I so, so adore this film.
And that, mind you, keeping in mind the fact that I generally don’t think very highly of Hollywood musicals. I have nothing against the music, usually—most of the films had excellent songs—but what really gets my goat is that other than sounding and looking good, few of Hollywood’s musicals have anything substantial to back them up. Look at Oklahoma! or South Pacific (or even Singin’ in the Rain, for that matter): great music, nice looking leads, superb dancing—and that’s it. I can count, on my fingers, musicals that also have worthwhile plots. The Sound of Music. Fiddler on the Roof. And this, a gloriously funny and romantic story about a loony telephone operator and the man she falls in love with.
Ella Peterson (Judy Holliday, in her last film) used to be a switchboard operator at the Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company (“with a little modelling on the side”). Now, she’s working for her cousin Sue (Jean Stapleton), who runs a tiny telephone answering service called Susanswerphone.
Susanswerphone’s mandate is to receive and pass on messages for their subscribers. You’re not at home? You’re in the bath? You’re busy? Susanswerphone will pick up your call, take a message, and pass it on to you later. That, as far as Sue and the other girl in the outfit, Gwynne (Ruth Storey) are concerned, is it.
Ella is a different kettle of fish altogether. To her, the subscribers aren’t just phone numbers; they’re people, people with real problems that she’s always ready to listen to and try to help solve. And the subscribers reciprocate—Madame Grimaldi, an opera diva, has gifted Ella a gown from La Traviata after Ella’s recipe for a mustard plaster helped cure Madame Grimaldi’s laryngitis.
When the situation demands it, Ella doesn’t even mind donning a different persona. For a little boy who won’t eat his spinach, she’s the gruff but lovable telephonic Santa Claus, meting out nutritional advice that gets listened to.
But of the many people to whom she is a shoulder to cry on, a sympathetic but unseen friend—Ella’s own personal favourite is the playwright Jeffrey ‘Jeff’ Moss (Dean Martin). Or, to Ella, Plaza-oh-double-four-double-three. As she mans (womans?) the switchboard, Ella admits to herself that she’s in love with the man, though she’s never seen him.
In real life, Ella’s life is woefully unromantic (perhaps a result of her being so much in love with the unseen Jeff?) Whenever Sue and Gwynne try to get her a date, she fluffs it. By accidentally tipping a drink into her date’s lap; by accidentally banging his chin with her head, by accidentally nearly setting fire to his face instead of his cigarette, by accidentally getting her dress on fire…
No, this girl isn’t the picture of poised perfection. In fact, her friends have come to the conclusion that Ella’s beyond redemption; she just goes to bits when she’s around a man. Can there be hope for such a butter-fingered creature? Jeff Moss, perhaps?
Perhaps. Except that for Jeff, Ella has donned another of her personas. To him, she’s ‘Mom’: a little old lady with a quivery voice, always ready to dispense sane advice and offer sympathy and encouragement.
Jeff’s at a critical juncture in his career: the partner with whom he wrote plays has left, and Jeff’s on his own now. A producer, Larry Hastings (Fred Clark)—also a subscriber to Susanswerphone—has given Jeff a deadline: get an outline for a play ready by 4 PM the next day. If Jeff can’t manage that, his career’s effectively over.
So Jeff asks ‘Mom’ for a wakeup call at 7 AM—so he doesn’t waste any time—and gets down to work. Or tries to; spirit proves stronger than the flesh, and after telling himself he’ll never make it alone, Jeff falls into a drunken doze.
In the meantime, much has been happening at Susanswerphone. J Otto Prantz (Eddie Foy Jr.), a friend of Sue’s (and, unknown to her, a bookie) has thought up a brilliantly simple little system to fool everybody, Ella, Sue and Gwynne included. Under the guise of a music company that calls itself Titanic Records, Otto’s gang will take orders for classical music records—which will actually be bets on horses in races all across the country. Sue and gang, happily oblivious, will be in charge of passing on the orders to ‘shipping’. Otto explains the coded system to his vast gang of bookies…
…and then to Sue, who doesn’t suspect a thing.
