Guys and Dolls (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1955)

Guys and Dolls 2Frank Loesser’s amazing score for Guys and Dolls has to be one of the greatest ever written, packed with unforgettable songs, from Fugue for Tinhorns to Luck, Be a Lady and Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat. Michael Kidd’s fast-moving choreography in the colourful street scenes, using Cinemascope to its full effect, adds to the atmosphere, while the dialogue is full of sharp one-liners. However, the film has had much adverse criticism over the years.

So what’s the reason for the widespread lack of enthusiasm? I think it might be mainly that the stage musical is so beloved and frequently revived, with the film coming off second-best by comparison . As with so many adaptations, a few of the songs from the stage show were jettisoned for the film, including such greats as I’ve Never Been in Love Before – Marlon Brando, controversially cast in a singing role, is said to have struggled with some of the notes. However, as compensation, Loesser wrote some new songs for the film, including A Woman in Love for Brando and Sinatra’s show-stopper Adelaide, which, going full circle, is now sometimes included in stage productions.

Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando

Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando

The musical is based on Damon Runyon’s early 1930s short stories and set in the back alleys of New York, among the gamblers, drinkers, small-time gangsters and dancing girls. In short, it is the world of a Warner Brothers pre-Code – but updated and turned into a 1950s musical spectacular. A wealth of minor characters, such as Harry the Horse, hapless gangster Big Jule, and, especially, Nicely Nicely Johnson (Stubby Kaye, who also starred in the original Broadway production), add to the street-smart atmosphere.

For anyone who doesn’t know the story, Sky Masterson, a professional gambler, is tricked into wooing Sergeant Sarah Brown of the Save a Soul Mission for a bet. He has to persuade her to go on a date to Havana. Meanwhile, Nathan Detroit, cash-strapped owner of “the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York”, has been engaged to singer/stripper Miss Adelaide for 14 years… but doesn’t want to set the wedding date just yet.

Gene Kelly was initially tipped to play the lead role of Sky, and, according to the Rough Guide to Film Musicals, once commented: “I was born to play Sky the way Gable was born to play Rhett Butler, but the bastards at MGM refused to loan me out.” (Ironically, MGM eventually distributed the movie, made by the Samuel Goldwyn Company.) When Kelly wasn’t made available, in the end the part went to Brando, hottest star of the moment. Talk about a long shot. He is said to have struggled with the singing and dancing, and some of his vocal performances had to be cobbled together from various takes – but he brings his trademark intensity to the role in the acting sequences. While he is clearly no Sinatra, I also rather like his singing voice, and the moment when he joins in with Jean Simmons, as Sarah, on I’ll Know,never fails to send shivers down my spine. Simmons, too, was known as a dramatic actress rather than a singer, but both she and Brando do their own singing throughout rather than being dubbed, and this means they can carry their acting characterisations over into the songs.

Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine

Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine

Frank Sinatra’s performance in this film is sometimes criticised, with claims that he is “dull” or “half-hearted” .  I can’t agree. He does seem slightly weary, and if anything looks older than his 40 years – but, surely, this is part of the character of Nathan, who has been knocking around those streets all his life and is still penniless. Sinatra (who was himself in the running to play Sky at one point) also has some great songs, performed as only he can, with Adelaide and Sue Me as highlights. However, my favourite performance is possibly given by Vivian Blaine, who also took the role of Miss Adelaide in the original Broadway production. Her character has some of the funniest musical numbers, including Take Back Your Mink and, of course, Adelaide’s Lament, her song about how her constantly-delayed wedding has left her with a permanent cold in the head. I do slightly regret that this song is performed in her dressing room, instead of getting the full stage treatment from Michael Kidd – but it’s still comic gold.

Here’s a clip of Brando singing Luck be a Lady – plus a live performance by Sinatra of the same song to compare. Not surprisingly, Frank wins hands down, in my book anyway. I hoped also to find Gene Kelly singing the same number, but haven’t had any luck on that so am not sure if he ever recorded it.

