At a shabby New York brownstone doubling as Susanswerphone, a message service company, Ella Peterson (Holliday) works as a switchboard operator, taking messages for a wide array of eccentric clients. Hiding behind a broad range of personalities, she's become personally involved in the subscribers' lives, their hopes and aspirations. She herself is falling in love with one of them, playwright Jeffrey Moss (Martin), who has been struggling with a new project since losing his writing partner. Moss and Peterson have never actually met, and over the phone she adopts the voice of "Ma," an elderly switchboard operator who showers him with motherly concern (and which adds a peculiar Oedipal quality to the romance).
When he goes on a bender rather than meet his writer's block head-on, she comes to his rescue, pretending now to be one "Melisande Scott," fearing warnings from the local police that direct contact by answering service providers and their subscribers is a violation of the law. Because of this, Ella agonizes over her budding romance with Jeff. The second half of the picture follows her as she waffles between breaking off her love affair and telling Jeff the truth.
It's this archly contrived conflict that does Bells Are Ringing its most serious damage. Even when the show debuted on Broadway in November 1956, that such a minor technically of the law could so stand in the way of True Love - and that Ella would go to such lengths to hide her identity must have seemed awfully artificial. At 127 minutes the film is pokey at times and generally overlong, with stagy stretches that would've played much better trimmed and opened up. (The film version of The Odd Couple, conversely, is a good example of how a "New York apartment"-based show can "go outside" and work better in movie terms.)
Despite this, Holliday's sweet charm and, by 1950s standards, relative plainness and subtle vulnerability make her a talent everyday women could relate to, the original Working Girl. (Indeed, Melanie Griffith, in several films, was little more than a Judy Holliday clone in '80s dress.) She's pretty but not glamorous, sings and dances well but not exceptionally so, which only makes numbers like "The Party's Over" and "I'm Going Back" all the more powerful. Her great flair for comedy is on display in a long monologue at the beginning, effortlessly adopting a different voices for each caller. Holliday's image was the antithesis of the MGM star - she was mortal - and thus the stakes are much more personal and the impact greater.
Bells Are Ringing works best when the focus is on Ella's unique relationship with the subscribers, which really should have been the focus all along. She's in there pitching for would-be actors, songwriters and ordinary folks looking for love. When she does eventually meet some of them, the results are often hilarious. Bernie West (later a successful television producer) is a scream as a dentist yearning to become a songwriter. Using an air hose in his examination room as a musical instrument, the indefatigable DDS composes numbers with a boundless energy and enthusiasm that simply can't be stopped. Frank Gorshin is nearly as funny as another of Ella's clients, a struggling actor who talks like Marlon Brando filtered through Jerry Lewis. Len Lesser (Seinfeld's Uncle Leo) has a few lines during a funny streetcorner scene, while Hal Linden, who understudied Sydney Chaplin's Jeffrey Moss on Broadway, sings the hilariously awful "The Midas Touch."
Jean Stapleton, a decade away from All in the Family and a carryover from the Broadway cast, is Holliday's singularly annoying boss, who becomes involved in an amusing but utterly non sequitur subplot engineered by bookie Eddie Foy, Jr. Saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, in real life Holliday's offscreen lover, is very good as Ella's blind date in a well-timed comedy of errors.
Video & Audio
Filmed in Panavision (though officially presented in CinemaScope), Bells Are Ringing has been mastered in its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio in 16:9 anamorphic wide screen. The image is sharp but the Metrocolor very unstable at times. At 39:45, for instance, the color uncomfortably wobbles from greenish to magenta all over the place; stabilizing the hues as much as possible for this DVD release must have been a nightmare. If nothing else, the obvious work required for this and Brigadoon speaks volumes for the need to preserve the first decade of wide screen movies. The audio is a reasonably good Dolby Digital 5.1 mix with a French mono track thrown in as an option. Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.
A nice supplement to the film is the featurette "Bells Are Ringing - Just in Time," an undated 11-minute documentary in 4:3 format. Featuring interviews with Linden and Gorshin, and an archival conversation with Betty Comden & Adolph Green (Green having died in 2002), the piece is both warm and informative, with several nice anecdotes from Linden especially.
Also included is a Trailer, in 16:9 anamorphic format, and Outtakes, i.e., two numbers cut out of the final film, "Is It a Crime?" (a good song nicely performed by Holliday but unimaginatively shot) and "My Guiding Star," both further evidence that the picture was sticking too closely and stodgily to the Broadway show. Finally, an alternate take of "The Midas Touch" rounds out the archival material, all of which is also 16:9.
For all its imperfections, Bells Are Ringing remains an entertaining testament to the great talent of Judy Holliday, whose starring career in films barely lasted a decade, in a too-short list of features. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.