Thursday, April 26, 2012

Raymond Durgnat on "Bells Are Ringing"

 

This essay is from March 1973 issue of Film Comment. The current copyright holder is © Raymond Durgnat Estate (Kevin Gough-Yates) and it's been published here with their kind permission. Visit the official website of Raymond Durgnat estate here.


Alongside the generally accepted trio of classic post-war musicals—On the Town, Singing in The Rain, The Band Wagon—l’ve long wanted to range a fourth: Give a girl a break. Between these and honorable third-line material like The Pirate, Summer Holiday, Funny Face and Kiss Me Kate l’d place some which grapple, more or less ruefully, with some post-war disillusionments: It’s Always Fair Weather, maybe The Girl Most Likely (Mitchell Leisen, 1958), Three For The Show (H. C. Potter, 1955) and The Girl Can’t Help It, and Certainly Bells Are Ringing (if one classes it as a musical rather than as a comedy with musical numbers).

My record-sleeve summarizes the plot thus: “Ella Peterson (Judy Holliday) has never met Jeff Moss (Dean Martin) but has fallen in love with him while handling his calls at Susanswerphone, a telephone answering service which she runs with her cousin, Sue.” The partners personify the alternative attitudes which are positive and negative poles of the film’s morality. Ella is always sympathizing with the unseen clients for whom she takes and leaves messages. Sometimes, not content with worrying, she quits her switchboard to do what she can to help. Sue, older and more wearied, reproaches her for worrying, for getting involved.


Ella has come more recently from a stifling small town, and despite her need to escape its stifling pretension (she worked for "The Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company"), she has brought the small-town, neighborly, busybody spirit with her into the big impersonal city, where every contact with other people is in the style of a quick telephone message. The contrast is pointed in the scene where Ella and Jeff, standing on the edge of the sidewalk waiting for the crossing signal, turn to a big scowling stranger beside them and say: “Hello.” “Whaddya say?” he bellows, and when they repeat “Hello” he breaks into a smile: "No one's said hello to me for fifteen years—Hello!" A chain-reaction of “Helllos” commences.


Another type of communication between strangers underlies Ella’s blind date, at an expensive restaurant, where her gaucherie nips romance in the bud. The antithesis of impersonality and (hopeful) intimacy implicit in the idea of a blind date underlies the film’s title (telephone bells, wedding bells)-even the name of the answering service. For Susanswerphone recalls sousaphone, and a sousaphone recalls the old-fangled solidarity of brass bands, union chapters and workingman ethnic groups. The brass band as symbol of unity is the theme of Marching Along [AKA Stars and Stripes Forever, 1952 DIR: Henry Koster] and The Music Man (Morton DaCosta , 1962) —the "76 trombones" being close relatives, acoustically, of the sousaphone. In Dick Lester’s Petulia it is either (l can‘t remember) a sousaphone or a tuba musically similar instruments—which Julie Christie brings back from one of her democratic forays. And it’s a tuba which Gary Cooper‘s Mr. Deeds plays on the train taking him from his small town to New York.

These variations on the theme of sound and solidarity lead into innumerable aspects of the communications comedy. At first the cops seem to be crooks setting up a protection racket (notably the assistant who’s a classic pug-ugly type, a sort of pudgy Jack Palance). Mistaken identities. But when they turn out to be law and order that’s just as bad. For they whip out a tape recorder and play back Ella’s half of a telephone conversation, making the answerphone service sound like a call-girl agency. Thus the cops set up two sets of ambiguity; of clothes, and of words. The former is taken up in the Method Actor’s impersonation of a top-hat-and-coat-tails-type swell. The latter is a constant theme, climaxing when Jeff, the writer with the emotional block, settles for the crudest and most desperately random type of communication there is. Standing in the middle of streets chosen at random, he bawls "Melisande Scott," which he thinks is the name of the girl he loves, although it isn't, because she gave him the wrong name out of panic or out of shyness—these emotions being the hang-ups which snag any conceivable communications system.

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.


A conspicuous form of communication is art, and the film abounds in creative artists of one kind or another. Jeff can‘t write for drinking. ln fact he drinks so deep that he can’t even communicate with himself—he has to leave rude notes to himself via Susanswerphone. Another client, Otto, pretends to be selling classical music to the masses-Titanic records—but in fact he’s an illegal off-track bookie, using classical music titles as a code ("Humperdinck is Hollywood"). Another artist is the dentist, who daydreams about making the hit parade and composes little melodies to himself on his airhose. And the embittered Method actor breaks into the big time when he finally consents to stop starving for his art and instead uses his art to get some food (he pretends to be a Fred Astaire type). Matching the cops’ impersonation--only this is repersonalization.

