May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
Show Boat . Although howls of alarm are likely to be raised by anyone who has ever sung the haunting tunes “OT Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” in the shower, it should finally be acknowledged that Show Boat by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern is the most overrated movie musical—twice ( three times if one counts an earlier, rarely seen version made in the twenties): both the clunky 1936 black-and-white version starring Irene Dunne (and featuring Paul Robeson) and the MGM Technicolor extravaganza released in 1951 with Kathryn Grayson and Ava Gardner (in a role that was promised to Lena Home). Show Boat may indeed have inaugurated the modern book musical, but it is loathsome in theme and spirit. In fact, it is impossible to watch today without wondering why no one defends, protects, or stands up for the beloved and beautiful Julie (the half-black woman) instead of allowing her to be driven off the boat by a Southern sheriff.
What rankles is not only the reprehensible morality of abandoning Julie to a questionable fate but the decidedly dopey plot turn the musical takes. The secondary theme of intermarriage between a white man and half-black woman is clearly more compelling than the silly morality tale of the caddish gambler who loses the charms of Lady Luck. At least in the 1930s version, there isn’t a happy ending. Not so in the 1950s version, in which Howard Keel manages to reform himself during the course of the final song (and it’s a reprise at that!).
Bells Are Ringing . This charming film adaptation of the Comden-Green Broadway musical features the delightful Judy Holliday (who starred in it on Broadway) as an adorably intrusive operator working at Susanswerphone, a small telephone answering company “on New York’s smart East Side,” and the surprisingly sweet Dean Martin as one half of a show-writing partnership who has been abandoned to his own creative devices. Depressed and consorting with beautiful, if distracting, women, he procrastinates writing his first solo show, unable to summon the discipline to work because he has grave doubts that he can create a hit on his own.
Sympathetic and certain they’ll never meet, Judy Holliday endeavors to aid him by posing as a grandmotherly type over the phone when he calls in for his messages. Giving him pep talks and advice, she actually maneuvers him to the typewriter. Would that all writers had such attentive and effective muses.
Bells Are Ringing is a meringue of a musical, yet still New York smart. It is very much of its early 1960s time period and pretends to nothing more. For all of that, for the terrific songs—“Just in Time,” “The Party’s Over”—and for one of the precious few filmed performances of the wonderful Judy Holliday, Bells Are Ringing deserves to be appreciated and applauded.