Our Christmas Day treat this year involved putting up the screen and projector and downloading Bells Are Ringing. It was only later that I realised the coincidence that we had been watching the last classic MGM musical produced by the ‘Freed unit’, written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and directed by Vincente Minnelli. In the next few weeks La La Land, the ‘new Hollywood musical’ is expected to arrive in the UK. I wonder if it will kickstart a revival or even do enough to sit alongside the Freed triumphs? Bells Are Ringing comes from the same three creative talents as The Band Wagon (1953), possibly my favourite musical. Bells Are Ringing isn’t such an instant ‘wow’ but it does have several things going for it, beginning with a terrific central performance by the fabulous Judy Holliday in her last film before a tragic early death from breast cancer just five years later.
I fear Ms Holliday will not be known by modern audiences. She was first a stage performer before getting her big break in the Hepburn-Tracey comedy Adam’s Rib (1949). This was followed by her Oscar-winning performance in Born Yesterday (1950), two notable films with Jack Lemmon and a handful of other film projects before this, her last appearance. On stage she had a hit run for Born Yesterday on Broadway and won a Tony as best actress in a musical for the stage version of Bells Are Ringing in 1957. In 1952 Holliday had appeared before one of the Senate Committees during the anti-Communist hysteria. She avoided ‘naming names’ and is said to have charmed her interrogators with a ‘dumb blonde’ routine. This was part of her star persona but in reality she was one of the most intelligent and cultured performers in American theatre and film. She escaped an official blacklisting and during the 1950s was an ‘A’ star for Columbia, but there is a suggestion that she didn’t appear on TV as much as might be expected for such a talented performer – a comedian who could sing and dance and had the potential to develop into a fine ‘serious’ actor. Some critics have suggested that she wasn’t ‘beautiful enough’ to be a big star in Hollywood, but she was vivacious and attractive and someone who audiences could relate to very easily.
The ‘bells’ in this romantic comedy musical are not primarily wedding bells. Ella (Judy Holliday) works for ‘Susanswerphone’, a telephone messaging service housed in a run-down building, the last one standing in an area of re-development. The central plotline involves her attempts to solve her clients’ personal problems, notably the stalling career of playwright Jeffrey Moss (Dean Martin). She does this while trying to hide her identity with predictable results. Two subplots involve an attempt by a new client to use the answering service to run an illegal betting system and a comic police surveillance of the business based on a misapprehension. The betting scam introduces gangsters to the mix and this strand reminded me of Guys and Dolls. The stage origins of the narrative are clear in the limited number of sets (all studio-based) and one of these, a complex street sequence, proved to be a striking attempt to re-create the realism of ‘Hollywood New York’ while retaining the control offered by a studio set. Otherwise, locations such as glamorous New York apartments and park settings are reminiscent of earlier MGM musicals (with a cinema marquee for Gigi reminding us of the legacy).
The songs had music by Jule Styne (with arrangements by Andre Previn) and lyrics by Comden and Green – who had started their careers in a revue troupe with Judy Holliday in 1938. While many of them are enjoyable but forgettable, at least two have subsequently become standards and I recognised ‘Just In Time’ and ‘The Party’s Over’. 1960 is an odd point in time, certainly in popular music but also in stage musicals and in Hollywood. Rock ‘n roll had softened dangerously by 1960 and stage musicals wouldn’t receive the ‘shock’ of West Side Story until 1957 – which followed Bells Are Ringing into film production. Bells Are Ringing feels like the end of something rather than a beginning. It was the end for MGM’s Freed Unit and it came towards the end of Vincente Minnelli’s career as a director of musicals (the last was On A Clear Day You Can See For Ever in 1970 with Barbra Streisand and Yves Montand). I didn’t have time to study Minnelli’s use of mise en scène, but the colour schemes are certainly bold with strong primary colours. The gowns are promoted in the trailer below and some are certainly extraordinary. There is a strong echo of The Band Wagon and, as one commentator noted, the performance of one song, ‘The Midas Touch’ could easily have featured in the earlier film. Just as in The Band Wagon, Minnelli’s film seems to seek to undermine ‘artistic pretension’. When Ella is invited to a cocktail party she wears an extravagant red dress given to her by one of her clients. She is then teased by her friends who correctly relate it to the opera La Traviata. Because the dress is not in the current fashion she then tears off much of the ‘fancywork’ on the frock and reveals a simpler and more attractive dress – which is also suits her much better.
Some comments on Judy Holliday’s performance suggest that she was depressed and conscious of being overweight during the filming. All I can say is that she made the film for me (ably assisted by Dean Martin). Bells Are Ringing is otherwise a conventional MGM musical, perhaps a little below the best 1950s output of the studio. All the same, La La Land will have to be very good to displace the Freed musicals in my preferences. I think the BBC should be required to show a season of them every Christmas.