When Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Guys and Dolls (1955) had its world premiere the New York Post declared it to be “the top musical of this year or any year!” Indeed, time has done very little to diminish the contrived impressionist elegance and stylized acting tradition inherent in the original stage show, as lovingly – if not entirely – preserved for the motion picture camera. Produced on a grand scale by Samuel Goldwyn with his usual hallmark of impeccable showmanship, Guys and Dolls had its aegis in a short story by Damon Runyon, later fleshed out by Abe Burrows, Jo Swerling and Frank Loesser into a smash Broadway extravaganza.
Runyon’s characterization of the loveably low class, who speak in punctuated, ever so slightly backward English – presumably to confuse and confound the local law enforcement that is ever vigilant to expose their illegal activities – creates a patina of déclassé charm for these underworld reprobates; miraculously transformed into cuddly, warm hearted friendly folk who occasionally just happen to settle their differences at the point of a gun.
For Goldwyn, the film was a crowning artistic achievement in a career justly celebrated today as perhaps the greatest of all independent producers: no small feat during an era when Goldwyn – after being ousted from sharing in the profits of the newly amalgamated MGM in 1922 – went on to make such iconic masterpieces as Wuthering Heights, Ball of Fire, The Little Foxes, The Bishop’s Wife and, of course, The Best Years of Our Lives, to name but a handful. But Guys and Dolls was by far his most impassioned project; a grand and glorious, big time splashy musical extravaganza that had all the trappings to make it an even bigger success (but also quite possibly a garish failure) on the big screen.
Like all movie moguls of his ilk and time, Samuel Goldwyn was a gambling man; a necessary ingredient for making cinema art during Hollywood’s golden age. For Goldwyn, Guys and Dolls became a bittersweet success – undeniably asserting his eminence in an industry he thoroughly enjoyed, but putting a decided period to his great glories of the past. He could have done worse. Damon Runyon, who had toiled his whole life creating thinly veiled fiction of his own encounters with the ‘less than common folk’, had barely begun to see his vintage works translated into classic films throughout the 1930s and 40s before succumbing to throat cancer in 1944. As such Guys and Dolls – arguably the greatest of all his accomplishments – was a success he would never enjoy.
With the overwhelming triumph of Guys and Dolls it is easy to forget today that the original premise for the show as put forth by producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin was to make a morality ‘message’ musical from Runyon’s story, roughly cut out of the same artistic cloth as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific – then, the outstanding stage success. Yet this template did not suit the material at all, as Feuer and Martin quickly realized. After auditioning a slew of librettists, the producers abandoned their concept of writing a serious romance in favor of crafting a lighthearted musical comedy instead. The rest, as they say, is history.
In transforming the play into a movie Goldwyn spared no expense, outbidding MGM, Columbia and Paramount to produce it for a cool $1 million. Although Frank Sinatra aggressively campaigned to play the part of Sky Masterson – the elegant rake who seduces a wallflower missionary, only to be lured in by her innocence to reform his own ways – the role was never his for the asking. Goldwyn had hoped to cast Gene Kelly. But the old wounds with MGM remained fresh and the studio refused Goldwyn his loan out. Clark Gable and Robert Mitchum were then briefly considered, as was – ironically – Bing Crosby, before Goldwyn convinced Marlon Brando to accept the part.
Brando’s star had been on the ascendance with back to back success in The Men, A Streetcar Named Desire and his most impressive role to date, that of Marc Antony in Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar. But Brando, for all his bravado and difficulties as a personality on the set, was not altogether sure Masterson was for him. In fact, in accepting the part he sheepishly confessed his inadequacies to both Goldwyn and Mankiewicz about singing in the film. Undaunted, Goldwyn told Brando to be himself and thereafter hired a vocal coach who diligently worked to hone Brando’s voice for his performance. The results speak for themselves. Brando would never be a threat to either Crosby or Sinatra. And yet his half spoken, half sung interpretations of the Loesser score seem so right for the part. Rather than belting these tunes out of the park, Brando interprets them as a two bit thug and hustler might, with a naturalist’s integrity for the feel, instead of the flair, in the lyric.
Bitter at losing the part, Sinatra begrudgingly accepted the plum supporting role of Nathan Detroit, then went off and cut a single of ‘Luck Be A Lady’ – Brando’s signature tune in the film – that became an instant pop standard for him and a regular part of Sinatra’s later Vegas nightclub repertoire. Perhaps to compensate Sinatra for his loss, embellish the musical portion of the show and deflect the focus from Brando’s lack of innate musical ability, Goldwyn also commissioned Loesser to write two new songs for the show; ‘Pet Me Poppa’ and ‘Adelaide’ – the latter becoming a memorable showcase for Sinatra in the film’s last act.
Although there are structural differences between the stage show and movie, the plot is essentially the same. Gambler Nathan Detroit (Sinatra) is attempting to organize his next floating crap game somewhere in New York. But Lieutenant Brannigan (Robert Keith) has been keeping a watchful eye on Detroit’s activities and has all but successfully intimidated anyone from furnishing a spot for the action. Nathan’s faithful stooges, Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Stubby Kaye) and Benny Southstreet (Johnny Silver) inform him that the owner of the Biltmore garage wants a thousand dollars to take the risk; an unfair price, but one that needs to be met up front if Nathan’s plan is to succeed.
