectly cast as Ella Peterson, a dedicated, sincere, and oh-so-helpful switchboard operator who works for Susanswerphone (pronounced Sus-ANSWER-phone), a fledgling, hole-in-the-wall answering service run by the eponymous Sue (Jean Stapleton). Against Sue's advice, Ella involves herself in her clients' lives, looking out for their best interests and providing friendly tips when they're in need.
Her favorite disembodied voice belongs to dapper playwright Jeffrey Moss (Dean Martin), who is struggling to make it on his own after his writing partner recently dumped him. Jeff calls Ella "Mom" because he believes her to be a kindly old lady, and he depends on the counsel and encouragement she offers him. Ella harbors a crush on this mysterious stranger, and when he's in danger of missing a critical deadline and unreachable by phone, she springs into action, ambushing him in his apartment under an assumed name and quickly becoming his muse. A romance develops, but as Ella's masquerade continues, she worries the newly revitalized and confident Jeff will feel deflated and betrayed when he discovers her true identity.
Amid this sweet love story, zany subplots abound. A nosy police inspector (Dort Clark) believes Susanswerphone is a front for an escort service and puts Ella under surveillance; Sue's gambler boyfriend Otto (Eddie Foy, Jr.) devises a secret bookmaking scheme that puts Susanswerphone in jeopardy; and when Ella helps a couple of other quirky clients (a dentist [Bernie West] who composes songs on an air hose and an out-of-work actor [Frank Gorshin, best known as The Riddler in the campy 'Batman' TV series] who continually channels Marlon Brando), more complications ensue. Yet Comden and Green tightly weave all these disparate threads into their story, making 'Bells Are Ringing' not only a delightful musical, but also an exhilarating romp.
Though answering services are almost completely obsolete and it's virtually impossible to miss an important call in this cellular age, 'Bells Are Ringing' still emphasizes our dependence on the telephone and how the information that travels over the wire can irrevocably alter our lives. Comden and Green always brilliantly lampooned social trends, and here they make fun of beatniks and the hoity-toity Upper East Side set while integrating elements of 'Guys and Dolls' and workplace musicals like 'The Pajama Game' into their narrative fabric. They also supply Holliday with sparkling material that allows her to fully flex her comedic muscles by adopting various guises and voices, all of which fuel her character's ultimate identity crisis.
And the wonderful songs are eminently hummable. Holliday may not possess the powerhouse pipes of that other legendary Judy - Garland - but her sincere, unassuming style is equally captivating. (Her final number, 'I'm Going Back,' is a bona fide showstopper.) Before 'Bells Are Ringing,' I was only familiar with Holliday's work as a comedienne in such classics as 'Born Yesterday' (for which she won a Best Actress Oscar) and 'It Should Happen to You,' but she proves here she's a more than capable musical performer able to sing, dance, and clown to perfection. Though she broadly plays some of the comedy (provoking a few belly laughs), Holliday is always 100% genuine and she holds us in the palm of her hand throughout the film. Of course, the knowledge that this was her final movie and she was already ill during shooting adds a bittersweet note to her performance, but it never dulls the joy she spreads.
Martin, perfectly cast as the hard-drinking, womanizing leading man, is the personification of easygoing cool, and he and Holliday make a winning pair. Much like he played straight man to Jerry Lewis, Martin willingly cedes the spotlight to Holliday, but his velvet baritone - similar to that of Bing Crosby - glides through Styne's lilting melodies. Stapleton, who at times previews her iconic Edith Bunker character from the TV sitcom 'All in the Family' (which would premiere a decade later), brings additional verve to the proceedings, and Holliday's real-life beau, jazz musician Gerry Mulligan, shines in a terrific bit as Ella's blind date early in the film.
No matter how much I praise 'Bells Are Ringing,' I realize it will never rank in the upper echelon of Hollywood musicals, and that's a shame, but Minnelli's energetic, beguiling adaptation deserves to be rediscovered, reevaluated, and properly cherished. Just when we crave a bit of sunny optimism and a tonic to restore our faith in mankind, here come 'Bells Are Ringing' and the warm, witty, and wonderful Judy Holliday to the rescue..."just in time." And with apologies to the catchphrase for the original 'That's Entertainment!', boy, do we need them now.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Bells Are Ringing' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Ever since the dawn of the DVD age, Warner Home Video has taken great care to present the best possible transfers of its classic musicals, and its Archive division carries on that tradition with its fast-growing Blu-ray collection. 'Bells Are Ringing' is the latest MGM musical to get the high-def treatment, and the results are typically outstanding. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 rendering bursts with bright hues, solid contrast, and excellent clarity, all of which combine to creative a captivating viewing experience. Sure, the single-strip color of the period can't compare to the ultra-saturated three-strip Technicolor of the 1940s (some scenes look a tad faded), but this 2K remaster nicely pumps up the density, making reds and yellows look deliciously lush. Pastels also pop, and rich black levels, crisp whites, and natural flesh tones help the image achieve a consistent, balanced appearance. A faint smattering of grain lends the picture a lovely film-like feel, and no nicks, marks, or scratches dot the pristine print. Background elements are easy to discern, shadow delineation is quite good, and close-ups, though sparingly employed, show off fine facial features well. A short snippet late in the film seems to come from a different source - the framing and texture don't match what comes before and after - but it's only a momentary distraction. Like the movie itself, this transfer exceeds expectations, and its vibrancy helps this delightful musical leap off the screen.
All I can say is wow. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is a revelation, pumping out rich, bold sound that makes this 57-year-old musical feel brand new. Superior fidelity, excellent stereo separation across the front channels, and weighty bass frequencies all combine to create an enveloping audio experience. A wide dynamic scale handles all of Holliday's spontaneous shrieks, the ringing telephones and buzzing switchboard, and André Previn's brassy, Oscar-nominated orchestrations with ease, and all the snappy dialogue is easy to comprehend. Of course, the track really comes alive during the musical numbers, with a slight level boost adding a jolt of electricity to the songs. The vocals are well prioritized, Dino's baritone sounds as smooth as velvet, and Holliday's vitality - especially in the show-stopping 'I'm Going Back' - comes through with crystal clarity. No age-related imperfections, such as hiss, pops, or crackles, intrude, and no distortion creeps into the mix. Musicals fans will be overjoyed with this active, full-bodied track that's a joy to listen to from start to finish.
All the extras from the 2005 DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release..
Judy Holliday only lived 43 years, but her work will last forever, and 'Bells Are Ringing,' her only film musical, beautifully captures the star's warm, joyous spirit and showcases her irrepressible talent. Packed with catchy tunes - including the perennial favorites 'Just in Time' and 'The Party's Over' - and directed with flair by Vincente Minnelli, this funny, romantic, and grossly underrated musical about a busybody switchboard operator who meddles in the lives of her clients is top-notch entertainment from start to finish. Excellent video and audio transfers and a few rare supplements distinguish Warner Archive's Blu-ray presentation, which is nice step up from the 2005 DVD. Though even diehard musicals fans may not be familiar with 'Bells Are Ringing,' one viewing of this delightful confection will instantly make it one of your favorites. It's definitely now one of mine. Highly recommended.