Based on the successful 1956 Broadway production of the same name by Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Jule Styne, the film focuses on Ella Peterson, who works in the basement office of Susanswerphone, a telephone answering service.
Peterson, based on Mary Printz, who worked at Green's service, listens in on others' lives and adds some interest to her own humdrum existence by adopting different identities for her clients. They include an out-of-work Method actor, a dentist with musical yearnings, and in particular playwright Jeffrey Moss, who is suffering from writer's block and desperately needs a muse.
Adding complications to the plot are the police, who are certain the business is a front for an "escort service," and the owner's shady boyfriend, who unbeknownst to her is using the agency as a bookmaking operation.
Ella Peterson works as a switchboard operator at the Susanswerphone answering service. She can't help breaking the rules by becoming overly involved in the lives of the subscribers. Some of the more peculiar ones include a dentist who composes songs on an air hose, an actor who emulates Marlon Brando, and a little boy for whom she pretends to be Santa Claus.
Ella has a secret crush on the voice of subscriber Jeffrey Moss, a playwright for whom she plays a comforting "Mom" character. She finally meets him face to face, when she brings him a message under a false name (Melisande Scott) and romantic sparks and some confusion begin.
A humorous subplot involves the courtly Otto, who convinces Susanswerphone to take orders for his "mail-order classical record business". Unfortunately, Otto is actually a bookie whose orders are a system for betting on horses. Unwittingly, Ella changes some of the "orders" not realizing she is changing "bets".
Although the police begin to assume that Susanswerphone might be a front for an escort service, the plot ends happily, with Jeff proposing, and her wacky subscribers coming to thank her.
- Judy Holliday as Ella Peterson/Melisande Scott/"Mom"
- Dean Martin as Jeffrey Moss
- Fred Clark as Larry Hastings
- Eddie Foy Jr. as J. Otto Prantz
- Jean Stapleton as Sue
- Ruth Storey as Gwynne
- Dort Clark as Inspector Barnes
- Frank Gorshin as Blake Barton
- Ralph Roberts as Francis
- Valerie Allen as Olga
- Bernard West as Dr. Joe Kitchell, DDS
- Gerry Mulligan as Ella's Blind Date
- Hal Linden as "Midas Touch" Singer
- Doria Avila as Carl
- Mae Questel Voice of boy talking to Santa Claus
Judy Holliday and Jean Stapleton reprised their stage roles for the film. Dean Martin took over the male leading role, and the cast also included Eddie Foy Jr., Fred Clark, Frank Gorshin, Bernie West, Hal Linden, and Gerry Mulligan.
Bells Are Ringing was the final musical produced by MGM's 'Freed Unit', headed by producer Arthur Freed, which had been responsible for many of the studio's greatest successes, including Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris and Gigi. The film also proved to be Holliday's last big screen appearance.
Several songs from the Broadway production were dropped or replaced. These include, "Salzburg", "Hello, Hello There", "On My Own" (replaced by "Do It Yourself"), "Long Before I Knew You" (replaced by "Better Than a Dream"), "Mu Cha Cha" (filmed but shortened) and "Is it A Crime?" (filmed, but cut before release). A new song for Dean Martin, "My Guiding Star" was also filmed but cut. The latter two songs have been released as extras on the Warner Home Video DVD.
The soundtrack album was released on Capitol Records.
Comden and Green won the Writers Guild of America award for Best American Musical. Together with Styne, they shared a Grammy Award nomination for Best Soundtrack Album or Recording of Original Cast from a Motion Picture or TV. Minnelli earned a nomination from the Directors Guild of America. André Previn was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture. There were Golden Globe nominations for Holliday's performance and for Best Motion Picture - Musical.
Holliday was already ill when she made the film. Her boyfriend, jazz musician Gerry Mulligan, had a small part in the film as a bumbling blind date; he remained with her through her final years as she died from cancer.
According to MGM records the film earned $2,825,000 in the US and Canada but only $800,000 elsewhere and wound up losing $1,720,000.
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- US and Canada figures see "Rental Potentials of 1960", Variety, 4 January 1961 p 47.
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- Robert Osborne, Turner Classic Movies
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