Friday, December 26, 2008

Making It Alone

I made an attempt to see a few considerably more cheerful films as the holiday approached. I caught the American Cinematheque screening of WHITE CHRISTMAS as the Egyptian, my first ever viewing of the film and I suppose it balances out seeing BLACK CHRISTMAS the previous week as well. There’s definitely room for both films during the holiday. I also saw Vincente Minnelli’s BELLS ARE RINGING which isn’t a holiday film even though the title sounds like it might be one, but it was still something cheerful enough to make it at least a little appropriate. If I didn’t know otherwise, I’d have guessed that BELLS ARE RINGING dates from a few years before 1960, the year it was actually made. It feels so much of an earlier time that it’s hard to imagine that the New York that it’s set in would be the setting of some very different movies at the other end of the decade. It would have made perfect sense for the film to appear during the first season of MAD MEN and one scene involving star Judy Holliday futzing with a dress that is no longer in style feels like something Betty Draper had to deal with. It was Holliday’s final film as well as the final musical that director Vincente Minnelli and producer Arthur Freed would make for MGM. With all this in mind while watching the film, it really does seem like it marks the end of an era and it seems almost too fitting that one of the most touching numbers is Judy Holliday singing a simple song entitled “The Party’s Over.” The film seems to acknowledge that the city of New York is changing based on the opening credits that show new gleaming skyscrapers going up as well as the shabby building much of it is set in that is surrounded by vacant lots. The thing is, I’m not sure what a lot of that has to do with the main storyline and it’s one of those things that makes BELLS ARE RINGING a bit of a mish-mosh. But it’s still enjoyable, even if it isn’t a classic.

Ella Peterson (Judy Holliday) works for the answering service Susanswerphone and often takes a little too much interest in the clients, especially successful playwright Jeffrey Ross (Dean Martin) whose career has been in a rut due to writers’ block and a lot of drinking ever since he broke up with his partner. Ella secretly loves this man she has never met and is determined to help him, but matters are complicated when the police get suspicious that Susanswerphone is actually an escort service and Ella is told she has to stop getting involved in the lives of the clients. Ella is determined to seek out Jeffrey Ross anyway leading to a change in both their lives. Meanwhile, what her cousin Sue(Jean Stapleton), the owner of Susanswerphone, doesn’t know is that the classical record business she has taken on, allowing use of their phones, is actually an elaborate front for a bookie operation.

If anything, what hurts BELLS ARE RINGING is a plot where not very much ever seems at stake—in Broadway parlance I suppose this would mean that the “book” was a little weak and since Ella and Jeffrey hit it off so well immediately there’s never a good enough reason why she just doesn’t come clean almost immediately. Much of the film’s charm is a result of its two stars, some of the supporting players and direction by Vincente Minnelli that is a great example of what he could do with MGM at his beck and call. The use of the actors within the Scope frame is continually dynamic and a few things wind up sneaking up on you—one of my favorite numbers is Dean Martin singing “I Met A Girl” which is done with an overhead shot of him fighting his way through the crowd in Times Square—or at least a backlot facsimile—and the camera following along with him, something that must have been extremely complicated but comes off as effortless. On the other hand a few things aren’t as effective. Judy Holliday’s big show-stopping number “I’m Going Back” feels more like viewing something on a stage than anything else in the movie—Holliday performs it just great but the absence of visual style here comes off as lacking. In fact, the style of the film in general is slightly inconsistent. There looks to have been some actual location shooting in New York (maybe just second unit) but at the same time there’s a patently phony backdrop of the East River used extensively. It’s a nice set and there’s no point in complaining about phoniness in this sort of film but the inconsistency still feels like it holds the film back. Maybe because of the lack of real tension, the plot really does feel like it’s all over the place. “It’s a Simple Little System”, the number which is all about the record company scam is nice but a little forced and everything connected with the subplot feels like a GUYS AND DOLLS wannabe. “Drop That Name”, which comes at the party and is all about the names dropped by the high society set Jeffrey Ross runs with is better but still feels like it doesn’t really belong. Those two songs, in fact, feel like they were shoe-horned in because Betty Comden and Adolph Green wanted them in there no matter what. On the other hand, along with the numbers that fit in more with the film we get to see Dean perform “Just in Time” with Judy and I have absolutely nothing bad to say about that.

Judy Holliday, close to forty at this point, is obviously a little too old for the role and occasionally she seems to be playing things a little too much like she’s on a stage but she’s so likable and endearing that it doesn’t really matter. Sadly, just a few years later she would die of breast cancer. Dean Martin is very enjoyable, bringing exactly what we want him to bring to the role and even though the movie really belongs to Holliday, he is extremely fun to watch. Still, even though the role originated on Broadway, it’s hard not to think of Jerry Lewis as the movie fixates on Dean Martin’s character feeling insecure after breaking up with his “partner.” "I'll never make it alone," he quietly muses, worried that his writers' block may mean the end of his career. Jean Stapleton is a lot of fun as Sue, the always good Fred Clark of SUNSET BLVD. is Martin’s producer (were there scenes cut? The film’s trailer seems to feature him in a setting not in the movie), the great Frank Gorshin is very funny as a Brando-like actor and Hal Linden makes his film debut singing the deliberately awful “The Midas Touch”. Trivial find—In the scene where Judy Holliday is walking Dean Martin around Times Square to get him out of his shell, she suggests he go up to somebody waiting at a crosswalk and say hello. This leads to a brief scene of strangers excitedly saying “Hello!” to each other until the light changes and they all rush off. One of these people is familiar character actor Len Lesser who decades later would play Uncle Leo on “Seinfeld” who of course would always shout “Hello!” whenever he saw Jerry. Is this a coincidence? Somebody needs to ask Larry David.

Ultimately, BELLS ARE RINGING (I always want to type SOME CAME RUNNING—of course, they do share a star and director) is enjoyable, but it feels hampered by a less than perfect plot and a slight bit of denial at how the world of filmmaking is changing. It’s not a classic, but MGM musicals all weren’t classics anyway and in all honesty I’ve seen some that are much, much less enjoyable than this one was.


Keith said...

Great write-up. It's not one of my favorite movies. It does have its share of faults. It's still an enjoyable watch. Plus I'm a big Dean Martin fan so I try to see everything he ever did. I thought he was really good here.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Dean is really good and though the film has its problems it is still a lot of fun. Thanks very much, glad you liked the piece!