Bells Are Ringing (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Darragh O'Donoghue

Produced by Arthur Freed; directed by Vincente Minnelli; screenplay and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, based on their musical with Jule Styne; cinematography by Milton R. Krasner; edited by Adrienne Fazan; music by Jule Styne; art direction by Preston Ames and George W. Davis; starring Judy Holliday, Dean Martin, Fred Clark, Eddie Foy Jr, and Jean Stapleton. Blu-ray, color, 126 min., 1960. A Warner Archive release.

In Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Vincente Minnelli’s most beloved film, a family face leaving their cozy small town for the terrors of anonymous big city life in New York. The crux of Bells Are Ringing is the mirror opposite—at the film’s climax, midwestern switchboard operator Ella Peterson (Judy Holliday) prepares to banish herself from New York as a result of an existential crisis caused by urban living.

This self-imposed exile is an admission in the film of defeat or failure, despite New York conforming to the Smiths’ worst nightmares. The skyscrapers that dominate the opening credits loom over narrow streets crowded with the living dead, who snarl at anyone who tries to make unsolicited contact. Women who seek to escape 1950s small-town conformism to set up their own business and create an autonomous female space in New York are persecuted by men, either mistaken for sex workers and surveilled by the doltish police, or manipulated by criminals. The city is a place where personal authenticity seems impossible and the only way to survive is to be someone you’re not.

Struggling playwright Jeffrey Moss (Dean Martin) must choose between a life of drunken womanizing or the creative renewal promised by his 'fairy godmother' Melisande Scott, aka Ella Peterson (Judy Holliday).

The musical is famously the genre whereby characters emotionally and socially constrained in their everyday existence are liberated to express their pent-up inner lives through song and dance. In Bells Are Ringing, the Jule Styne songs—those inner lives—are inextricably linked to the confinement. This is most dramatic in “I Met A Girl,” where Jeffrey Moss (Dean Martin) strives to break through the sea of unyielding pedestrians to celebrate his love for Ella—crowning his creative and spiritual rebirth—but most characteristically in Ella’s solo numbers at her workplace, the Susansaphone telephone answering service owned by her cousin Sue (Jean Stapleton). The original 1956 musical was written for Holliday by her old theatrical collaborators Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and every showstopper is a delight—with the extraordinary Holliday, already stricken with the cancer that would kill her, switching between high comedy and rich pathos, adopting and discarding accents and nationalities, ages, and genders. But it is not unalloyed delight—these sequences are filmed by Minnelli in deliberately heavy, back-and-forth camera movements in cluttered Cinemascope frames, which close off any chance of escape. Echoing the caged canary she feeds, Ella lives in a space with barred windows.

Jeffrey works his own magic by transforming a dead end New York street into a romantic stage set.

If New York is so awful, why on earth would anyone want to stay in such a place, and not jump for joy at the opportunity to return home to the small-town Midwest, where life, love, and identity are apparently much simpler affairs? Well, Ella the ordinary working woman may find urban reality a disillusionment, but Ella Peterson is no ordinary woman. In a film laced with references to classic fairy tales, Ella is part-fairy godmother, part-Cinderella—at once the agent of transformative magic and its hapless recipient. Holliday strives to turn anonymous New York into a virtual Our Town from the anonymous safety of her switchboard. Ostensibly a convenient answering service, Susansaphone through Ella links lost, lonely individuals to each other, and to their true destinies, rescuing the creative soul trapped inside their conformist bodies. When the company is placed under surveillance by the police, Ella is forced to appear to her clients in person, and wave her magic wand before disappearing opportunely.

In a characteristic Minnellian touch, it is probable that the happiness and creative outlets she provides are delusive. The trio she helps—and three is the magic fairy tale number—are a playwright blocked by his writing partner’s departure (Martin); a Method actor failing to attract casting directors because he takes his mumbling mannerisms beyond acceptable bounds (Frank Gorshin); and a frustrated songwriter forced to be a dentist by his father (Bernie West). In a classic equation of creative and sexual fulfilment, Jeffrey’s completion of a play is linked to his growing love for Ella. But if the actor’s dreadful posturing in or out of a suit, and the dentist’s abrasive jingles are anything to go by, the creative gifts meted out by Ella are pretty meager, Jeffrey’s play is probably awful, and his great love with Ella is based on a lie. The fact that the entire film is framed as a bamboozling advertisement only confirms this suspicion of irony.

As Ella listens into, and helps countless lives at a remove, she finds her own sense of self slipping away.

Blake Barton the actor, Dr. Kitchell the dentist and Jeffrey the playwright eventually access their “true” identities, but in spite of the brilliance of Gorshin, West, and especially Martin—surely the most enabling and selfless supporting actor in Hollywood history—they remain (deliberately) one-dimensional. The true heart of the film is Holliday’s existential crisis. Ella’s connection and redirection of others’ lives leads her to adapt a multiplicity of roles that eventually leads her to feel she has opened a giant emotional void into which has been mislaid her “authentic self.” This is where the subplot parodying the Actors’ Studio, Beat culture, and ersatz existentialism is essential.

The satire was already pretty dated when Bells Are Ringing premiered on Broadway, and it pales beside the equivalent, acerbic sequence in Stanley Donen’s Funny Face (1957). Nevertheless, the values embodied by the Method and the related culture—one based on accessing an authentic, “natural” self in a compromised, hypocritical, overcivilized world—is one brazenly refuted by Bells Are Ringing. The film—the last production of MGM’s Arthur Freed unit, and the last collaboration between Minnelli, Comden, and Green—is Minnelli’s unapologetic apologia for the musical as the pre-eminent movie form. Just as Ella learns that it is the multiplicity and fluidity of role-playing, and not some mythical “essence,” that will allow her to successfully navigate New York living and find happiness; so, of all the genres, it is the musical, and not some critically fashionable version of literary naturalism, that is the only one capable of convincingly embodying both inner and outer lives, of showing how the individual works in society, and how society works on the individual. The bells may be ringing, but as so often in the urgent work of Vincente Minnelli, they toll for us all.

Darragh O’Donoghue, a Cineaste contributing writer, works as an archivist at Tate Britain in London.

Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 3