The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Nine

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Bells Are Ringing

June 20, 1960   MGM   126 minutes
What could be more dated than a telephone answering service? Coming upon Bells Are Ringing in the context of this journey brings an unexpected reaction: sadness. Virtually everything about the film suggests endings (of the Eisenhower era; of Holliday’s career; of MGM musicals, of MGM itself) and nothing of beginnings (the ‘60s). But sadder still is the feeling that it’s time to go; a sense of fatigue hangs over the film like a veil. Just compare the opening shots of the New York skyline with those of West Side Story—only a year later, but a decade apart in style and feel. For no good reason the film assumes a visual motif of decay and rebirth; shots of construction sites abound in the opening credits. Our heroine works in the basement of a lone brownstone left among the weeds of a cleared Manhattan block--a metaphor for resisting change?--which subtly underlines an old-fashioned quality that engulfs the whole movie.

It must have looked promising; announced in the souvenir program for Gigi: Freed & Minnelli reuniting with Comden & Green for Judy Holliday’s Bway triumph. But the ‘56 musical was deemed old-fashioned from the very beginning—a fact I’ve been happy to overlook for far too long—blinded by my affection for the idea of the show: a mid-century New York romance with a wacky heroine, and a lively pop score. But even in this new R&H era, Jule Styne doesn’t get much respect in Hlwd; like Cole Porter, his scores keep getting shredded. Despite proven success on Bway, all involved were anxious to make the film something different. Even Holliday pushed for new material from Comden & Green, who had written the show specifically for her. In a memo later published, Freed cited Damn Yankees and Pajama Game as “mistakes” for adhering too closely to their origins, which rendered them feeling “not like motion pictures.” The irony is that for all its changes, Bells feels much stagier than the others. The truth is Minnelli was never happy nor inspired in adapting Bway musicals. His best films are Hlwd originals—and Arthur Freed, too, for all his Bway acquisitions was rather imperious about imposing his interpretation. The changes imposed on Bells—and there are more than you realize—don’t make this an improvement on the original. Whereas, Mamoulian elevated Silk Stockings, Minnelli merely diminishes Bells.

By the musical’s Golden Age, fewer shows were written for specific stars (not like they were for Cantor, Wynn, Durante or Merman in the ‘20s & ‘30s), because the show itself (in concept and story) now took priority. But Bells Are Ringing was fitted to Holliday like a bespoke suit. (It helps when the authors are friends and former revue partners.) Comden & Green also knew that Judy had a charming singing voice which hitherto hadn’t been heard by the public at large. Convincing her to use it was another matter, but it sure helped that it was written to her strengths. Aside from one of the best-ever introductory character songs (“It’s a Perfect Relationship”), and a defining “eleven o’clock number” (“I’m Going Back”) Judy also punctuates a comic chorale; pleads a case to the law; clowns & softshoe’s thru one of the decades biggest pop hits; sings not one but two exceptional ballads; and learns a furious Fosse cha-cha. And that’s just her songs. Add to that her many scenes: meddling in clients’ lives, distracting the vice squad; rescuing her fantasy boyfriend--by turns, a switchboard guru, a quick-change artist, and a lovably insecure romantic heroine. She’s the whole show—One of the decade’s true Star triumphs (deemed more Tony-worthy than Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady, to say nothing of Ethel Merman in Happy Hunting.) But oddly, Judy was insecure and unhappy during the filming of her well-oiled performance. Freed even cast her own boyfriend, jazz musician Gerry Mulligan as a blind-date—an extraneous and feeble effort to “open up” the film. The scene, set in a restaurant, is loaded with lame slapstick (including a dress on fire) and could easily be cut without impact to anything else. Whatever her doubts, Holliday’s personality can’t help but shine thru, making this and her Oscar-winning Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday bookends to a special, much too short, career. Tho her film work ended here, she returned to the stage twice more; a play (Laurette—about the early life of the actress Laurette Taylor) that closed out of town, and a musical (Hot Spot) that flopped quickly on Bway. But she suffered poor health in these latter years and died in June 1965 from breast cancer, at the age of 43. I can’t help but dream that had she lived, she’d have a third crowning triumph ahead. It was only a year after Hot Spot, yet I’d never heard any mention that she was ever considered, even thought of, for Hello, Dolly!—and with all respect to Carol Channing, I can’t think of anyone better than Judy Holliday as Dolly Levi. She would have been only 48 when Fox made the film. But Bells’ Ella Peterson was to be Holliday’s peak, as well as her last hurrah.

