The history of the American musical is indeed a fascinating one, particularly once the genre was introduced to the ever-changing world of the 1960s. Far removed from filmed vaudeville acts and Broadway show adaptations from the dawn of the Sound Era in the late '20s, the once-harmless naïvety of the movie musical of yesteryear was about to be shown the door by an increasingly cynical society which would soon be surrounded by great shifts in both cultural and political trends. And the beginning of those changes are quite noticeable in the classic 1960 musical Bells Are Ringing, which is now available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection.
Taking a much more progressive stance towards the eternal battle of the sexes, Bells Are Ringing give us a determined female protagonist for a change. And when your on-screen romantic male counterpart is that cool cat of a classic crooner himself, Mr. Dean Martin, you had better be darn sure you've cast the right lady in the lead. Fortunately, producer Arthur Freed and director Vincente Minnelli knew full well that there was absolutely no replacing the Oscar-winning talents of the show's original female lead, the one and only Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday) ‒ whose immeasurable talents would have been downright irreplaceable otherwise.
Ella Peterson (Holliday) is one of several ladies who works as a switchboard operator for a local New York answering service known as Susanswerphone. (Interestingly, Ms. Holliday's first job was working as a switchboard operator at the Mercury Theatre.) While the rules strictly forbid her from getting too personal with the clients, the good-natured and caring Ella can't help but give her special vendees a little something extra for a variety of kooky characters such as a dentist who fancies himself a Broadway songwriter. Unfortunately, the police are convinced the "little something extra" Ella offers her Susanswerphone patrons is code for something else entirely!
But, try and try as you may, this is one Holliday you can't ruin. So, even as the cops following her around and a cunning bookie (the one and only Eddie Foy, Jr.) realizes the potential of using the service as a way to place and receive bets, Ella realizes she has fallen in love with a lonely, velvet-throated playwright named Jeffrey Wright (Martin) from the other end of the receiver, who has a severe case of writer's block on his hands. After "sneaking out" to meet him, Jeff instantly realizes Ella is the muse he's been waiting for, not knowing she is actually the nurturing character he has come to refer to as "Mom" (uh, paging Dr. Freud?) from his telephone answering service!
The last musical from director Vincente Minnelli and producer Arthur Freed at MGM, Bells Are Ringing also proved to be the final big-screen film role for the inimitable Ms. Holliday (as well as being her only starring role in a color feature), who succumbed to breast cancer a few years later, leaving behind a gap in stage/screen talent which has truly never been replaced. Fred Clark and cult Batman villain Frank Gorshin (as a comical Marlon Brando-type method actor) co-star. Jean Stapleton and future Barney Miller star Hal Linden (making his film debut) also appear, having both been in the original Betty Comden/Adolph Green Broadway stage production with Holliday.
The Warner Archive Collection has done a spectacular job ensuring these Bells still ring loud and clear with this presentation, having put a new 2k scan of an interpositive print through a great deal of color timing and restoration. It's a vast improvement over the previously-released Special Edition widescreen DVD of the title from 2005, and this improved transfer is truly the only way to see this CinemaScope classic. The newer 5.1 audio from the DVD (a recreation of the original four-track theatrical audio) has received a lossless DTS-HD MA track here, and delivers the goods most admirably. English (SDH) subtitles are included with this release.
As far as special features go, this WAC retains all of the Bells and whistles of the aforementioned Standard-Def DVD. And while these supplements are somewhat on the skimpy side, they are invaluable nevertheless. First up is a retrospective featurette entitled Bells Are Ringing: Just in Time. Hosted by Hal Linden, it includes interviews with Frank Gorshin and playwrights Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Next up are three outtakes from the main feature, two of which were cut altogether, while the third is an alternate take (which features more of that young greenhorn Hal Linden). Lastly, there's a 1080p upgrade of the film's original theatrical trailer.
Although it wasn't intended to be Judy Holliday's filmic swan song, Bells Are Ringing nevertheless became a grand exit vehicle for the late performer. Sure, the film features some great numbers and some truly hilarious moments (Judy's epic delivery of the line "You have a dirty mind!" has been forever engrained in my mind, as has Dean Martin's hilarious attempt at serious acting in a phone booth when he realizes "Mom" and Ella are the same person). It even features the first time Dino performed what would go on to become one of his biggest recording hits, "Just in Time." Ultimately, though, this is a Judy Holliday film ‒ and a damn fine one at that.