All these artists are on their inspirational uppers, and it’s Ella who brings them new inspiration, simply by putting them in touch with one another. She describes the dentist to the playwright, who puts him in his play, where he’ll be played by the Method actor. The intrigue builds up into an intriguing meeting —face-to-face—between the actor, the author and the living original—such a meeting might well be awkward. Remember Old Joshua, in Prevert’s Les Enfants du Paradis, savagely reviling Baptiste for "stealing his identity" by putting him in his play? And certainly any playwright will recall all the legal dangers involved in unintentionally describing someone. The dentist might well feel edgy at being studied by the actor. But their sensible symbiosis—and commensalism, over a meal or a drink—occurs in a setting offering further reflections on the theme of art/entertainment encountering reality. They’re in a bunny club where chorus girls come down off the stage and start drawing mustaches on our heroes’ faces—the three faces of one character. But our friends take no notice of all these fake intimacies, this pseudo-happening; they just carry on talking as if the bunnies weren’t there. The name of the number the bunnies are singing is "The Midas Touch"—Midas being the patron saint of the profit motive, and no friend of natural togetherness.

Themes of art and acting interweave with themes of mistaken identity and misdirected communication. Cops and actors are only two groups of impersonators. First Jeff assumes that Ella is a white-haired old lady. Then she pretends to be Melisande Scott, the sophisticate, not realizing that he isn’t fooled and likes her as she is. Sue thinks Otto is a missionary of cultural sweetness—and—light—musical communion for the masses. And Ella plays as many parts as the Method actor. Mistaken identity begins to shade into something like confused identity, and finally she reproaches herself: "Other people’s lives became more real to me than my if own .... l didn’t even know who I was .... “Good neighborliness also has its traps.

To be someone one isn’t is a special form of being only a nobody, a face in the crowd. And Ella gets taken to the theatrical party where she knows nobody, feels a nobody, and everybody else does the Name Dropping number (the film’s director being’ one of the names). Its un-smart, democratic converse is established by the crossing-the-road number, where suddenly every nobody gets to know everybody, so that everybody’s somebody. Another kind of togetherness for the lonely crowd is to be found when Otto briefs his agents in the furnace-room. “It’s a Simple Little System” links the highbrow intricacies of classical music with the lowbrow intricacies of illegal gambling. The musical number, which he conducts with the umbrella of his false respectability, becomes an amiable series of visual puns. One shot picks out a group of middle—aged matrons warbling away as if singing an oratorio. And at that point the bookies’ agency merges with the church-based social activities that are the pride and joy of Middle West society. A few shots later, and all involved are waving their hands as if they were a Negro Baptist congregation. By way of grand finale they scale the heights of pop religiosity, and sing to the tune of the Hallelujah Chorus. Of course it hasn’t the cheerfully blasphemous charge of the singing trial scene in Duck Soup; it’s about the co-existence of social worlds—the middle-class church in-group, and the big-city betting in-group. (Wasn’t it Pascal who based his religion on a bet?)

Bells Are Ringing is highly ingenious and inventive, for not only every situation, and therefore (given Hollywood’s discipline, in the interests of directness, clarity and strength) every line of dialogue, but every conspicuous visual detail or configuration opens up intriguing aspects of the basic theme. There are two scenes at railroad stations—railroads being another form of communication line, and railroad stations being switchboards for people rather than voices. Jeff, going off to the country to work undisturbed (so that communication becomes separation!), says goodbye to Melisande, and pushes his way through a suddenly-busy swirl of crowds; the world is full of people, a bustling but human world. Later, alone and forlorn in search of her, he stands in a telephone booth, centrally placed in the left-hand side of the CinemaScope screen. The empty right-hand side is filled by the long length of a train, which slows to a halt. The doors open automatically, directly opposite the telephone cabin. lt occurs to us that maybe, by Hollywood magic, or by the magic of L’amour Fou, or by the magic of prayer-by-telephone, Ella may step off the train. But no. The carriage remains empty. The doors slide close. The steel train slides out. Jeff hangs up. Communication-by-separation went with crowds, people like corpuscles of blood, circulating, pulsating. But this desert of empty steel and plateglass is an Antonionian eclipse (as Kim Novak was an orchidaceous icon of alienation before L’avventura. And isn’t Judy Holliday an ebullient, unfrozen semi-double of Kim Novak? a converse, in sympathetic energy, to the affectations of Monroe? Halfway between Novak and Monroe, and devoid of a neurosis which can reasonably be regarded as not merely personal things, but as having social determinants or reinforcements also?).

lf the simple little system becomes the Hallelujah Chorus, it’s to urge a peaceful co-existence between respectable morality and its opposite. The small town has its affectations, splendidly symbolized by the name "Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company," i.e., innocence yearning for disillusionment. (And surely those brassieres are, in some way, gay deceivers!) So Ella herself suffers from inverted snobbery and the villain of the piece isn’t just Jeff’s drinking but, equally, her inferiority complex, her inverted snobbery. Jeff almost jokes her through it, and, before taking her into the party (where a great deal of communication by notes goes on), raises her spirits by parodying some vaudeville routines—vaudeville being a characteristic expression of the rags-to-riches, egalitarian theme. But society is a structure of separations as well as of communications, and the hidden weakness of small-town neighborliness is the fear born of snobbery, inverted or otherwise.


