Thursday, March 17, 2005

Hialeah, Hialeah

My copy of the Classic Musicals Collection came today, and the first title I popped in was Bells Are Ringing. It's not the best in the set (that's The Band Wagon) nor the worst (that's Brigadoon, with its long, dull nonmusical stretches and its horrible studio-created heather on a horrible studio-created hill), but it was the one I was most happy to see on DVD, just because I'd never previously been able to see it in widescreen. Vincente Minnelli was one of those directors whose idea of how to use CinemaScope was to fill the frame with as many people as he possibly could, so you'll often get people talking from opposite sides of the screen in Minnelli's trademark long takes. In pan-and-scan you have to cut back and forth between the two halves of the image, and Minnelli's careful compositions -- he was, some actors said, more interested in composing the image than in helping actors give good performances -- are lost.

Not that Minnelli is at his best in Bells Are Ringing. It was his next-to-last musical, and Arthur Freed's last, and one gets the feeling that Minnelli wasn't all that interested in the form anymore; his musicals after The Band Wagon don't have the kind of visual imagination and flair he brought to his melodramas like Some Came Running and Two Weeks in Another Town. (Even Gigi, a movie I persist in liking a lot, is a little stodgy, visually, more like painting than cinema.) In Bells Are Ringing he sets up the shots nicely and moves the camera in and out at appropriate times, but not much more. And in a movie whose script sticks rather closely to the stage play -- too closely, as Adolph Green admits in an archival interview in the DVD's making-of documentary -- the proscenium-style CinemaScope shape makes it look even more like a filmed play.

Other flaws in the film include the decision to drop one of the show's best ballads, "Long Before I Knew You," and the casting of Dean Martin. There's no real reason why Martin shouldn't have been good in the movie; he'd been very good for Minnelli two years earlier in Some Came Running, he could sing and act, and he was certainly an appropriate choice to play a character whose creative partner has broken up with him, and has to learn to succeed on his own. But at times he has that slightly bored, spaced-out look he gets when a project doesn't really engage him. You can't really see why Judy Holliday would care so much about him. He does come to life during the "Just in Time" number, a typical Comden-Green mixture of romance and clowning (a few years later, in a show called Subways are For Sleeping, they did a very similar number called "Comes Once in a Lifetime," a peppy charm song followed by a nonsense French verse and a silly dance).

The flaws don't really matter, though, because it's got Judy Holliday, and Holliday is so good that she could make this movie watchable if the director was Ed Wood and her leading man was Rin-Tin-Tin. She is so lovable and genuine, and so expressive with every line reading and gesture, that you almost forget you're watching a movie; when she sings "It's a Perfect Relationship" it's like she's there in the room with you, telling you her feelings. The show was written especially for her by her old friends and performing partners Comden and Green, and it's the essence of a star vehicle: the star gets most of the numbers, gets an opportunity to show off every single thing she can do (comedy, romance, pathos, pratfalls, impressions), every other character is focused on her and when she's not around, they're talking about how wonderful she is. And in this case, she is wonderful, so it works.

Bells are Ringing is a fairy tale, but with a twist. Most fairy tales are about overcoming external barriers, like class or financial barriers. Bells Are Ringing is about people who are held back by their lack of confidence. Ella, the Judy Holliday character, reaches out to a man who doesn't believe in himself, and gives him the confidence he needs to succeed. But she herself is held back by her own lack of self-confidence: she can see what's special in other people, and help them see it too, but she doesn't think she herself is anything special at all. Of course she is, and she comes to understand this in the (you'll hate me for giving away this spoiler) happy ending.

Trivia note: Bernie West, who played the songwriter/dentist Dr. Kitchell on Broadway and in the movie, went on to become a very successful TV writer. West, Michael Ross and Don Nicholl became the head writers of All in the Family for the first five seasons (the show's quality nosedived after they left); they also wrote and produced the first season of The Jeffersons, and developed and ran Three's Company.

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