Welcome to Flashback Friday — for when you just can’t get enough of Throwback Thursday. Whether you loved or hated”La La Land,” it can’t be denied that the movie musical is experiencing a burst of renewed attention, as dozens of converts flock to see what inspired Young Buck Chazelle to make his postmodern weirdie. The usual suspects come up: the recognized “Umbrellas”-“Singin'”-“American”-“Swing Time” masterpieces. But this week’s movie might fly under your radar. (Don’t let it.) Managing editor Carlos Valladares takes a look at “Bells are Ringing,” a 1960 musical from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), directed by Vincente Minnelli, produced by Arthur Freed and starring Judy Holliday and Dean Martin.
It’s a shame that musicals like “Bells are Ringing” aren’t seen as hip. The last musical of the legendary “Arthur Freed Unit” at MGM, responsible for such ecstasies as “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), “An American in Paris” (1951), “The Band Wagon” (1953) and “Gigi” (1958), is easy to mock for its datedness (really? telephone switchboard operators?) and lack of special pizazz (after years of cranking out top-notch material, director Vincente Minnelli’s compositions feel noticeably tired here.) Fans of Minnelli, though, will not be disappointed. In many ways, it is his most relaxed and quietly thrilling dream-world.
The skin-thin premise matters little. Ella Petersen (Judy Holliday) is a switchboard operator for an answering service. Her job is to receive messages for people who can’t answer their phones then deliver them once they come home. That’s it. Ella is not supposed to get involved in the lives of her clients — but of course she does. She’s too warm-hearted to stick to the routine script. To a little boy who calls every day, she pretends she’s Santa Claus (“I heard ya didn’t eat yer spinach! That makes Santa VERY SAD!”) She patiently listens to a singer-songwriter dentist and his awful, cornball lyrics. As these things go, she falls in love with client Jeffrey Moss (Dean Martin), an alcoholic playwright with severe writer’s block. She pretends she is two people at once. She is “Mom,” a sixty-something elder who gives Martin counsel over the phone and “Melisande Scott,” an aspiring actress who serves as his accidental muse for a musical he is writing on the Midas touch and finding success in the world.
“Bells are Ringing” is fun and free of obvious cynicism, which makes it ripe for snickers. While people hurl the word “dated” at the screen, I sit lost in a sea of dreamy empathy, silently understanding Judy Holliday’s nervous, tense look in her shock at seeing her love in person: “So thaaaaat’s what you look like…” I am bowled over by Judy’s tectonic-plate-shifting belt in “I’m Going Back”, as she settles to run her life by her own rules: “I’ll miss you, but you’ll carry on/You’ll never know that I’ve gone/I’m-a-goin’-a BACK!/Where I can be me…!” I don’t care about what Hollywood (the abstract entity — through its happy ending, through its race-erasing ideologies, through its cushy embrace of bourgeois values) tries to push on its imagined audience. I care about the precious, weird moments, when the bit actor (a dentist who wants to be the next Lin-Manuel Miranda) or the suave actor (a never-more-handsome Dean Martin, fresh off from hanging out with Da Boyz in Hawks’ “Rio Bravo”) or the gutsy actress (Judy Holliday — oh man!) or the slap-happy director (Minnelli — oh man!) hijack the film, exchanging riffs like jazz musicians in the world’s most public club.
A lot of annoyingly pure cinemaniacs reject Vincente Minnelli’s obsessive-compulsive décors, dismiss his “stagey” long takes, and laugh at his tendency to only “direct the furniture,” leaving the actors to their own decides in a cobweb of melodramatics and cold spatial emptiness. Nuts, I say! In fact, Minnelli has a totally radical and otherworldly understanding of human fickleness, of the bourgeois drive for status and ownership and success. I would never want anything (aggressive edits, more cynicism, less mushiness) to throw off the balance of Judy Holliday’s solo number “The Party’s Over.” Only a cluck would want to upset the pinball-on-Adderall flow between Judy’s Minnelli Red dress (slightly bejeweled, nothing fancy or flashy), a lonely park bench, a lit streetlamp, Manhattan Bridge and vast, cold river-water (a hint of dark, suicidal desperateness — both in city life and the happy-go-lucky musical — “La La Land” anyone?). Our eyes always dart around the Minnelli frame, hungrily eating information (broken typewriters, endless bouquets of wilting flowers, wires snaking around a hermit’s basement) that provide subtle insights into the states-of-mind of our main heroes: Dean Martin’s stubborn booziness, Judy Holliday’s ironic loneliness.
Mortality creeps into “Bells are Ringing” in the most unexpected manner. Holliday tragically died of breast cancer at the age of 43, only five years after making this. In her final film role, she does a sharp about-face on her aggravating, dumb blonde schtick that rightly turns off most folks (myself included). Instead, Holliday acts with the wily knowingness of Marilyn Monroe in “Let’s Make Love.” She teaches us about the social masks we put on, the dissatisfaction city life brings to lonely lovers (or, in this case, switch-board operators) and the humiliations we endure to suppress our “true” selves — or, at least, what we think is true. There’s a weird melancholy in Judy Holliday’s command of space: a retroactively placed ghostly presence hangs on her every note. There should be more to the Holliday story. This is an unfair swan-song. Yet what a song! “Leave ’em Laughing” has been a time-worn movie since Keaton and Chaplin, and Holliday followed it to the end of her life.
Plot hounds will find lots to complain about. Obviously the movie would be over if Judy could tell Dean, “I’m Mom and Melisande Scott.” My question is why you would want it to end. If it did, then it couldn’t teach us all the wonderful things it has to share about performativity in unnatural social settings (a Hollywood party where the goal is purely to “drop that name,” a diverse yet segregated street corner, a blind date under the bridge), how women in the ’50s and early ’60s subvert their patriarchally mandated social roles (Judy/Ella’s edgy interiority comes out brilliantly) and the liberation (and confinement) that comes with all the overwhelming romantic feels. As with the best Hollywood musicals, plot and story in “Bells are Ringing” are just an excuse to explore emotion in its purest, abstract state — the I-don’t-care female coolness of Judy Holliday, the struggle to overcome a disability-disease in Dean Martin.
The quiet smoothness with which Judy Holliday waltzes in her sharp red dress with Dean Martin betrays the tumult she feels. She (Ella Peterson) can hide her “true self”, but how far can the façade of Melisande Scott and Mom go on? There’s something so undeniably eerie and true-to-life in “Bells are Ringing” — indeed, in nearly all of Minnelli’s movies — we’d be fools to ignore.
“Bells are Ringing” is available at Green Library’s Media and Microtext Center. Its call number is ZDVD 9574. It has also been recently restored for Blu-Ray and DVD.
Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.