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Sam Goldwyn's big production Guys and Dolls shows what happened when Broadway collided with Hollywood in the 1950s. The top-name casting promises a lively and memorable show, but Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser's musical underwent some odd changes on the way to the screen. Something's seriously out of kilter when non-singer Marlon Brando plays the romantic lead with the big love ballads, sticking the supremely talented crooner Frank Sinatra with the "character" novelty numbers. Bent out of shape to accommodate the stars, the film sags in the middle; the best scenes tend to be the numbers performed by New York originators Vivian Blaine and Stubby Kaye.
Guys and Dolls remains a fifties' musical favorite with both star power and a unique look. It isn't filmed on real exteriors like some of the Rogers and Hammerstein adaptations and its oddly stylized sets don't resemble MGM's musicals either. Despite the counterproductive casting choices, the superb orchestrations given the Frank Loesser score guarantee that the film will work anyway.
It made perfect box office sense for Sam Goldwyn to put Marlon Brando into Guys and Dolls, as the actor would deliver an audience curious to see how the actor would perform -- and sing -- in a big-scale musical. And Marlon is fine in the role from an acting point of view. He's magnetic, sexy and plays excellently opposite the exciting (and even sexier) Jean Simmons. Brando cheats his way through his songs, emoting to distract us from his dead-ear flat rendition of "I'll Know." It's little wonder that when he later played 'musical' types, as with his supposedly phenomenal folk singer in The Fugitive Kind, Brando confined his singing to mumbling his way through bits of music. This Sky Masterson is earnest and endearing when he sings to Sergeant Sarah Brown, but he sure can't carry a tune.
That leaves Frank Sinatra almost completely high and dry. Brando's Masterson and Sinatra's Nathan Detroit characters barely share more than one scene together so there isn't much chance for them to generate any chemistry. We wonder who in their right mind would allow Brando to choke his way through songs (like "Luck Be a Lady") that Frank could blow the roof off with.
Sinatra's Nathan Detroit character is supposed to be a very New York Jewish worry wart kind of guy, and in the play was given just one kooky comedy song, "Sue Me." Sinatra refuses to play Nathan as neurotic or Jewish. He's given the two other songs that Nathan Detroit could possibly sing, "The Oldest Established" and "Guys and Dolls" even though their optimism doesn't jibe with his character. With Sinatra belting them out, the original conception of Nathan Detroit changes from a nervous loser to ... a rather undefined secondary romantic lead.
It needs to be stressed that when Sinatra took on this role he was not yet a formidable Hollywood power broker. After a few more successes he'd always be the biggest force in his shows and would mostly appear in roles consistent with his "Ring-a-ding" persona. In Guys and Dolls Sinatra looks uncomfortable moping about while other actors are screen center. He's more or less out-classed by Brando and out-"cute-ed" by Vivian Blaine; He stands like a spear-carrier in the background of the giant dance scene. Sinatra did have the clout to demand a new song of his own, the classy "Adelaide." Sung in Sinatra's confident cabaret style, it's a beautiful tune that doesn't really belong in the mouth of the desperate Nathan Detroit.
As for Brando, several songs for Sky Masterson are dropped and appear only in instrumental underscore, especially Frank Loesser's Broadway-defining personal favorite "My Time of Day."
The rest of Guys and Dolls is delightful. The Damon Runyon Broadway fantasy with its loudly dressed sidewalk hustlers and stylized language has been a hit for fifty-five years. Jean Simmons danced and sang as a kid in English movies, and proves herself to be excellent musical material. Simmons has the grit to embody the predictably repressed Salvation Army leader. When she discovers passion in Havana, Simmons is almost too hot for the movie.
Vivian Blaine had been a non-starter in Hollywood ten years before when she was the lead in a lesser Laurel & Hardy picture. But she played Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls to such satisfaction on stage that it became her defining role. Goldwyn wisely retained her for his film version. Standard Hollywood procedure was to jettison stage actors for Hollywood stars, as with Gloria Grahame and Ado Annie in Oklahoma! If Blaine sometimes seems a bit too much for the movie, it's yet another side effect of Sinatra's casting. Nathan Detroit was originally a clownish sad sack of a gambling addict, not a philosophical smoothie. Adelaide's New York accent and hypochondriac whining are supposed to be a perfect match for him, but in the film she seems something of an endearing millstone around Nathan's neck ...
... Until she gets on stage, that is. Blaine is terrific in her songs at the burlesque nightclub. Goldwyn apparently just didn't "get" the barnyard song "Bushel and a Peck" -- a big radio hit -- and dropped it from the show. To replace it Loesser cooked up "Pet Me Poppa", a teasing kitty-kat themed number. It emphasizes a chorus of impossibly leggy dancers that could be handily promoted as a new group of "Goldwyn Girls."
Goldwyn also retained Nathan Detroit's sidewalk chorus of retainers, Stubby Kaye's Nicely Nicely Johnson and Johnny Silver's Benny Southstreet. The always-personable Kaye (Li'l Abner, Cat Ballou) has arguably the film's most arresting number all to himself, the fast-patter hymn "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat."
Sheldon Leonard gets the lion's share of the best Damon Runyon dialogue, reminding us that these are supposed to be lowlifes when he turns in his own father to finance his wagers. The original Big Jule, B.S. Pulley is an effective lug; we're told that he was a nightclub comic who did profane intros for strippers, like DeNiro's Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull.
Joseph L. Mankeiwicz adapted and directed, and fairly well, although some parts of the show seem slow after all the adjustments. The memorable dance staging is all by Michael Kidd, fresh from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Kidd originated the choreography on stage. When asked about his inventive Latin dances for the Havana sequence, Kidd immediately admitted that none of it was researched or authentic -- he just made it all up!
Mankiewicz adds a character, Veda Ann Borg's Laverne, to provide an extra voice to scoff at Nathan Detroit. A welcome supporting face is Mary Alan Hokanson as the second-string Salvation Army member, Agatha. Fantastic film fans will remember her immediately as the teary-eyed Mrs. Lodge from the previous year's Them!
MGM / Sony's Deluxe Edition DVD of Guys and Dolls is a vast improvement over MGM's previous no-frills disc, which on large monitors looked like Venetian Blinds - The Movie. This enhanced widescreen image is bright and the colors stable -- the picture has a lot of saturated reds. The audio is a choice of a new 5.1 mix and an original 3.0, with French and Spanish tracks as well. With 149 minutes of feature and 50 minutes of extras on one disc, we're glad that the encoding isn't compromised. 1
Extras include a stills gallery and a direct-access menu to some of the film's songs, but the show itself is given a stingy 12 chapters. The heavy package includes a fat, glossy "Deluxe Edition Scrapbook" containing production notes, stills, and the reorganized contents of the original premiere booklet. Note that at least one original advertising style uses the same "Goldwyn" typeface familiar from pictures as old as The Little Foxes and The Best Years of Our Lives.
A pair of making-of featurettes divides the show up into its stage roots and the Hollywood production, with new interviews from Sam Goldwyn Jr., Tom Mankiewicz, Michael Kidd, Frank Loesser's widow, son and daughter and Goldwyn author and authority A. Scott Berg. It makes use of a great number of behind-the-scenes photos from the Goldwyn collection.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Guys and Dolls rates: