Bells Are Ringing, The (1960): Judy Holliday’s Last Picture

Vincente Minnelli didnt think that Bells Are Ringing would be his last musical collaboration with Freed, but it was.

Budgeted at three million dollars, Bells Are Ringing had a slender plot (more of a premise, and a simple one at that) that served as an excuse for some musical numbers. At first glance, this didnt bother Minnelli since most of his good musicals lacked strong stories and stressed music and dance and mise en scene at the expense of conventional narrative.

The film stars Judy Holliday, still riding high on the success of Born Yesterday, which she had played on stage and screen, winning an Oscar for it in a tough year, in which Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson were also nominated. Holliday remained friends with Comden and Green from the days of their old satirical nightclub act, The Revuers.

Minnelli committed to do the film in the summer of 1958, but the production was postponed twice. The movie finally began shooting on October 7, 1959. When Comden and Green took too long to furnish the final script, MGM’s story department head Kenneth MacKenna complained of their lax behavior and busy schedule to their agent, Irving Lazar. After reading the first draft, which was 159-page-long without songs, Minnelli, too, was dissatisfied, and he requested a shorter, more streamlined scenario.

To dramatize the urgency of having a workable script, Minnelli left for New York in February 1959 to work with the writers. The second draft was more manageable, but new delays were now caused by Holliday’s West Coast tour of Bells Are Ringing. Minnelli began rehearsals in August 1959 on what appeared to be an easy job, since location shots were confined to a single brownstone, in Manhattans East 68th Street.

Minnelli summoned Holliday to Los Angeles for preproduction meetings in mid-August. They discussed her role and costumes in detail, and they seemed to be in agreement. Or so it seems until shooting began. Holliday hated the script and Minnellis approach to the film. She didnt understand that the story had to be opened up for the big screen, instead demanding more close-ups than necessary.

The film reunited Minnelli with Dean Martin for the second time, after Some Came Running. For Martin, it was just as agonizing an experience as the first time around, except that on this film, he did not get on with his director and costar. Sinatra had warned Martin, reminding him of the idle time and bad experience they both had on the set of Some Came Running, but it was a goof part for Martin, who needed the job for his onscreen exposureand for the cash flow.

At first, Holliday was baffled that a big star like Martin would play a supporting part, but once shooting began, and she observed the media blitz around him, Holliday resented the publicity Martin was getting, which was substantially bigger than hers. Moreover, Holliday resisted Minnelli’s direction, and was only briefly appeased, when he agreed to cast her lover, Mulligan, in a small part in the film. However, once that issue was settled, Holliday went back to her usual difficult self.

Hollidays view of the script was not news to Minnelli, who all along thought that it was pedestrian and severely flawed. Comden and Green cut a few scenes and added some others, but they couldn’t correct the basic weaknesses. They had only prolonged the story without making it more entertaining or cinematic.

In the end, Minnelli failed to gain Holliday’s confidence. A fan of Holliday since The Revuers, Minnelli expected no difficulties in working with her. Unable to communicate with her, Minnelli wondered why Holliday was so apprehensive about a role she knew inside out. For her part, Holliday claimed that she needed a stronger director. With no help from Minnelli, she felt she was at a complete loss.

What made things worse is that Holliday started to praise George Cukor on the set, telling the crew how she wished Cukor had staged the movie, disregarding the fact that Cukor also had problems with her.

After the first week of shooting, Holliday became so distraught that she asked to be released from the picture. Out of desperation, Holliday offered to return her salary so that they could start again with another actress; she even recommended Shirley MacLaine for her part.

However, under pressures from Minnelli, Holliday resigned herself to finish the film. The cast and crew were extremely deferential to Holliday, but she remained convinced that the very concept was wrong. Bells Are Ringing became a nightmare for her. Sadly, it turned out to be Hollidays last movie; she died of illness in 1965.