When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand

How can it be?? BELLS ARE RINGING:  a butt-ugly, proscenium-bound, stand-and-deliver musical film directed by that most polished, chic, and painterly of all studio-era filmmakers, Vincente Minnelli???

In this delish-ly digital DVD, the glaringly phony sets and the consciously theatrical performances almost kill the pleasure of viewing this film.  I say almost because despite its undeniable shortcomings, this film is treasured by many savvy cineastes.

So how can a stale, bromidic work of cinema craftsmanship induce such a moving experience in the majority of movie-lovers?

First, let’s explore why the film is visually lacklustre…

A whale of an understatement was spoken by BELLS ARE RINGING co-author Adolph Green in the Special Features documentary included on the disc, when he pondered that in retrospect the film should have been more cinematic.  According to a fan site dedicated to the movie’s star, Judy Holliday, writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green were deeply involved in their own New York stage show, A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, when they agreed to translate BELLS ARE RINGING from stage to screen.  Deadlines were missed but a cut-and-paste screenplay version of the stage play was eventually cranked out.  At the time of producing the screenplay, Comden and Green were not on good terms with Holliday (according to Holliday site), as they had sided with Judy’s ex-boyfriend, Sydney Chaplin (son of Charlie…), when Judy and Sydney broke up.

What I find absorbing to decipher is, during the time of studio insolvency, two of the men responsible for the visual aesthetics of this M-G-M film (filmed at its Culver City studios in Metrocolor) were long-time 20th Century-Fox employees:  Director of Photography Milton R. Krasner (All About Eve, An Affair to Remember, etc.) and co-Art Director George W. Davis (again All About Eve, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, etc.).  Could these two creatives, accustomed to the Bausch & Lomb camera lenses and Color by DeLuxe of Fox’s culture machine, not know how to work with the palettes and optics of Metrocolor?  (Of all Hollywood’s combined product, this movie has sets that are the phoniest I’ve seen.)

And what was going on with Minnelli when this was made?  After the masterly work he did on SOME CAME RUNNING, which closes with one of the most original shots in movie history, he next did the somewhat dubious HOME FROM THE HILL, then BELLS ARE RINGING, followed by the strangely dull FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE, and then tightening his game again with TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN. Minnelli must have been in some kind of slump, but what was causing it?  Referring again to the Judy Holliday website, it seems that the star around whom this play and movie had been fashioned was the only one who was concerned with the lapse of quality in this production.

Which brings me to the opposite issue:  why is this film beloved? [After the diss I’ve been scribing, I have to confess I own this DVD.]  The plain facts are that the script is hilarious, and the central star, Judy Holliday, is too talented to be believed.  As the documentary testifies, even in contemporary screenings audiences cheer wildly over Holliday’s delivery of her final number, “I’m Going Back”.

One fact presented in the Special Features doc that was a bending of the truth was when Hal Linden (who had been in the play and made his screen debut in the film) said the movie made great box office at Radio City Music Hall.  Yes, that’s true, but nation-wide the movie ended up in the red.  Manhattanites packed the theatres, but this was not the case with Middle America.

The transfer is crisp (which unfortunately makes those awful sets look even more bogus), and the audio is sweet.  If you’re one of the Forgiving Ones who embraces this film, warts and all, it’s worth adding to your collection.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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