Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bells Are Ringing But the Party’s Over

Frank Gorshin and Judy Holliday have fun with Method Acting Pretension
in Bells Are Ringing (1960)

Your correspondent had the pleasure of seeing the Encores production of Bells Are Ringing last November at New York’s City Center.  Encores is dedicated to performing the full book and score of musicals that are under-produced or little-remembered.  Several Encores productions have led to full-fledged Broadway revivals, and the program has done a magnificent job of keeping what has become known as the Great American Songbook vibrant, alive and zesty.

Bells Are Ringing tells the story of Ella, who works for a phone answering service run by her friend Sue, “Susanswerphone.”  (For my more youthful readers, in the days before cell phones and answering machines, an answering service was actually a live switchboard operator who took and relayed messages from missed calls.)  Ella gets caught up in the lives of her clients, including a song-writing dentist, a Brando-esque actor, and playwright Jeff Moss, who is suffering a catastrophic case of writer’s block.

In the subplot, Sue gets involved with a book-maker disguised as a classical music impresario, and all of the Susanswerphone staff are suspected of involvement in a vice ring.

The recent Encores production featured a stellar performance by Kelli O’Hara as Ella, ably abetted by Will Chase (Jeff) and Judy Kaye (Sue).  How this production did not make it to Broadway is something of a puzzler to your correspondent – it was one of my most memorable evenings of theater in 2010.  The show was played with energy, brio and great good humor. 

This musical was written by Betty Comden (1917-2006) and Adolph Green (1914-2002), the duo behind Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon, among others, with music by Jule Stein (1905-1994), who wrote the scores for Gypsy and Funny Girl.  Comden and Green wrote the show specifically for Judy Holliday (1921-1965), who won the Tony for her performance and who reprised the role in the later film version.  The show opened in 1956 and two of the numbers, “Just in Time” and “The Party’s Over,” have become standards.

The show prompted me to seek out the DVD of the 1960 film.  Holliday was joined by Dean Martin (1917-1995) as Jeff Moss, and the film was directed by Vincente Minnelli (1903-1986) director of Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, and Some Came Running, among other classic films.  It was produced by the legendary Feed Unit at MGM, also responsible for The Wizard of Oz, Good News, Easter Parade, and Gigi and many, many others. 

For all of this firepower, the film version of Bells Are Ringing is something of a misfire.  Director Minnelli was slavishly close to the source material and, as a result, the film never “opened up,” remaining stagey throughout.  Several of the show’s numbers were cut, leaving the first half of the film flaccid while Holliday, usually an explosive presence, seems curiously subdued.  “Hello, Hello There,” sung on the New York subway in the show, was never shot for the film while the show-stopping “Is It a Crime?” was shot, but left on the cutting room floor.  (The latter number is included in outtakes on the DVD version – one of the best numbers on the disk.  Its exclusion at the time of the film’s release is another mystery.)

Happily, things pick up for the film’s second half.  Frank Gorshin does a wonderful turn as the Brando-inspired actor.  There is a moment (see above) where he and Holliday meet in a dive catering to Method Actors and they speak to one-another in monosyllables.  It’s a deft jab at the entire Kitchen Sink School – which, sadly, would have the last laugh in a changing world.    Holliday and company also do a terrific job with “Drop That Name,” a giddy parody of celebrity culture and the empty parties that sustain it.   We also get additional screen time with Jean Stapleton’s Sue (another hold-over from the Broadway production), who is romanced by the snappy Eddie Foy, Jr.

However, the real standout of the film version of Bells Are Ringing is, surprisingly, Dean Martin.  Martin was never a great musician in the same manner as Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra (though he was the first to admit he was a “stylist” more than a singer), but he had an engaging way of selling a song.  He was also a surprisingly good actor, as anyone who has seen Rio Bravo, Some Came Running or The Sons of Katie Elder would attest.  He is very touching as Jeff Moss, once part of a writing team and now adrift on his own. (How much he was able to tap into the career downturn he faced immediately after the breakup of his act with Jerry Lewis is unknown, but the fear and uncertainty seem very real.)  His singing of “Just in Time,” where he credits Holliday with saving his life, has an unusual amount of pathos and is eminently believable.

However, perhaps the most moving number in Bells Are Ringing is Holliday’s rendition of “The Party’s Over,” though, perhaps, not for reasons intended by the film.  Bells Are Ringing is really, in many ways, a last hurrah.  It was the last film made by the legendary Freed Unit at MGM.  It was the last musical directed by Minnelli, and it would be Holliday’s last film as well – she would die of cancer five years later.

But also, it was the end of an era.  Up until 1960 the Great American Songbook would coexist in an uneasy truce with rock-and-roll.  In less than five years, even that coexistence would largely vanish as the vapid rhythms and ridiculous lyrics of rock reached ascendency, and young, vibrant performers like Martin (and Sinatra, Tony Bennett, etc) would suddenly find themselves relegated to “nostalgia acts.”  With Holliday singing to the vanishing New York audience of a closing era, the party was over indeed.

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