On Bway, John Raitt was originally cast as Ella’s vis-a-vis, blocked playwright Jeff Moss, until he was offered The Pajama Game movie. Sydney Chaplin (Charlie’s son), won the role—and a Tony for it—instead; but his casting appeal never extended beyond a Jule Styne musical (he did three). Nor did Hlwd beckon. The default: Sinatra, was too big for the role; but not Dean Martin, who also had a popular recording career, but never persued screen musicals the way Sinatra did. Aside from his partnership with Jerry Lewis (where the occasional song was casually performed—as in Living It Up) this was Martin’s big Bway musical role, and it suits him well. But then he was used to playing straight-man to large personalities--and he makes a good match to Holliday. There was resonance, too, in Jeff’s fear of going solo after a hit partnership—speculation about the Martin/Lewis breakup had many doubting Martin’s own survival. That was quickly dispelled, as he went on to enjoy greater success on his own, and as part of another iconic, if unofficial partnership, the Rat Pack--a growing cult symbol of the era.

From the Original Cast Recording it is easy to take, as I did for so long, Bells Are Ringing for one of the best Golden Age musical comedies.  Jule Styne’s score is so consistently melodic, often swinging, and varied enuf to kick the ear to constant attention. As a valentine for Holliday they couldn’t have done better. But Comden & Green’s libretto is another matter. The script is so busy finding ways to use Judy’s many-faceted talents that it almost disguises the non-existent story: Answering service operator, “anonymously” rescues a client she has a crush on and he falls in love with her. Only who is she really? He already knows her as a 63-year old “Mom,” she play-acts on the phone to boost his ego. But since he adores both from the get-go, what’s the problem? “I’m not an old lady,” Ella stumbles trying to tell Jeff the truth—which should mean problem solved; but what if she was? What if he had fallen for a young voice—who turned out to be 63? Now there’s a dilemma. Another weak stab at conflict is the feckless “investigation” conducted by Inspector Barnes (and his simpleton sidekick, Francis), of Susanswerphone as a front for a prostitution ring. But the suspicions are so ludicriously unfounded, the “evidence” collected so easily ambiguous, the rush to judgment so overreaching as to be downright illegal (were there actual laws  forbidding  operators  from passing information to their subscribers?)—a contrivance so fake it drags the movie down. And to think it’s all supposed to be funny. As Inspector Barnes, the aptly-named Dort Clark—an unnecessary repeat from Bway—is up to the task of being as unpleasant as his role. Whether Franics is meant to evoke Of Mice & Men’s Lennie or not, Ralph Roberts does. (He was a celebrity masseur and occasional bit-player; the role was played by Jack Weston on Bway.) Equally tedious are the visits Ella pays to a dentist and method actor to pass on bulletin-board info as if she were Mata Hari. Frank Gorshin (prior to impersonation fame) does a broad Brando imitation as the actor; but Judy’s “hipster chick” act is borderline embarrassing; the scene even less convincing. More successful is the bookie operation Eddie Foy Jr. installs under the pretense of classical record sales. “It’s a Simple Little System”—with obvious allusions to Guys and Dolls (it’s  even filmed in an underground boiler room) is a clever choral number inventing a code for racetracks using composer’s names—you can just imagine the giddy delight when Comden or Green came up with Handel for Hialeah—with a two bar steal from the Hallelujah Chorus. More debonair than we usually see him, Foy is a class act here. His vis-a-vis, Sue—of Susanswerphone—is Jean Stapleton, an actress you wouldn’t expect to have several hit musicals on her resume. Here she is again recreating a Bway role on screen; the same screechy voice, tho in a role perhaps less bubbleheaded than usual. Her one song, a duet with her scamming seducer, “Salzburg” was omitted from the film. The switchboard’s third operator, Ruth Storey, makes a strong audition for successor to Thelma Ritter. As delivery boy, Carl, an obscure—and uncredited—chorus boy, Doria Avila, is so lightweight as to make you wonder, who was he screwing to get this gig? He also demonstrates by comparison how special talents like Tommy Rall and Buzz Miller were.

