Bells are Ringing (1960)

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.

Dean Martin and Judy Holliday in Bells are Ringing

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.

Susanswerphone: in the business of giving and taking messages...

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.

...or, if you're Ella, helping all and sundry

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.

Ella sings of the man she loves

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…

 - and nearly sets fire to a blind date

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 chats with 'Mom'

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.

Jeff shoots his self-esteem down

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…

Otto gets a crooked racket off the ground...

…and then to Sue, who doesn’t suspect a thing.

And explains it all to Sue too

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.

Inspector Barnes smells something fishy

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:

Dr Kitchell thinks up tunes on the air hose

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.

'Mom' tries to give Jeff his wake-up call

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.

'Melisande Scott' goes off to wake Jeff up

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.

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28 thoughts on “Bells are Ringing (1960)

  1. Thanks for the lovely review. I must watch this movie!
    Part of the plot reminds me of a lovely story I read in ‘Chicken soup for the soul’ series about this boy who calls “Information” developing a fondness for the operator (‘Mom’), goes away from the city only to return years later to finally trace her. :)

  2. Oh, that sounds cute! But was the operator really a ‘mom’-type figure, or only pretending to be one? :-)

    I loved the romance in this film – there are a few scenes between Dean Martin and Judy Holliday that are just so absolutely darling that I can see them again and again. Okay, let me correct that: I have seen them again and again. This is a film I’ve mentally added to my list of ‘Get rid of the Blues’ films!

  3. Yes, this one’s a gem – and unlike a lot of other Hollywood musicals, it’s not just a string of songs loosely put together. There’s actually a very cute story to it. Of course, the very fact that it has Dean Martin in it is enough for me; just the thought of him makes me go weak-kneed. ;-)

    Am off to read your blog now. I’m so glad you posted something!

  4. I’ve NEVER seen a Dean Martin film! *blush* Cant believe how that happened. Its an oversight that needs to be corrected and soon! And this one sounds really sweet. It also reminds me of the same story that Hildebrand mentions, one which I read in an old Reader’s Digest. The operator was a young lady but old enough to be a Mom figure to the 7-8 year old boy who’d call information for help with his homework!

  5. Well, Bells are Ringing is a great way to get an introduction to Dean Martin as an actor! I saw this first on TCM, and then liked it so much, I went looking for it.

    Of all his other films that I’ve seen, the best is Rio Bravo. Dean Martin’s acting in that is simply superb (and it has one of his most awesome songs). I do wish he’d done more films without Jerry Lewis – somehow I’m not a Lewis fan (to me, he’s a yesteryears Jim Carrey!)

  6. yes the operator was a real mom type, infact one who didn’t have children of her own and had got attached to the kid. This he found later. On return to the town years later he tried to call and got connected to her. they agreed to talk on his next visit. when he called next time the other operator told him she had been suffering from cancer and rarely used to come. The time he talked to her was one of her rare comings. (Maybe they were meant to talk years later). She left a note and gift for him telling about how he made her feel better. sad end in a way but a cute story all the same.

  7. Oh, I love Judy Holliday and this movie sounds absolutely delightful! I’m adding it to my Netflix queue right away.

    Isn’t it wonderful when you discover a “new” old movie (Hollywood or Hindi)?!

  8. “Isn’t it wonderful when you discover a “new” old movie (Hollywood or Hindi)?!”

    Absolutely! I thought I’d seen, or at least heard of, all the good musicals there were out there… and then one day this one was showing on TCM and on a whim I decided to watch. And I loved it so much! I love Judy Holliday too (though I must admit the only other film of hers I’ve seen is Born Yesterday) – but I think Bells are Ringing is a fine swansong for her. Much as I adore Dean Martin (and fabulous though he is here), this is Judy’s film all the way. Happy watching!

