The great misnomer lurking at the heart of too much classic film discourse is a fundamental misunderstanding of the musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age™ – namely, that they were all lightweight, insubstantial entertainments without a thought in their empty heads. It’s the kind of thing that you’ll read occasionally and wonder what, exactly, the viewer hasn’t seen, as so many of the great movie musicals are filled with melancholy and disappointment and bitterness and tragedy. Vincente Minnelli’s 1960 musical Bells Are Ringing – now streaming, as part of a Judy Holliday collection, on the Criterion Channel – doesn’t fit all of those descriptions, for it is light and bright and ultimately uplifting. But there is a genuine sense of psychological complexity at its heart, which this viewer found especially poignant at this particular moment in time.
Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s script (based on their stage musical) centers on what was then the height of personal communication technology: the answering service. Minnelli opens with a clever fake commercial, in which pretty models use the service to get messages for dates, jobs, and marriage proposals; “On New York’s smart East Side,” the narrator intones, “the smartest East Siders use Susanswerphone.” The real thing is a good deal less glamorous; the Susanswerphone switchboard operators work out of a dumpy basement apartment, and most of their clients are dullards, dentists and doctors and such.
The best of those operators is Ella Peterson, played by Holliday in a tour-de-force performance; we first meet her working the switchboard, shifting voices and identities to suit each of the clients whose calls she’s catching. (One of those voices, a high-pitched Brooklyn wail, is a clear wink to her breakthrough role in Born Yesterday.) She loves her work, and the way it allows her to be anyone – anyone, of course, but herself. She’s great hidden behind a telephone line, but painfully shy and clumsy around, y’know, other, real people. (I hear ya, sister.)
She has, of course, a favorite: Jeffrey Moss, played by Dean Martin as a perfect mixture of easygoing and disheveled. It is, she sings, “a perfect relationship” because “I’ll never meet him / and he’ll never meet me.” Jeffrey is a playwright, and – like most writers – easily distracted and discouraged, so she takes on a motherly character for his occasional wake-up calls and reminders.
But the service is under investigation by an overzealous vice squad detective who’s convinced it’s a front for an escort service, mostly based on one hilarious scene of overheard misunderstandings and double endtendres. (Holliday’s realization and reaction line – “Oh have you got a dirty mind!” – is one of her best moments.) Warned not to get too personal on the phone, and unable to get through anyway, Ella shows up at Jeffery’s apartment to wake him (itself, perhaps a breach of professional protocol?), and ends up giving him the kick in the ass he so desperately needs.
What’s most wonderful about Comden and Green’s work – all of it, but particularly here – is how well they blend in their songs. There’s never a sense that it’s time to stop for a musical number, and they wield the songs not only to express emotions that might be clumsily stated otherwise (as most good musicals do), but to convey thematic concerns. That skill is particularly keen in the song “Better Than a Dream,” which not only dramatizes the intellectual and psychological headspace of the two leads, but is constructed and combined in a way that matches their pairing; it’s two songs that become a duet, just as these two characters will become a couple. And, of course, they do; their first kiss is one of the most satisfying in all of moviedom.
A great romance and a great musical, “Bells Are Ringing” is also a great New York movie – one of the best that wasn’t actually shot here. It dates back to the era of New York backlots, when shooting on location was far too difficult a proposition, both in terms of cost and logistics (the 1949 film of Comden and Green’s On the Town was a rare exception – and even then, only the opening sequence was shot in Gotham). But it has the New York spirit, which is what matters – Comden and Green were both natives (of Brooklyn and the Bronx, respectively), and like so many NYC movies from NYC writers that were shot across the country, it presents us with a romanticized vision of the city. “It was a feeling that started with the most common of emotions, homesickness,” James Sanders writes in his book Celluloid Skyline, “for the way of life the writers had left behind, and for the city that had made it possible. It was burnished by the effect that distance so often has on an absent love—as flaws are forgotten and desire enhanced.”
And so the wonderful scene on the street corner, in which Ella disproves Jeffery’s theory that there is a “land of cutthroats” by striking up conversations with strangers (“Everybody wants to be friendly but everyone’s afraid to make the first move”) is informed by that feeling; in reality, even in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Jeffrey’s description was probably more accurate. And when she and Jeffrey dance on a promenade with the Brooklyn Bridge twinkling in the background, it feels like the kind of perfect New York movie moment that could only be created on a stage – it has a sense of perfection, with which the messy reality of city living can’t compete.
Real or recreated, this city (and the version of it that Jeffrey offers her an entry to) gives Ella pause. “I don’t know any of those famous people,” she worries, when he takes her to a fancy party.
“Then you’ll meet ‘em,” he replies, with a shrug.
“I don’t wanna,” she replies, and she means it. And that’s what’s ultimately surprising about Bells Are Ringing – it’s a frothy love story, but one about a character who suffers from social anxiety or maybe even agoraphobia, as well as the more common curse of self-identity issues. “I’ve spent my whole life tuning in on other’s people’s lives, playing all sorts of imaginary characters,” she explains. “It became even more real to me than I was.” She begins to work her way out of it in song, and it’s somewhat inspiring: “Who am I? / I gotta find out / or at least I gotta try.”
Admittedly, I’m probably reading more into this than the film’s makers intended, particularly when they created these characters and situations more than half a century ago. But it is remarkable, and a little poignant, to find yourself inadvertently watching a movie about trying to get yourself together enough to go out into public in New York right now, as the city is “opening back up,” but tenuously and nervously. I’ve gone out in public some; I’ve been to the movies, and gone to Central Park, and ridden on the subway again, and each time I feel like a little bit of a failure, because I’m not overcome with emotion about it. And I should have those feelings, I’m certain, because other, “normal” people seem to be having them, and sharing them on social media and in conversations. So I must be doing it wrong, because it all still feels strange and uncomfortable.
What does any of this have to do with Bells Are Ringing, you may ask, not unreasonably? Not much, perhaps – but it’s a testament to the extent that musicals have a direct line to our emotions, and how they can affect us, decades on, in ways unintended or even imagined.
“Bells Are Ringing” is now streaming on the Criterion Channel.