As part of the whole communications theme the film affably satirizes its own conventions. To judge from audience reaction, the moment when an audience of Royal College of Art students finally decided, after some hesitation, that this was a bad film—to be laughed at rather than laughed with—occurred when Ella, in Jeff’s apartment, takes a step or two away from him and begins her musical soliloquy: "Better Than A Dream." Jeff, fired by the new inspiration she has brought, continues typing, not noticing her having burst into song (again: communication-as-separation). But the audience, oddly literalistic about plausibility, even in a musical, laughed incredulously at what is, of course, the moment of friendly self—mockery through which the film reminds us that "this is a film." Communication (as semiologists will remind us) extensively depends on conventions—without which all the unconventionalities of originality would have no purchase, no grip, no community. The convention is doubled up, and simultaneously convulsed and re-established, when Jeff sings to himself simultaneously. And this "separate togetherness" is an inversion of the scene when Jeff, peering morosely into the mirror, fails to con himself into a mood of massive confidence (one man doubled and talking to himself is quite different from two people talking to themselves because they’ve really met). Often enough the film seems theatrical, in the sense that the musical numbers leave us with a general feeling of being done in long-shot, as 0n a stage. And though the real reason may have been a budget-minded studio’s insistence on general shots (sparing all the expense involved in multiple set-ups and more dynamic editing, Singing in the Rain-style), the effect harmonizes with the film’s theme well enough (though possibly precluding it from classic status?). At the end, also, the characters are brought in, in quick succession, as one might bring them on to take their bows at the end of a stage performance. The effect (of a device later paralleled in La Dolce Vita) is of the director's wistful joke about this film being adapted from a Broadway musical. He leaves some of the stage quality inside the film, yielding a tender irony which isn’t quite sad, for even though the flesh-and-blood uniqueness of stage presence has been replaced by celluloid facsimiles, enough of the spirit gets there just the same.

The shots behind the opening credits stress the demolition of old brownstone houses in New York. Then a commentator-type voice gives us a bright and breezy explanation and jet-age "image" of answering services. Finally we see that this particular one is run from the one remaining house in this tatty old street. The difference between the mental image produced by the commentary, and the physical reality, is another case of mistaken identity. The houses, too, recall something which isn't exactly the small-town spirit, and isn’t exactly the immigrant ethnic-group spirit, but splits the difference between the two. It recalls old-fashioned, pre-skyscraper New York, neighborhood New York, and implies, very covertly, that maybe the small town never had a monopoly of good-neighborliness either. The inhabitants of such brownstone houses perhaps appear as the crowd at the road-crossing. That crowd‘s physiognomic-ethnic-diversity is rare in Hollywood movies, and surpassed, to my knowledge, which isn’t encyclopedic, in the Sixties, only by Fitzwilly Strikes Back (Delbert Mann, 1967), where it was played off against the exotic WASPery of a dear old rich lady and her devoted butler—and where the casting director got an especially enormous screen-credit. Doubtless picturesquerie a la Damon Runyon provides both films with a convenient accepted convention. But Bells Are Ringing remains one of the few Hollywood movies to concede that New York is a cosmopolitan place. On the Town didn’t, quite, although the longshoreman’s aubade had its pastoral beauty.

lt may or may not be pushing discursively atmospheric detail too rigidly into the thematic line to be reminded, when one of the answerphone girls stands over a fan to cool herself in sweaty summer, of Marilyn’s skirts wafted on high in The Seven-Year Itch-and thus of that erotic dream turning into this exasperated reality. But the film certainly makes use of show-business parody. Jeff, pretending to believe Ella is the 63-year-old lady as which she’s ineptly posing ("false personalization"), drops onto one knee before her and sings "Mammy," like Al Jolson. The hoofers-from-the-stockyard-district vaudeville-routine links such parodies with the name—dropping routine and the stageplay-within-the-film effects.


