On March 29, 1951 the 23rd Annual Academy Awards were held and there was stiff competition in the Best Actress category between two grand dames of Hollywood. Would Bette Davis take it for All About Eve or would Gloria Swanson grab it for Sunset Blvd.? Imagine the audience’s surprise when a little known actress named Judy Holliday took home the trophy for her starring debut in 1950’s Born Yesterday. Just 10 years later Ms. Holliday would star in her last film, Bells Are Ringing. Directed by Vincente Minelli it’s a lesser known yet wonderfully made MGM musical and my choice for my entry in the Vincente Minnelli Blogathon hosted by Love Letters to Old Hollywood.
For most of her career, Judy Holliday, toggled between roles in Hollywood and on Broadway and in 1956 she originated the role of Ella Peterson in Comden and Green’s Bells Are Ringing. Her performance would go on to win her a Tony and four years later the lead in the film adaptation.
Tapped to direct was Vincente Minnelli, the director of many prominent MGM films including my personal favorite Meet Me In St. Louis. Two years previously Minelli had won the Best Director Oscar for Gigi and Bells Are Ringing marked his return to musicals.
Bells Are Ringing tells the story of Ella Peterson, a switchboard operator for the answering service, Susanswerphone. Shy in real life Ella comes alive on the switchboard and maintains close relationships with the people she serves. These include Dr. Kitchell, a dentist who longs to be a songwriter, Blake Barton, a method actor struggling to find work, and Jeffrey Moss, a playwright with a severe case of writer’s block. Moss, played by Dean Martin, is the object of Ella’s affection though she has never met him in real life. Soon that changes when a series of circumstances brings to the two together. Add zany sublots about a bookie ring and an overeager vice detective and Bells Are Ringing becomes a highly comedic love story complete with song and dance.
Despite earning an Oscar nod for its score by Andre Previn the film was not a commercial success. Released in the waning days of both MGM and the Hollywood musical it doesn’t really come as a surprise yet it’s still a shame. I think Bells Are Ringing is a true gem.
Judy Holliday is absolutely perfect as the shy, kindhearted Ella who wears her heart on her sleeve and only wants whats best for those around her. Dean Martin is perfectly cast as a past his prime playboy who definitely needs to be saved. And the supporting cast includes hilarious turns from Frank Gorshin (doing his best Marlon Brando), Bernard West, Jean Stapleton and Eddie Foy, Jr. Then there’s the music.
With songs by Jules Styne and Comden and Green it features a soundtrack that’s quite memorable. From the classic standard “Just in Time” to the hilarious society farce “Drop That Name” to the heartrendingly beautiful “The Party’s Over” it’s filled with songs that I can just listen to over and over again.
Bells Are Ringing is an underseen gem that deserves more notice. With it’s optimistic outlook, enjoyable cast and memorable songs it’s a film that’s sure to put a smile on your face. Serving as Judy Holliday’s final performance (she would sadly pass away five years later) it showcases her incredible talent that all too briefly lit up the screen. You won’t regret watching it.