Friday, October 15, 2010

Bells Are Ringing

A film that deserves more discussion: Vincente Minnelli's some-kind-of-wonderful Bells Are Ringing (1960).  Part of a squeaky (but ever-so-slightly naughty), brightly colored pocket of late '50s/early '60s Hollywood (think of Doris Day in Pillow Talk or Please Don't Eat the Daisies), the theme is communication.  Telephones, answering services, urban anonymity and its talking cure ("Hello!"), code (Beethoven's 10th), name-dropping, typewriting, an entire host of ways to get through to someone end up contriving greater difficulties & subtleties in actually doing just that.  It's not an original topic, but it's handled with some spark here.  I love the moment when Judy Holliday dances the chacha - so as not to forget it - in her red dress before she meets her fella (Dean Martin) for a party, a fine & simple flourish between director and star.  The basement apartment that Susanswerphone calls home is a cousin to the apartment in My Sister Eileen ('55), if I recall. 

But what am I writing?  There's someone who already said things better ...

"Telephony suggests telepathy. When Ella goes to visit Jeff for the first time, it just so happens that he wants coffee and a sandwich to help him kick his alcohol habit, and it just so happens that she’s got both in her bag. A nice piece of womanly white-magic, and all rationally explained because it’s her own lunch, which she daren’t admit, partly because she’s pretending to be chic Melisande. Communication by feeding—the mother, the housewife— in a placidly unpointed antithesis to the swish blind-date dinner. To explain how she can anticipate Jeff’s wishes, Ella has to pretend to be telepathic and psychic, which is the ideal type of communication (indeed, frighteningly so). And telepathy finds its converse in—is it a duet, is it a pair of synchronized solos, and what’s the difference?—"Better than a dream," dreaming and telepathy being a natural pair of intrapsychic opposites."  (Raymond Durgnat, transcribed here.)

5 comments:

Blake Lucas said...

I wish you had gone on. As much as I do admire Raymond Durgnat and was glad he took up for the film as he did, he hardly mentioned Minnelli and made him seem just barely relevant. Yet without diminishing the great contributions of every one involved--and I'm well-aware that Holliday and Comden-Green-Styne had originated it on the stage--it's Minnelli who does most to make it special and it's very much his film in its very soul.

I like your "some kind of wonderful" description of it, Zach. Even given the stiffest imaginable competition, this is in truth my favorite Minnelli film.

Peter Tonguette said...

I love this film. Coincidentally, I just wrote a review of one of the recent Minnelli biographies, and I found myself briefly mentioning BELLS ARE RINGING. It's hard to resist talking about in any discussion of Minnelli's later films.

Zach Campbell said...

Sorry to respond to comments so belatedly, fellas.

Blake, part of what I find interesting about the film--the material about communication--seems not to have much of a source, in Minnelli or anyone else, so much as it is a fascinating case of symptomatic convergence. It's what I do appreciate about Durgnat speaking about the film, with his 'culturologist' hat on. Minnelli is a great director, of course, but does every discussion of a VM-helmed film need its central thesis to be, 'These are the ways in which Minnelli achieved greatness'? I don't think so - and Bells Are Ringing is such a pleasurable film, and (on one viewing only) such a deceptively 'thick' and interesting one, that I was moved to think about its rich web of thematic associations above all else.

But one day I do hope to do a directorial breakdown blog post of Some Came Running ...

Peter, long time no see! Where is your review (going to be) published?

Blake Lucas said...

"...does every discussion of a VM-helmed film need its central thesis to be, 'These are the ways in which Minnelli achieved greatness'?"

Well, maybe...

Seriously, Zach, no--but it somewhat undermines even a piece as insightful as Durgnat's to leave him out to the extent he does. When he wrote on BELLS ARE RINGING, the film had enjoyed little appreciation, and it still doesn't have enough, especially as the Minnelli film that it so profoundly is. Remember that for me, this is not some minor Minnelli to be taken up for other purposes but, if I had to choose, my favorite of all of them. And I've spent a lot of time with all of them.

There's a line somewhere in Durgnat about how many dreamers and artists there are in the film (sorry I didn't read through to quote what he said on this exactly). That's very true--who else would have as much affinity for these characters as Minnelli. The material about communication you rightly find interesting came with Comden and Green's witty script (and I treasure these writers by the way--no way I would ever want to say anything to diminish them), but the "artist of life" that Ella Peterson is, who lights up the endlessly beautiful images of the film (so many in graceful long takes), could only have this much magic in a Minnelli film. And there is a warmth and enjoyment of the other characters and the ambiance of the film that are all his as well, and an effortless synthesis, as always with Minnelli (and especially in this peak period of his career) in the way the real and the artificial combine to make the world of the film.

I realize you were seeing it for the first time, and I've seen it a lot, so maybe that's why I'm sensitive to certain things. For one example, for each new day/new Ella adventure, she puts fresh flowers of different colors on the switchboard, even though the place is kind of threadbare. There's a vision in that--it's the directors as well as hers. I find it very moving.

My first post was not to criticize Durgnat's piece in any event. Since you had just seen it and had such a warm reaction, and I'm interested in your responses, I was just sorry you hadn't said more yourself.

Interesting in view of your reply is the fact that my first substantial piece ever written years back was on SOME CAME RUNNING. There were a lot of good reasons for that, and I've always felt close to that film too. I'll certainly look forward to anything you ever write about it here or anywhere else.

Meantime, BELLS ARE RINGING passed its 50th anniversary in the past year, and it's been just about that long since I first saw it. So maybe it's good to throw a few extra kind words its way right now.

Zach Campbell said...

Thanks for the comments, Blake - very open & insightful. I look forward to growing with Bells Are Ringing on subsequent reviewings ...

As for Some Came Running, I don't know exactly when I'll get around to that, but there should be a little something-something soon inspired by The Band Wagon. Maybe it's Minnelli season here at EL!