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Bells Are Ringing

To think of the Hollywood musical film as a shallow, excessively vivid performance event full of bombast and sickly emotions is not to have experienced Bells are Ringing. This MGM musical from 1960 is a richly textured document of absolute complexity yet handled with a deft touch and a light surface, like a sweet confection. The plot itself is of illusory simplicity. Ella (Judy Holliday) is a small town girl in the big city. She works for the Susanserphone telephone answering service, which appears to be run by her cousin Sue (Jean Stapleton). Ella brings a small-town busy-bodyness to what should be a neutral, impersonal service, interfering in the clients' lives in order to help them out. She pays particular attention to Jeff Moss (Dean Martin), a playwright whose writing partner has just abandoned him. Losing himself in dames and booze, Moss doesn't have the confidence to embark on his next project. On the phone, Ella is "mom" to Jeff, the comforting and insightful figure to whom he confides his woes. But when they finally meet, she must adopt the persona Melisande, in order not to get fired for breaking Susanswerphone rules. In aid of Jeff, Ella draws together several other of her clients as collaborators in his next play, including Bernie West as a songwriting dentist (West later went on to create "Three's Company") and Frank Gorshin as a Brando-esque beatnik actor. Meanwhile, Susanswerphone is under scrutiny by the vice squad, which is nevertheless unable to detect that an unscrupulous hoodlum (Eddie Foy, Jr.) has commandeered the enterprise as a disguised bookie network (also in a small part is jazz sax great Gerry Mulligan as Ella's blind date; Mulligan was married to Holliday at the time). As Raymond Durgant pointed out in a detailed appreciation in the March 1973 issue of Film Comment, Bells Are Ringing is an intricate tapestry of false identities and surrogate communication systems. That so much could be so successfully packed into two hours (along with several songs by book-writers Comden and Green, and music by Jule Styne, including "The Party's Over") is testimony to the methods of golden-age Hollywood, then entering its death throes. Not as great or iconic as other New York musicals such as On the Town or West Side Story, Durgnat rates Bells in the second tier of city musicals with a rueful tone of disillusionment such as It's Always fair Weather. Warner (which owns all the old MGM movies) offers up a dashing anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) in Dolby Digtal 5.1 audio (in English, with a DD 2.0 stereo track in French) and subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. There is no audio commentary, despite the fact that some of the film's participants are still living, or that there are certain erudite scholars out there with a special interest in Minnelli, such as James Naremore. Instead, there is a short "making-of" featurette, "Bells are Ringing: Just in Time" (11 min.), with comments from Hal Linden, who has a small part in the film and played the Moss role on stage, and Gorshin. Linden makes poignant testimony on behalf of his friend Holliday, who is stunning in the film. Also on hand is the theatrical trailer (3:01) and outtakes of three musical sequences, "Is It a Crime," "The Midas Touch," and "My Guiding Star," with a play-all option (11 min.). The static musical menu offers 32-chapter scene selection. Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm

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