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Ella Peterson is a Brooklyn telephone answering service operator who tries to improve the lives of her clients by passing along bits of information she hears from other clients. She falls in love with one of her clients, the playwright Jeffrey Moss, and is determined to meet him. The trouble is, on the phone to him, she always pretends to be an old woman whom he calls "Mom." Written by
Arthur Freed's final musical production for MGM was this very bright musical comedy from Jule Styne-Betty Comden-Adolph Green, Bells Are Ringing. Sadly this was also the farewell film performance of Judy Holliday who was playing the role of Ella Peterson which she had created on Broadway.
Bells Are Ringing ran for 924 performances on Broadway from 1956 to 1959 and won a few Tony Awards including one for Judy Holliday as Best Actress. I'm sure the Tony went well with the Oscar she won for Born Yesterday up on her mantel.
According to a book about Arthur Freed and the films he produced at MGM, Bells Are Ringing was not an easy shoot. Judy Holliday was suffering a lot of health problems with bladder and kidney. In that sequence where she goes on a blind date and her dress catches on fire, Holliday was actually burned. And she had a constant battle with her weight.
Her leading man on Broadway was Charlie Chaplin's son, Sydney who also won a Tony Award and with whom she was involved with. MGM wanted a name with a bit more box office to it, so Dean Martin was cast as playwright Jeffrey Moss. Holliday got along with Dean, but she felt him to lackadaisical in his attitude. That might have been a problem later on, but certainly not here. I'm sure she'd have preferred Sydney Chaplin to work with again.
With the advances in telecommunications, Bells Are Ringing at this point has an almost quaint nostalgic look to it. I'm sure young viewers now who use cellphones and text messaging and have automatic answering systems built in to phones wouldn't even understand what an answering service was all about.
They certainly all weren't like Susanswerphone which is run by Jean Stapleton and employs two other people including Judy Holliday. Despite warnings by Jean to just take messages and a visit by police inspector Dort Clark who misreads what's going on at the Susanswerphone switchboard, Judy is a compulsive do-gooder who insists on meddling in the lives of her customers.
But she does it in such a sweet and winning way, Holliday creates one of the great screen characters and like Billie Dawn from Born Yesterday, one that originated on the stage. In one way Bells Are Ringing is a modern story, it's almost like an internet chatroom with Holliday running the board.
Besides Judy, Jean Stapleton, Dort Clark, and Bernie West who plays the frustrated songwriting dentist all repeat their roles from the original Broadway cast. Freed and director Vincent Minnelli pulled off some real casting gems for some of the other parts. Fred Clark as the producer who's trying to get a play out of Dino, Eddie Foy, Jr. as the dapper conman/bookie who is romancing Stapleton and whose activities arouse the police suspicions in the first place, and Frank Gorshin who I love best playing a second rate Marlon Brando imitator of a method actor.
Most of the musical score remained intact here. Arthur Freed would have been lynched had he attempted to bring Bells Are Ringing to the screen without Just In Time and The Party's Over. The last has become an automatic item the way Goodnight Sweetheart used to be signaling the end of an evening's festivities. And I do so like the Drop That Name number, try to see how many celebrities get their named dropped in that song.
Despite the problems it had with shooting, Bells Are Ringing is certainly a fitting climax for Arthur Freed's career as a producer. Judy Holliday made no more films, but did have another Broadway show, Hot Spot which did not have a long run. What a terrible tragedy, one so talented left us at age 44.
Still her fans can treasure her memory and her art in watching among other of her films, Bells Are Ringing.
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