Bells Are Ringing, The (1960): Minnelli’s Musical Comedy, Starring Dean Martin and Judy Holliday in her Last Screen Role

Vincente Minnelli didn’t think that Bells Are Ringing would be his last musical movie collaboration with Arthur Freed.  But it was, and not a particularly happy finale.
Bells Are Ringing
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Original poster
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 didn’t 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.

Note:

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On Broadway, the whimsical musical comedy was directed by Jerome Robbins, co-choreographed by Robbins and Bob Fosse, and composed by Jule Styne. Some critics didn’t like Holliday’s vocal impersonations, but the public did. Holliday stayed with the show during its two-year run for a record of 924 performances. The film version of Bells Are Ringing was simply inconceivable without Holliday, who was eager to make it so that she could shake off her still best-known role in Born Yesterday, which she had played on stage and screen, winning the Oscar for it in a tough year competing against Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson.

 

 

In Bells Are Ringing, Holliday plays Ella Peterson, a switchboard operator for an answering service, who has no personal life of her own. Plugging into her clients’ fantasies and frustrations, in due course, she engages to match Siamese cats with their owners, prescribe mustard plasters for a famous diva, and serve act as agent to a Method actor.

 

 

A spinster working for Susan’s Werphone, Ella literally lives by listening in–and sometimes horning in–on the lives of her company’s clients. Ella’s neediest case is a client known as Plaza 0 Double-4 Double 3, a playwright named Jeffrey Moss who suffers a writer’s block. To help Jeffrey, Ella enters into his life as a mysterious fairy named Melisande Scott, and, predictably, he falls for her fabricated personality.

 

 

 

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 exposure—and 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.

 

 

 

Holliday’s 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 ever since he saw her in The Revuers, Minnelli expected no difficulties in working with her. However, 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, who could give her directions. With no help from Minnelli, she felt that she was at a complete loss.

What made things worse is that she 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 of the musical was wrong. In short order, Bells Are Ringing became a nightmare for her.

Sadly, it turned out to be Holliday’s last movie; she died of illness in 1965.

 

Cast

Judy Holliday Ella Peterson
Dean Martin Jeffrey Moss
Fred Clark Larry Hastings
Eddie Foy, Jr. J. Otto Prantz
Jean Stapleton Sue
Ruth Storey Gwynne
Dort Clark Inspector Barnes
Frank Gorshin Blake Barton
Ralph Roberts Francis
Valerie Allen Olga
Bernie West Dr. Joe Kitchell, DDS
Steven Peck Gangster
Gerry Mulligan Ella’s Blind Date

Credits:

Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Produced by Arthur Freed
Written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green

Music by Jule Styne
Music supervised and conducted by André Previn

Cinematography Milton Krasner
Edited by Adrienne Fazan
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Release date: June 23, 1960

Running time: 126 minutes
Budget $3.2 million
Box office $3.6 million