Sue doesn’t even suspect that the police, for a completely different reason, have their eye on Susanswerphone. Inspector Barnes (Dort Clark) and his assistant Francis (Ralph Roberts) have discovered that some answering services in New York have been offering services beyond merely the relaying of messages; now they think Susanswerphone could be one of those—and, unfortunately for the girls, Ella’s bubbly and helpful interactions on the phone can be seriously misconstrued.
After an initial moment of righteous indignation, Ella, Sue and Gwynne are able to convince Barnes that Susanswerphone is really what it purports to be, so what if one of their callers is a madame (Grimaldi). Barnes, however, says he’s going to be keeping an eye on them. At the slightest whiff of indelicacy, it’s the women’s detention home for the trio.
Meanwhile, Ella’s brood of subscribers badly needs her help. Dr Kitchell (Bernard West), a dentist who wants to be a composer, has been composing tunes on the air hose and would dearly love to get a break:
And Blake Barton (Frank Gorshin), a Bohemian actor who lives in jeans and sleeveless T-shirts, is in danger of being turned down for a role (by the producer Larry Hastings, again) because he’s so grungy. Blake doesn’t know it, though Ella—Hastings’s confidant on the phone—does, and is worried for Blake.
All Ella’s other worries get shunted into the background, though, on Jeff’s D-Day. Because when ‘Mom’ tries phoning Jeff for his 7 AM wake-up call, he won’t pick up the phone.
Sue guesses the phone’s been unplugged, and Ella realises that if Jeff goes on sleeping, he’ll miss the deadline… aargghh! She can’t let that happen, not to the man she loves, so—since it’s her day off—she goes to his address to prod him awake. The door’s unlocked; Ella manages to get in and finds Jeff asleep, a cushion on his face. A quick peek under, a silent Hallelujah, and Ella’s managed to rouse Jeff, who’s understandably surprised to find a strange blonde in his apartment.
Of course, Jeff has no idea how persistent this strange blonde can be when it comes to bullying and badgering him to work. He doesn’t know why his getting the Hastings contract is so important to her. And he hasn’t the faintest inkling that this is Mom. He doesn’t even know that the bubbly ‘Melisande Scott’ (the off-the-cuff name Ella improvises for herself) is going to turn life around not just for him, but for a whole lot of people: Hastings, Blake, Dr Kitchell, Otto…
What I like about this film:
Everything, just everything. Dean Martin is fabulous. Judy Holliday is a hoot. The music is great. The direction, by Vincente Minnelli, is excellent. But yes, just two things in particular:
Judy Holliday. She is absolutely, out-of-this-world brilliant as Ella. Ella’s a clown, charming, warm-hearted, sensitive, but still a clown who’s not above putting on a mad accent, donning a crazy disguise, or saying whacky things to help someone out. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this film, but each time, I find something new to appreciate in Judy Holliday’s Ella: such an endearing character, and so memorably enacted.
The song The party’s over. I first heard this, as a version sung by Nat King Cole, when I was a teenager. It’s still one of my favourite songs, and in the film’s context, even lovelier. The lyrics are beautiful, the music’s great, and Judy Holliday sings it with so much feeling.
What I didn’t like:
The camera work is boringly static through much of the film. Compared to other musicals like (say) Brigadoon, the sets of Bells are Ringing don’t look obviously like a set, but the very fact that the camera sits like a lump in one corner detracts from the overall charm of the film.
Dr Kitchell. This character was more a caricature than anything else. In a film that’s basically a musical comedy I am amenable to forgiving that, but Kitchell really got on my nerves.
Still, all said and done, Bells are Ringing remains one of my all-time favourite films. It’s funny, it’s romantic, it has some great music—and Judy Holliday and Dean Martin are wonderful together. There’s a warm affection between them, an effortless sweetness about them and about the entire film that’s so utterly beguiling, it gets me smiling every time I even think about it.