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Bells are Ringing at Black Rock

MGM’s 1960 musical “Bells Are Ringing”--adapted from the 1956 Broadway show of the same name--is a swan song for a number of reasons. It was the final musical produced by the legendary Arthur Freed for MGM, and the last musical its director, Vincente Minnelli, made for the studio. As well, it was the final film to star Judy Holiday, just a few years before her death from breast cancer.

Holiday reprises her Tony winning stage role, which was written for her. Holiday plays Ella, a young and vibrant switchboard operator at Susanswerphone, a telephone answering service. Ella takes her role seriously and takes a lot of the problems of Susanswerphone’s clients to heart. She pretends to be Santa Claus for a mother’s son, and she becomes adamant on finding ways to help her clients best. 

Ella has fallen for one of the voices that comes through her headset, a struggling playwright (Dean Martin) who has a sever case of writer’s block after breaking it off with his longtime writing partner. Martin’s character knowns only of Ella on the phone as “mom,” and “mom” decided to show up to his home one day when he’s on the last hour of the last minute of the last day of his last chance with a big shot Broadway producer.

Complications ensue when Ella gets her playwright hooked up with other clients, a songwriting dentist, and a Brando wannabe played by Frank Gorshin (in a role that reminds us of how much talent the man had, outside of his immortal role as The Riddler on “Batman.”). Plus there’s a set of police officers who are convinced that Susanswerphone is a front for an escort service. The talent behind “Bells are Ringing” collectively are responsible for some of the most landmark musicals to have ever come out of Hollywood. Though “Bells are Ringing” doesn’t quite hit the same marks, it’s a delightfully charming film that could brighten up any cloudy day. 

Making its blu-ray debut from Warner Archive, “Bells are Ringing” looks absolutely fantastic. Shot in CinemaScope, this is one of the best looking HD transfers of a CinemaScope film I’ve seen. Some CinemaScope films suffer from what fans call “mumps,” distortions in the image due to the limitation of the lenses that were created to shoot in the process. You don’t see many, if any “mumps” in the 1080p image, with bright, vibrant color and a fine, natural grain pattern that looks yards beyond the DVD that came out 12 years ago--which is how I first saw the film. 

As is the norm for many CinemaScope films “Bells Are Ringing” was released with a 4-track Stereo soundtrack, this has been recreated here as a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Simply put, it sounds amazing. Clear, loud, and open. You’d be hardpressed to think this mix was made from elements produced some 57 years ago. The extras from the 2005 DVD are ported over. This includes the trailer, a featurette on the film, and an alternate take of one song from the film, and two musical numbers that were cut from the final print. A real charmer of a film that comes most recommended. 

Another CinemaScope film that’s come to blu-ray for the first time is Director John Sturges’s 1955 hybrid Western/Noir “Bad Day at Black Rock.” Two time OSCAR winner Spencer Tracy stars, in a role that would give him another nomination for Best Actor. Supporting Tracy is an incredible cast featuring Robert Ryan, Walter Brennan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, and the great Anne Francis. 

Set shortly after the end of World War II, Tracy plays a veteran named Macready who keeps to himself after stopping off at the small desert town of Black Rock--the first time the train has stopped at Black Rock in four years. Macready stays mostly silent on why he’s stopped in the town, but he finds he’s received coldly by almost everyone. It’s clear from the get go that Macready is there for a reason, and that the town’s populus is scared to death about it. Black Rock harbors a dark secret, and the town folk are desperate to keep it from getting out. I won’t spoil anything for you, but let’s just say there are elements to “Bad Day at Black Rock” that are sadly still relevant. 

“Black Rock” is an incredible film that has been given a solid blu-ray presentation from Warner Archive. The picture is of the their usual high standards, sharp, with solid colors. A little more grain, but it fits the film and isn’t out of the ordinary with CinemaScope titles of the era. The 4-track elements to the soundtrack of “Black Rock” may not exist anymore, but the blu-ray has a very well made DTS-HD 2.0 Stereo mix. Extras ported over from the DVD release include a trailer, and a commentary track by historian Dana Polan. A must see. 

Both of these excellent blu-ray titles would be right at home in any film fan’s library. For what is essentially a boutique label set within the confines of a major motion picture studio, Warner Archive has set standards that are both applaudable and enviable. I’d be shocked to see them ship something that looks bad, they are truly doing the film fan favors of the highest order.


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