  9. Thank you so much for this review. I am singing the song ‘I’m going back’ at my drama school to go in my audition repertoire, but they have sprang it on us so havent had chance to watch the film so this has helped alot. Can you tell me a little bit about why she sings the song ‘I’m going back’ please? What prompts her to sing it, what’s it about? Also what is the BT brassiere company? Do they sell lingerie? I really want to get the audition piece right but with such short time any help would be gratefully received! Thanks Gem xxx

  10. Hey Gemma, here you go:

    Spoilers ahead:

    Ella sorts out the lives of the dentist (by giving him a tip about an audition that’s coming up, and for which he should submit one of the tunes he’s composed on his air hose). She also helps the actor Blake by suggesting to him (since she has inside information, from Hastings, that he doesn’t like grungy actors) that a suit would be proper for his screen test… and of course she helps Jeff, by pushing him to complete his assignment. Jeff is fascinated by her, and soon falls for her – but she’s very distressed that she’s deceiving him (since she’s pretending to be ‘Melisande Scott’).

    Eventually, the Titanic Records scam gets unearthed and the police drag off Otto and Co. But by now, Jeff wants to marry Ella and she’s feeling too guilty to agree… so she decides the best thing would be to go back to BT (yes, it is a lingerie company; she worked as an operator with them, and did some modelling on the side).

    Spoiler ends

    Do let me know if you need any more help with this!

    BTW, a full synopsis is available at TCM:
    http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title.jsp?stid=68432

  11. Thankyou so much for this. All the info from this review has helped immensely.I had no idea why she was singing ‘eat your spinach baby’ or who Barton and Madane Grimaldi was so couldn’t start to build a performance into the song if that makes sense? Well now I can! I must try and watch this movie asap. Ive just found out Ive got my singing class this afternoon so this reply has come in perfect timing! I’ve been working on it over the weekend and hope my singing teacher thinks it’s up to scratch to use as an audition piece. Will try and watch the film also but in the short term you have helped so much. Will look at the TCM link too. Thank you!xxx

  12. I’m so glad I could be of help! And yes, I can understand why it would be important for you to know the context: I don’t think it would be possible to do justice to the role without knowing the background and stuff like that.

    I do hope your audition goes well! Good luck. :-)

  13. Thank you! I sang yesterday in class and my teacher loved it! So now I’ve got to work on the whole performance and character of the song which with your help is now possible to do. Really am grateful. :0) XXX

  14. Thanks again, will let you know how the end result goes in a couple of weeks! We have outside professionals coming to watch us do mock auditions and they review us. Its so funny because at the moment I am knee deep in Chekhov rehearsals for Uncle Vanya ans then it’s shakespearse serious…Miss Holliday is providing a lot of needed fun and light relief! ;0) Take care and thank you again xxx

  15. Hi Dustedoff! Remember me?! Well, I did the song I’m going back at drama school and you helped me out big time! This is going to sound really bad but I still haven’t seen the film and was wondering if I could pick your brain? We have some industry outsiders coming to audition us in 2 weeks and have to sing a song and do an acting piece. My teacher wants me to do ‘I’m going back’ as it’s not overdone and it shows off my vocal range. The question is what is she saying the French bit in the middle about? I tried to translate it and think it was something about the resteraunt being over? I can’t figure out why Ella says it all in the song and in what context. I know I need to watch the flim but I am 2 months away from graduation and have homework coming out of my ears!!! Can you help please? I just need to know what that section is about.

    Thanks hun, hope you are well,

    Love Gem x

  16. Ah, this is what you mean:

    La petite bergère restaurant adieu
    Je ne reviendrai jamais, jamais, jamais
    C’est tout fini
    Adieu to you

    (I got it from here: http://lyricsplayground.com/alpha/songs/b/bellsareringingshowfilm.shtml)

    It means:

    “The petite bergère restaurant (that was the name of one of the clients of Susanswerphone): goodbye. I will never, never, never return to you: it’s all over. Goodbye to you.”

    (Which I got by using Google Translate and some common sense)

    She says it’s over because she’s leaving Susanswerphone – that’s what she’s doing through the rest of the song too, bidding goodbye to everybody who used to depend on her being the girl at Susanswerphone.

    Hope this helps!

  17. Thanks so much! I knew that she was saying bye to clients but didn’t realise a restauraunt was one. Makes complete sense now! You came to the rescue again! Haha! You are a star…and I WILL watch this film as soon as I get my life back! ;0) xxx!

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