Musical theater team Comden & Green are frequently over-praised for their wit and sparkle, which really comes down to a gift for rhyme and sarcasm. Talented performers have rescued their glib little songs, and so too have nimble directors like Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen (and Gene Kelly). But the C&G weaknesses are exposed in Bells Are Ringing. Confined to drab sets that feel like sets (a drab apartment room that doubles for a telephone answering service business; a playwright’s penthouse), no amount of cutesy stage business can breathe life into a dull “boy meets girl” scenario. Cute phone operator Ella (Judy Holliday) passes on advice to her phone clients; but she falls head over heels in love with playwright Jeffrey (Dean Martin). Problem is, he knows her as an old woman’s voice called “Mom.” What would he think of her in real life? As if the answer were in doubt! Holliday is lost amid those indifferent sets and musical numbers that are overreaching in their charm. C&G knew how to suck up to theater people (within the subgenre, Singin’ in the Rain is their sole redemption), but are hopelessly lost when it comes to presenting average workaday people. On the Town turned sailors and cab drivers into some dumb variation of vain, lapel-grabbing narcissists, and Bells Are Ringing treats the working class Ella as a would-be ingénue in need of a good part. Holliday’s freshness feels slightly calculated, but her cute button face is certainly un-showbiz. Co-star Martin offers nothing but champagne blubbering. The usually whiplash Vincente Minnelli snoozes through this one, moving the camera in flowing master shots that serve up a number of dull “two characters in medium shot” variations. It has the unfortunate effect of being a movie that seems stuck on a Broadway stage. Inexplicably hailed as a winner because it features the last on-screen performance of plucky Judy Holliday, Bells Are Ringing never translates into anything cinematic.
Letterboxing might have helped Vincente Minnelli's framing, so the 1.33.1 full screen is inexcusable. Colors are a little faded and Dean Martin's sweaty pallor errs on the side of unwell. The sound is top notch, however, and Holliday and Martin's crooning shines through loud and clear.
Aside from outtake musical numbers that should appeal to anyone that likes Bells Are Ringing in the first place, there's a featurette called "Bells Are Ringing: Just in Time" that's really just an overripe love song to Judy Holliday. Narrated by her co-star on Broadway, Hal Linden, no one has anything bad to say about her. An aged Comden and Green pour on the love, as does a painfully sincere Linden. But I preferred watching Frank "The Riddler" Gorshin pop up to self-praise his own memorable supporting performance as a Marlon Brando imitator.
Forgettable songs and too much emphasis on the meandering plot make Bells Are Ringing a snooze, and the DVD packaging seems just as apathetic.