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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
Judy Holliday originated the role of Ella Petersen, the Susanwersphone switchboard operator, in Vincente Minnelli's adaptation of the Broadway musical, with music by Jules Styne and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Although filmed in 1960, this musical belongs to the conventions of the 1950's with a brassy orchestration, superfluous supporting cast for comic relief, and a Brando impersonator. That Holliday remains as the best thing about it, in spite of Minnelli's less flattering treatment of her than George Cukor, is a tribute to her gifts as an actress, in particular a Broadway performer with the subtlety to adapt for film acting.
Holliday's two solo numbers - It's a Perfect Relationship and I'm Going Back
are triumphs of personal charm, in spite of the director. Minnelli has
trouble de-staging the switchboard environment and the film only comes to life after Holliday leaves it to meet Dean Martin, as her favourite client, in person. In the Better than a Dream number, where both Holliday and Martin sing oblivious to the other's reality, this is Minnelli finally presenting a musical sequence cinematically. This pattern continues with Martin's funny I Met a Girl, sung as he battles street crowds. Minnelli treats Holliday's plaintive ballad The Party's Over simply, if disappointedly in long and medium shot presumably since he thinks Holliday's voice doesn't deserve a closeup, in contrast to the botched Just in Time, the score's most lovely song, wretchedly staged. The Drop That Name number is probably more about Minnelli than Holliday, since he scores points off her, comparing her perceived frumpiness to the vacuous stereotypical 1950's society vamp.
Holliday and Martin play off each other well, overcoming the oddness of their union. Martin actually looks not at his best, which undermines the romantic appeal, and his solo reveals he shouldn't be given one. It's hard not to consider his character's fear of success without his partner and not have thoughts of Jerry Lewis, though believing Martin as a playwright is trouble enough. Thankfully there's Holliday. Far more likeable and individual than say a Doris Day, Minnelli's having her lower her head for pathos is the lowest appreciation of her potential. This wasn't considered a great musical to begin with, and the film is pretty hard to take whenever the supporting players take over, with excruciating bits featuring Eddie Foy and The Titanic record company, vice squad surveillance, and the mafia, however the songwriting dentist gave me a few chuckles.
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