Just to add that there are several different DVDs available. I have a region 2 release included in a box set of great musicals, which is basically a bare-bones DVD except for the long original theatrical trailer, which is almost a featurette. There is also a region 1 “deluxe” edition, including a booklet and two documentaries and there has also been a region 1 blu-ray release – I’d be interested to hear what anyone who has either of these thinks of the quality of the print and the extras included.

This review first appeared as part of the musical countdown at the Wonders in the Dark website.

Guys and Dolls 6

Sinatra and Blaine

Guys and Dolls 7

Brando and Simmons

Guys and Dolls 4

Brando rolls the dice

Guys and Dolls 3

Brando and Simmons having a drink in Havana

10 thoughts on “Guys and Dolls (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1955)

  1. John Greco

    Judy, a marvelous review. While I would have preferred someone other than Brando in this role, the film itself is a fun musical with, as you mention, one of the greatest scores. Both Stubby kaye and Vivian Blaine are excellent and I like a lot Sinatra in the role of Nathan Detroit. Jean Simmons is also very good. I was fortunate enought to see a Broadway revival back in the 1990′s with Jamie Farr, of MASH TV fame, as Nathan Detroit. He took over the role from Nathan Lane. Enjoyed reading this!

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thanks very much, John – I’ve become more of a Sinatra fan since originally writing this review, so I like his performance as Nathan Detroit even more than I did to start with. I do quite like Brando in the role of Sky but wonder what Gene Kelly or Sinatra would have done with it… but then if it had been Sinatra who would have played Nathan? I also saw a revival in the West End a few years back with Ewan McGregor as Sky and he has a perfect voice for the part.

  2. Sam Juliano

    Judy, I was one who always thought Brando was miscast, but still imparted on the role that trademark “intensity” you point out. Your case for Sinatra is sound enough, methinks, and you do a great job explaining why the film has alienated some because of the vaunted reputation of the stage musical. Your definitive high regard for Loesser’s celebrated score is of course at the center of your high regard for the film (and the stage work before it). In assessing any musical film I have always felt it’s an essential ingredient.

    Point is that “Guys and Dolls” is an acquired taste for some, while others have long extolled its resounding virtues. I greatly enjoyed your informative and passionate take! Terrific screen caps!

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Sam, I do agree that Brando wasn’t the best casting, but I still think he does a great job on the acting side and gets away with the singing! I love this musical both on stage and on screen largely because of the great score, which, as you say, is essential to any musical. Thanks for all your support!

    1. Judy Post author

      Thanks, Silver! I’m increasingly getting to be a big Sinatra fan, and do love Blaine in this too – not sure if I have seen her in anything else. I do like Brando but there are quite a few of his films that I still need to see.

  3. ellenandjim

    I see I’ve been missing out and must catch up. I really enjoyed this one — like Cagney Brando had many talents. And I do find him irresistible. Ellen

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thanks very much, Ellen. I do like Brando too, especially in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘On the Waterfront’, but I would like to see more of his lesser-known films.

  4. Rod Croft

    A “complete” soundtrack recording of the film “Guys and Dolls” was never released, as Sinatra’s contract with Capitol prevented his participation.

    Sinatra called upon the talents of Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Dinah Shore, Debbie Reynolds, Sammy Davis Jnr. among other popular artists of the day, to join him in a “Reprise Repertory Theatre” C.D. production of the musical – “Reprise” being Sinatra’s own recording company. Billy May, Nelson Riddle, Jerry Fielding and others handled the arrangements and the Orchestra was conducted by Morris Stoloff.

    It is on this C.D. that Sinatra is free to bring his own interpretations to the songs from “Guys and Dolls” and he “swings” it . “Luck Be A Lady” arranged by Billy May runs for 5.14 mins. and is a standout.

    I enjoyed reading your comments on this film.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Rod, thanks for that information about the soundtrack, which is very interesting. A shame that Sinatra’s contract stopped the release of a soundtrack album at the time, but I will definitely aim to find and listen to the Reprise recording – it sounds like a fantastic vocal cast together with those great musical arrangers.

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