Guys And Dolls

US (1955) Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz

In the 1930’s it was “Garbo Talks!”; it the 1950’s it was “Brando Sings!” Well, not quite but it did make some wonder if the hottest box office star of the period known for his brooding, naturalistic anti-hero roles in films such as On The Waterfront could carry a tune or show the requisite flair for a musical.

As it transpired Brando underwent stringent training in order to fulfil the musical duties of his role in this film adaptation of the classic Broadway show, based on two short stories by Damon Runyon. Some of the cast and crew from the stage show duplicated their roles here, with the bonus of some Hollywood heavy hitters heading the cast, including the Chairman of the Board himself.

Set in New York the central story revolves around the antics of gambler Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra), whose infamy with the authorities for his illegal crap games has seen his ability to host a game reduced to almost zero. There is one option open to him but the owner of the premises wants $1000 upfront in cash – but Nathan is broke and time is running out.

Luckily another renowned gambler Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) is in town, and he cannot resist a bet, mostly because he tends to win. Nathan tricks Sky into making a bet of $1000 that Sky can’t persuade uptight and pious Save-A-Soul leader Sister Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) to join him on a trip to Havana. What happens over the next few days has a profound effect on everyone.

The “date a girl for a bet” plotline has been a staple scenario in films and theatre since the beginning but here it has been neatly adapted to fit in with the dubious world of gambling than to massage the male ego. Under scrutiny through modern eyes this won’t make it any better, nor will women being referred to as “dolls”, but in context they are the key to redemption.

Similarly the virtuous opprobrium of the Bible towards the sin of gambling is applied in a way that allows it to cast its shadow over the proceedings without being antagonistic or interfering. The relationship between Sky and Sarah sees to that, blurring the lines between saints and sinners with the application of intelligence to their discussions.

And that is one thing that makes  this unique for a musical, it’s heavy on dialogue and while many of the songs, some genuine classics like Luck Be A Lady Tonight, do further the plot or act as exposition, the script is sharp as a tack. Runyon’s writing acutely mimics the speech patterns and rhythms of the Noo York hoodlums which have since become the blueprint for the totem “gangster” character.

The actual gambling only takes place in the final act, the main focus staying with Nathan trying to secure the premises. In the meantime he is pushing his luck with his patient fiancée of 14 years Miss Adelaide (Vivian Blaine), a nightclub singer who wants Nathan to settle down and go legit. While he makes the promise to Adelaide’s face, he breaks it the moment her back is turned.  

When a mobster from Chicago, Big Jule (B.S. Pully), arrives in town to gamble with Nathan the pressure is on to expediate the game, but Nathan is still waiting for Sky to lose his bet – which, if you hadn’t guessed, isn’t looking likely of happening. In a backfire move police Lieutenant Brannigan (Robert Keith) thinks he has caught Nathan in the act so Nathan makes a fake announcement that he is in fact celebrating his getting married. Adelaide is overjoyed at this news, but Nathan hasn’t the heart to put her straight.

That’s the basic outline of the story for the uninitiated reading while the rest of you will know that is the half of it. As blasphemous as this sounds the script alone is good enough to warrant attention without the song and dance numbers, and would probably be lot shorter too; at almost 2 ½ hours long – and with five songs from the stage show dropped here – this does go on a bit.

But it is a product of its time and despite this it is high quality entertainment and you certainly get your money’s worth with this presentation. The visuals are unique in that producer Samuel Goldwyn and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz have pretty much replicates the stage setting, with the obvious painted backdrops and sound stages, yet the camerawork gives it that tangible sense of motion and scope a stage cannot.

As mentioned earlier many members of the Broadway show reprised their roles here, including Vivian Blaine as Adelaide, who comes across as if she could legit put Sinatra in his place, and Stubby Kaye as Nathan’s rotund sidekick Nicely-Nicely Johnson. Presumably intended to hide the musical shortcomings of the non-musical actors, they give the film the ebullience it needs.

Casting was a huge problem for this film. Sinatra wanted to play Sky but Goldwyn wanted Gene Kelly, who MGM refused to loan to him; ironically it was MGM that eventually released the film! As Brando was the top box office draw and Sinatra was fading, the roles were cast as we see them, with Sinatra not happy about it, although this film would revive Sinatra’s box office appeal.

Both Brando and Jean Simmons did their own singing and dancing, acquitting themselves well but it is their characterisations that stand out, Brando in particular as his essaying of Sky is seen in every mobster on screen today. It may have been a bold move for Brando to star in a musical but it certainly paid off.  

Whilst I remain staunchly behind Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and West Side Story as the best ever musicals, I can see the popularity of Guys And Dolls. A bit long but superbly written, smartly constructed, bristling with energy and above all, huge fun.