Bway convention requires a “wanting song” for the heroine, usally as an introduction to the character—and the cleverness of “It’s a Perfect Relationship,” is that it’s an anti-wanting song:
        And that’s how things should always be 
             Our love will never lose its mystery
                  Cause I’ll never meet him
                      And he’ll never meet me
Much as R&H’s “If I Loved You” is anti-declamatory, “Perfect Relationship” is steeped in the subtext of yearning. The song is complete enuf to be its own revue sketch. Paired with “It’s a Crime” and “I’m Going Back,” it’s a full three-act play. What “Tea for Two” was to the 1920s, “Just in Time” was for the 1950s. A deceptively simple tune that is anything but clichéd or pedestrian; an instant standard recorded by dozens of singers and jazz bands. Minnelli knew to make this the movie’s centerpiece, with its most elaborate set: an East River park behind Sutton Place. It’s a romantic bit of Manhattan imagery—later to be“copied” by Woody Allen, sans the MGM carpenters. “I’m Going Back” is the song that Jerry Herman really wanted “So Long Dearie” to be, and wasn’t quite. It’s one of the greatest eleven o’clock solo spots in musical comedy history, right up there with “Rose’s Turn” (also by Jule Styne). Judy goes to town in this one, and even tho it’s filmed as if archived from the stage, it’s such a grand piece of strutting that it’s impossible not to be seduced—especially in light of this being the final screen moments of this indelible, if infrequent, star’s career.

Has anyone written more mock nightclub numbers than Comden & Green? Starting with On the Town, where it was a running gag, it seems a staple of everything they touch. Here it’s used as a rather bald plot device to tie all the clues together in Jeff’s search for Ella. First of all, why is he looking for her in bars all over town? Of course he and Gorshin both show up at this very bar where the song plugging dentist is having his debut. “The Midas Touch” is a non-sequiter bit of nonsense that midway turns, quite bizarrely, into near-hypnosis—while a scene takes place in the foreground at the bar. (An unimpeded outtake viewable on the DVD extras will make you think you’ve stepped into a David Lynch movie; this is a true anomaly—especially when you notice the singer is Hal Linden.) Odd in another way is the opening: a narrative explaining the way an answering service works—apparently as necessary for an audience in 1960 as it would be today. But is it supposed to be an ad? It sure doesn’t look like any TV commercials of the period. Of the three examples shown why gals about town need Susananswerphone (“which answers your phone when you are out”) two are bogus—as the ladies are home; one in shower, the other just can’t find her phone under all the clutter. But the sequence ends on the film’s best visual moment: a girl rushing to embrace her beau on the street, revealing the “luxurious east-side office” in the background: the lone brownstone, scarred with remnant outlines of the demolished buildings around it, like a dinosaur among the weeds and rubble, or a Chas Addams New Yorker cover.

You can always date a musical by which husband Elizabeth Taylor has in the lyrics. “Lizzie & Eddie” are in “Drop That Name,” a jaunty tune that nevertheless condescends to Ella, by having this savvy Manhattan operator suddenly clueless about famous names known far and wide. (Asked to “drop a name,” her sole response is “Rin Tin Tin,” or mangled versions thereof—what is she, from Alaska? The song’s punchline is set up with “Raymond Massey,” where to her relief she can switch gears and bark, “Lassie.” (The song also lists Freed and Minnelli among the notables—an incestuous little universe.) Still, it’s filmed with some of that Minnelli touch; tho it borders on camp. Untypically, the film drops four songs from the first act, and only one from the second. Ella’s defense plea to the vice squad, “Is It a Crime,” was filmed and cut despite being another showpiece for Judy. But as seen in the DVD extras, the number looks as if performed ‘in one’ on stage—tho set in the empty urban lot. Jeff’s “On My Own” was rewritten for Martin as “Do It Yourself”—same sentiment, no improvement. It’s frustrating to watch “Hello, Hello There!” neutered to a scene of dialogue; the joyous tune merely underscored. It doesn’t work anywhere near as well. It didn’t help, either, to relocate the song from the confined space of a subway car to a crowded sidewalk. How much better “I Met a Girl” would have been with Martin stepping off the train, singing to the mobs pouring thru the turnstiles; coming up the stairs to the street, shouting into Times Square—rather than his simply wading thru an endless sea of indifferent passersby. “Mu-cha-cha” also goes unsung, tho it turns into a bit of a dance—reluctantly it would seem—dissolving away in mid-number. Odd that Minnelli couldn’t commit—this was a highlight, after all, on Bway. Did I mention the show was choreographed by Bob Fosse, staged by Jerome Robbins, and danced by Peter Gennaro as Judy’s coach? So why so stingy with the number here? But the sorriest cut was “Long Before I Knew You,” among the very best of Styne’s ballads. (The tune is heard as underscoring in the blind-date scene, in a lovely jazz piano version.) Initially it was expected to be the breakout pop hit, not “The Party’s Over,” and it did have some cover versions. But Minnelli & Co. replaced it with a new song by S/C&G: “Better Than a Dream,” that doesn’t match “Long” in quality; tho to be fair serves a completely different scene and sentiment.

