Frank 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.
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’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.