Nathan has even bigger problems with his fiancée, Miss Adelaide (Vivian Blaine); a simpleton showgirl who is threatening to end their fourteen year engagement unless Nathan gives up gambling and marries her. On the surface at least, Nathan agrees to Adelaide’s demands. But behind her back he sets into motion a plan to acquire the necessary funds to launch his next big fix. His trump card is Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando); a high stakes gambler who is willing to bet on virtually anything for a price. The bet Nathan comes up with involves prudish ‘Save The Soul Mission’ Sergeant Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons). Sky must get the sexually frigid Sarah to fly with him to Havana Cuba for an impromptu dinner engagement or pay $1000 to Nathan as the forfeit.
Sky accepts this bet without question and then suddenly realizes he’ll have to work considerably harder than he thought to convince Sarah that he loves her. Unable to lure Sarah to his side with charm, Sky pretends to admit that he is an awful sinner who is in desperate need of her reform. He is only partly successful in this approach, however, and next tells Sarah that if she agrees to accompany him to Havana he will guarantee her a dozen sinners for her mission which has had no success in convincing the downtrodden to join their order. Unable to find any legitimate fault with Sky’s proposal, Sarah accompanies him to Cuba where she quite easily loses her inhabitations and succumbs to Sky’s wily charm. But who is seducing who?
Meanwhile, confident that he has won the bet, Nathan gathers a who’s who of gamblers together, fronted by rough trade, Harry the Horse (Sheldon Leonard) and Big Jule (B.S. Pully) a hardcore Chicago mobster. Taking notice of this gathering, Benny masks their real intentions from Brannigan by informing him that Nathan and Adelaide have finally decided to tie the knot. Unable to finagle his way out of this declaration, Nathan plays along but later collapses when he notices that Sarah is not with her misson’s band.
Sky and Sarah return to New York blissfully in love. He confesses that initially the whole date was a bet, but she forgives him for his indiscretion then, because he is sincere toward her now. Unbeknownst to Sky, Nathan and the boys have used the mission’s back room for their crap game, the hoods now gathered inside for Brannigan’s sake to profess their reformation – thus keeping up Sky’s end of the deal to deliver sinners to the cause. But Sarah, believing that Sky knew about the game all along, feels she has been duped and breaks off with him then and there.
Sky, who has indeed been touched by Sarah’s goodness, decides to make restitution for his shortcomings. He confronts Nathan and the rest of the gamblers in the sewer they have transformed into their gambling hideaway. Lying to Nathan about having taken Sarah to Cuba, Sky pays Nathan $1000 on the spot – money that must go to cover his devastating loses against Big Jule. Sky then makes his boldest bet of all. He will roll the dice a single time. If he loses he will pay each gambler $1000. But if he wins, they must all march into the mission to attend one of Sarah’s prayer meetings.
Sarah is stunned when this entourage of notorious hoods come marching in, but ever the skeptic, she remains bitterly unconvinced of their contrition until Nicely-Nicely recalls a harrowing nightmare that supposedly caused him to reconsider the error of his ways. Later, Sarah learns from Nathan that he denied taking her to Cuba to preserve her reputation and she, realizes the chivalry in his gesture, rushes off to make up with Sky. The next day Time Square shuts down for the double wedding of Nathan and Adelaide and Sky and Sarah; the couples escorted to their respective love nests in a paddy wagon supplied by Lieutenant Brannigan with a full police escort.
Guys and Dolls remains an indestructible entertainment. Director Mankiewicz, who also co-wrote the script, has wisely chosen to retain the artifice in the exercise. The entire production is conceived inside sound stages with Joseph C. Wright’s ultra-stylized recreations of New York – beautifully photographed by Harry Stradling. These provide an impeccable backdrop that compliments the obviousness in Runyon’s dialogue. And then there are the performances; not a false one among them.
If he doesn’t entirely sing to perfection, then Brando certainly acts with an uncompromised conviction. Jean Simmons manages to sustain the tender balance of an emotionally repressed spinster who suddenly rediscovers her own heart in the love of this man. Sinatra is at the pinnacle of his powers – both vocally and from an acting standpoint – perfectly complimented by Vivian Blaine’s sympathetically comic turn as his ever devoted Miss Adelaide. The supporting cast all do their thing just fine, particularly Stubby Kaye who is given, and excels at the standout musical offering, ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat’, during the third act. In all, Guys and Dolls is an effervescent, tune-filled, full blown extravaganza that will undoubtedly continue to tickle and delight for many good years yet to come.
If this release is any indication, then Warner Home Video’s recent acquisition of the Goldwyn catalogue is welcome news indeed. After having to contend with lousy DVD transfers from Fox/MGM, this newly minted Blu-ray exhibits a robust Cinemascope image with eye-popping colors. Flesh tones lose their jaundice appeal and look very natural. Contrast is bang on. The image leaps ahead in fine detail with a good solid smattering of film grain naturally reproduced. The DTS 5.1 audio is a sonic revelation, recapturing the vintage stereo in all its six track supremacy with impeccable spatial separation and a hearty bass. Extras are the only disappointment herein. Warner has imported the brief featurettes on the making of the film and reflections on its impact that were a part of Fox/MGM’s DVD. We also get a theatrical trailer but precious little else. I’ve stated this before, but will again: that I could fault the studios for their lack of reinvestment in more extra content on vintage titles. But frankly, I’m so entirely pleased with the visual and sonic presentation of the film itself that I find it impossible to poo-poo the matter any further. Warner has packaged this glossy Goldwyn classic in an eye-catching shiny booklet that will surely delight. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)