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Bells Are Ringing

Bells Are Ringing(1960)

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teaser Bells Are Ringing (1960)

Judy Holliday had become a movie star in the 1950s playing dopey, adorable blonde bimbos in comedies like Born Yesterday (1950) and The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956). But longtime friends knew that while Holliday was funny and blonde, she was anything but dumb. Among those friends were Betty Comden and Adolph Green, authors of such classic film musicals as Singin' in the Rain (1952) and On the Town (1949). The three had worked together in a comedy troupe called The Revuers in the 1940s, which eventually led them all to Broadway and Hollywood.

In 1956, Holliday was depressed about the breakup of her marriage and the direction of her film career. So Comden and Green tried to cheer her up by writing a Broadway musical for her about a telephone answering service operator who gets mixed up in her clients' lives. The script for Bells Are Ringing described the operator, Ella Peterson, as "pretty, warm, sympathetic...with a quick mind and vivid imagination." Ella was Comden and Green's gift to their old friend, an idealized version of Holliday herself, with all her lovable traits and without the neurotic, insecure side that was also a part of her personality. Bells Are Ringing was a Broadway smash. Holliday played Ella for two years, and won a Tony Award.

By the time the legendary MGM musical team of producer Arthur Freed and director Vincente Minnelli was ready to make the film version of Bells Are Ringing (1960), Holliday was depressed again. Her romance with her Broadway co-star, Sydney Chaplin (son of Charlie), was over. She was unhappy with the script for the film, nervous about going before the cameras for the first time in four years, and overweight. Freed and Minnelli retained most of the Broadway cast for the film version, including Jean Stapleton as Ella's cousin, with one obvious exception. As good as Chaplin had been onstage -- he had also won a Tony -- casting him in the film version was out of the question. Instead, Dean Martin played the role of the playwright with whom Ella falls in love. Martin's laid-back attitude helped lighten the mood on what would become a very trying production.

Minnelli was a great fan of Holliday's, and tried hard to support and reassure her, but he couldn't understand why she was having trouble with a part she'd played for 924 performances. Holliday's problem was that she was having a hard time re-thinking the role for the screen. By the end of the first week of shooting, she was so unhappy that she asked to be released from the film. Freed refused, and Holliday's anxiety manifested itself in crying jags and a series of illnesses and injuries which delayed the production. Cast and crew were gentle and considerate with her, and she was somewhat calmed by the presence of her new boyfriend, jazz musician and sometime actor Gerry Mulligan, who played her blind date in the film.

Most of Bells Are Ringing was shot in the studio, but Minnelli wanted some establishing shots of New York, including an exterior of the shabby building where Susanswerphone's basement headquarters was located. He was having no luck finding the right location, until he saw a picture in Life magazine of a lone brownstone standing in the middle of a razed block on East 68th Street. For the swanky house where Ella attends a chic party, the film used the exterior of a house on Sutton Place owned by the ex-wife of Aristotle Onassis, and duplicated the interior on a soundstage. In the hilarious patter song, "Drop That Name," which is sung at the party, Freed and Minnelli are among the celebrity names dropped, the latter rhymed with "the former Grace Kelly."

In spite of Holliday's apprehension, Bells Are Ringing premiered at Radio City Music Hall to huge crowds and even better reviews than the play had received. It broke Music Hall records, grossing over a million dollars in its seven-week run. But that was in New York, and Bells Are Ringing was a New York musical. The rest of the country couldn't have cared less. It was Minnelli's least profitable film since The Pirate (1948). American tastes were changing, and audiences for old-fashioned MGM musicals just weren't there anymore. Bells Are Ringing was the last collaboration of Arthur Freed and Vincente Minnelli after 12 films together. It was nominated for an Academy Award for scoring of a musical picture, but lost to Song Without End (1960), a biography of the composer Franz Liszt, and hardly a traditional movie musical.

Bells Are Ringing was also Judy Holliday's final film. During filming, most of the people involved in the production thought her illnesses were psychosomatic. But within a year she really was sick, with the cancer that would kill her in 1965. She was only 43. Holliday left behind only a handful of films which display her quirky, unique comic talent. And whatever its flaws, Bells Are Ringing, with glimpses of the real Judy Holliday's warmth and charm, is one of the most likeable of them.

Producer: Arthur Freed
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Screenplay: Betty Comden and Adolph Green, based on the play by Comden and Green and Jule Styne
Editor: Adrienne Fazan
Cinematography: Milton Krasner
Costume Design: Walter Plunkett
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Preston Ames
Music: Jule Styne; lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Principal Cast: Judy Holliday (Ella Peterson), Dean Martin (Jeffrey Moss), Fred Clark (Larry Hastings), Eddie Foy, Jr. (J. Otto Prantz), Jean Stapleton (Sue), Frank Gorshin (Blake Barton), Bernie West (Dr. Joe Kitchell), Gerry Mulligan (Ella's blind date).
C-126m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Margarita Landazuri

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