The Susanswerphone set looks so stagebound that a proscenium is all that’s missing. More than once characaters enter and pace the entire room before they’re noticed by those present—another hoary stage convention, taking rather bald dramatic license. Not so excusable on screen. How convenient, too, that Ella slips into Jeff’s East Side apartment house (what, no doorman?) and of course he never locks his door. (Later we hear him on the phone saying to casual girlfriend, “Olga, how’d you get in?” How do you think? No one, it seems, locks their doors in New York in 1960. The film ends with the entire phone-client list pouring in to the office, yet another reminder of days gone by: the old-fashioned curtain call—(exemptified best, perhaps, by Arsenic & Old Lace’s dozen coprses, springing to life for a bow--usually recruited from the street for a buck or two.) It’s a feel good ending, a holiday with Judy.

I first caught the movie on TV in my last month of high school—just weeks before I was finally allowed to go visit my Baba in New York (my graduation present). But the difference between the NY of Bells, and the one I first encountered in 1970 was greater than the sum of a decade. Gone was nearly every trace of urban elegance; the city broke and decaying; with dirt & crime fighting turf with garbage & sex. (It didn’t matter: I was 17 and loved it anyway.) Likewise Bway, and the Bway musical had gone from prominent cultural institution to. . .not so much. (In 1983 I came upon the movie on a tiny TV in the lobby of a hotel in Rome. Watching Holliday dubbed in Italian by some local Fran Drescher was quite disconcerting.) But even as MGM’s Bells feels passé, it remains a prelude to a decade of unprecedented movie musicals—epic in scope, length, and commercial success.

Despite its oft-mentioned creakiness the show seems to keep coming back; both Encores! and Reprise have taken it on, and this after a failed Bway resuscitation in 2001—with Faith Prince & Marc Kudisch—terrific actors both, who just didn’t score with the material. I didn’t help that Tina Landau’s busy production put quotation marks around every period detail, draining any chance for genuine feeling. The most amusing revision was aging the fictional Mom to ninety-three—presumably not to offend its core audience, or any cougars.

Like so many MGM musicals over the years, Bells Are Ringing opened at Radio City, on June 20, 1960, and played a healthy 7 weeks (tied with Please Don’t Eat the Daisies for the Music Hall’s longest holdover in 1960.) Nationally, the film never quite caught box office fire, earning a modest $2,850,000 in rentals, better than Damn Yankees and Kiss Me Kate, but less than Li’l Abner, or On the Town—which a decade earlier triggered the start of this survey. Ben-Hur and Can-Can were the two long-running Roadshows in town. The Apartment and Psycho both hit the Rialto the week before--movies by major Hlwd directors that stretched the boundaries of censorship--a sign of the coming explosion in the decade ahead. (Psycho instituted a policy forbidding entry once the picture started—a novelty at the time.) On Bway, Fiorello!, The Sound of Music and the most recent arrival, Bye Bye Birdie were SRO. The Miracle Worker, Toys in the Attic and Gore Vidal's The Best Man, were plays soon to be on screen. Nixon and Kennedy were battling it out in the Presidential election. And early in the next century Matthew Weiner would begin his Great American Novel (on film), Mad Men, at precisely this moment in time.

Next Up: '50s Also Rans

Report Card:    Bells Are Ringing
Overall Film:    B-
Bway Fidelity:  B-   cuts to songs, not plot
Songs from Bway:  10 
Songs Cut from Bway:  5
New Songs:  (a 3rd was filmed & cut)
Standout Numbers:  “I’m Going Back”
      “Just in Time” “It’s a Perfect Relationship”
Casting:    Suitable Bway + Hlwd mix
Standout Cast:   Judy Holliday, Eddie Foy Jr.
Sorethumb Cast:   Dort Clark (Inspector Barnes)
Cast from Bway:  Holliday, Jean Stapleton,
               Dort Clark, Bernie West (Dentist)
Direction:  Minnelli, again uninspired
Choreography: Hermes Pan phones it in
Ballet:  None
Scenic Design: Glossy New York 
Costumes:  Serviceable
Standout Sets:  East River Park;
        Exterior Susanswerphone brownstone
Titles:  NY: tearing down, building up
Oscar Noms:  1:  scoring
Weird Hall of Fame:  “The Midas Touch”            
     (especially the uncut version on extras)

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