There’s little need to comment on the way the style and glitter of the players and decor shift every thing into a key which is so much Hollywood wish-fulfillment that the real sting and throb of everyday loneliness is mellowed and softened and modulated into the sentimentality implicit in the Elia-Jeff relationship. Doubtless musical comedy, like comedy, has its minor leagues, and the period’s profound films on city life and miscommunications remain Two For The Seesaw, The Apartment, and so on—those which continue where The Crowd and Lonesome left off. The bitter musical which l would dearly love to see remains unmade, although Pal Joey, It’s Always Fair Weather and Porgy and Bess and West Side Story all made gestures towards it. Like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and The Ladies’ Man, Bells Are Ringing might be described as Riesmanesque—its ideas and images criss-cross with those of The Lonely Crowd, as does its tone, of serious, concerned, yet optimistic liberalism, which will turn conservative as the riots and sit-ins begin. Perhaps it’s a tribute to Riesman’s analysis, but his book might have been the bible of Hollywood after McCarthyism, as Freud was its bible just before it.

Bells Are Ringing certainly doesn’t feel like the product of book-learning. Its clear and economical structure betrays the play of sensitive and agile intelligences, of a director perfectly attuned to the theme underlying the diversity of the writers’ situations, scenes and terms. The composer (Jule Styne) certainly gets the point--after Ella has sung, “l’m in love with a man — Plaza oh, double-four, double three, what a perfect relationship - I can't see him-he can’t see me” The music switches to a passionate tango to And yet I can’t help wondering - What does he look like?” - the tango implying the archaic absurdity of expectation, of daydreaming. The communications network is also a labyrinth, offering so many options that one easily becomes the slave, not of the lamp, but of the switchboard. Certainly the film has too much common sense to subscribe to McLuhan’s idiotic myth of the global village. The woman who slaves over a hot switchboard has to cool her skirts over an electric fan.

That the film’s thematic unity is likely to “communicate before it is understood” indicates the absurdity also of Truffaut’s erstwhile, and much admired, disdain of the well-constructed script. Probably most spectators find Bells Are Ringing a relaxed, even sprawling film, compared with, for example, Singing in the Rain, although that Comden-Green story is thematically the more diffuse. It answers to the underlying theme of friendship vs. show-business. The latter’s illusions are represented by things as diverse as the apparent vista which turns out to be a painted scene when Donald O‘Connor runs up it, the image of Cyd Charisse who switches from gangster’s moll to bridal white-and back again —and the film studio’s machinations and manipulations of sound. The dance-within-the-story might have been more pointedly apposite if Cyd Charisse had played—-not a gangster’s moll, responding as if hypnotized to his archaically-tossed gold coin, but —the actress whom Gene Kelly loves, and who prefers to him the money of the studio’s chief executive producer, and to whom he must, perforce, prefer Debbie Reynolds’ girl-next-door friendliness (which survives Hollywood as Judy Holliday survives New York). But Louis B. Mayer wouldn’t have liked that. And maybe American audiences, in 1952, would have been startled at the sudden assertion, a in a musical of all places, that corruption and immorality weren’t a monopoly of gangster milieux. Oh, those Hollywood gangsters, answering for so many respectable sins!

l’m not arguing that moral realism and/or tight structures are sine qua non of good movies - although I do suspect that The Band Wagon would be even better if the Jack Buchanan part were played by Orson Welles, whose style in screen megalomania is more dynamic, more American, and altogether better adjusted to the terms of the rest of the film. For an actor’s personality is as much part of the structure as the scriptwriter’s situation. It often happens that a film working with the grain of comfortable myths and ambiguities can work up a greater animal energy and emotional subtlety than a film which, without resorting to the counter-energy of scandal, as Wilder so brilliantly does, works against the grain, and so may jolt and fumble and, by trying to be tactful, seem awkward. In defending, Bells Are Ringing I am in effect defending another category of film—the film which, accepting all that is true in the conformist myth, nonetheless does so with an intelligence and sensitivity which reveal at least the outlines of those parts of reality against which the myth is braced. It may thus involve one emotionally as well as intellectually in a way which musicals have too rarely explored, and which critics have too often resented. R. D.


© Raymond Durgnat Estate (Kevin Gough-Yates)
http://www.raymonddurgnat.com/

Bells Are Ringing
1960, MGM, 127 minutes.
Director Vincente Minnelli
Producer Arthur Freed; screenplay and lyrics Adolph Green and Betty Comden, based on their book for the play; music Jule Styne; photography Milton Krasner; editor Adrienne Fazan.
CAST:
Judy Holliday as Ella Peterson; Dean Martin as Jeff Moss; Fred Clark as Larry Hastings; Eddie Foy, Jr. as Otto; Jean Stapleton as Sue; Bernie West as Dr. Kitchell; Dort Clarke as Detective Barner; Valerie Allen as Olga; Frank Gorshin as The Actor; Nancy Walters as The Actress; Fluth Storey as Gwenn.

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