I'm a fan of musicals, but they need to be more than mere tales spun by musical notes. There needs to be some passion in the storytelling, or at least a charismatic cast that makes the production worthwhile. Nowadays, the plot is pushed aside in order to make way for spectacle. In recent years alone, we've seen Broadway iterations of Green Day's American Idiot, Spider-Man, Bring It On and even The Evil Dead. Don't get me wrong - Many of the above mentioned shows have decent tunes, but when tickets cost more than $100 a pop, who wants to settle for mere novelty? Thankfully, the last 12 months in Blu-ray have been kind to us in regards to the genre, as we've seen the likes of West Side Story, Little Shop of Horrors, Singin' in the Rain, Annie, and Babes in Toyland is making its way just in time for Christmas. It's a diverse group of films for sure, made even more impressive by their respective range of age. A good musical is one thing, but to withstand the test of time is a different tune altogether, but one of the most beloved genre efforts of all time is 1955's Guys and Dolls. It's been a long wait, but Warner Bros. has finally delivered this classic in high-def, and in a gorgeously designed digibook you're definitely going to want to sing about.
Of course, Guys and Dolls wasn't an original production on the big screen. No, it premiered on Broadway just five years before and was lavished with rave reviews by critics and playgoers alike. We follow the story of two main characters, the first of which being Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra), known for running the best floating crap game in town. It's a profitable gig as long as he isn't caught by the police, but the boys in blue have been locking down any and all venues that are known to play host to illegal gambling. So, Nathan scrambles about until he finds a new place, but the front requires a grand before they'll allow any secretive funny business in their establishment. Unfortunately, Nathan doesn't have a thousand bucks laying around, so he attempts to lure Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) into lending him the dough. At first he strikes out, so he exploits Nathan's reputation of never being able to say no to a wager, so he bets that Sky can't take a girl of Nathan's choice to dinner in Cuba. Sky accepts the bet of course, and Nathan plays a hand he's certain he can't lose - The girl is Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons), a local Salvation Army volunteer that vows to only fall in love with a man who isn't crooked. Sky works his way into the girls heart, and she into his, but that's where the drama truly begins - What happens if Sarah finds out this whole thing started because of a bet? A bet to fund a crap game no less? Not that Sky is the only one with woman trouble - Nathan's been seeing Miss Adelaide (Vivian Blaine), a showgirl who has just about had it with Nathan's run-around. He's hopelessly devoted to his crap games and has resisted the idea of marriage for far too long. Will this couple, unlikely to last, finally make it down the aisle?
The trickiest task in front of any musical is to appeal to everyone, and that's exactly what Guys and Dolls has done for 56 years (longer, if we include the original Broadway show), as there's truly something for everyone. The excitement of the plot comes from darting the law for the sake of high stakes gambling, and when it comes to such a scene, the casting of Frank Sinatra couldn't have been more opportune. If there was any figure at the time that symbolized the late night, smoke filled game room scene, it was him, and it certainly didn't hurt that the crooner's voice was already beloved by all. The elements of romance and drama are brought together by the story of two hopeful couples. Granted, these plot points aren't very original - not today, nor when the show opened on Broadway - but if the moving parts were too complex or pandered to a specific audience, it surely would have failed like so many productions conceived (willingly or unknowingly) for a niche market. Instead, Nathan and Sky's story is wisely paced and hits all the right notes. Certain 'macho men' will have fun watching Nathan and Sky, independent men of the night, contemplate how their friends have all been domesticated for the worst, whereas other men in the audience will take satisfaction seeing those womanizing stereotypes come undone. Women will take great joy in this as well, but they'll likely enjoy the journey from 'rough and tough' to 'gentle softie' more than anything else.
As far as the music is concerned, it's definitely a product of its time - both in context and style - what with the likes of Luck Be a Lady, The Oldest Established and, of course, the title song itself. The production is soaking in swing, which also goes a long way in providing an experience everyone can enjoy, and not just in the 1950's. No, Sinatra was considered tops at the time and his legacy has earned him the status of legend, so it's really no wonder why the music in Guys and Dolls feels just as fresh today as it did over half a century ago. But, none of this comes as a surprise to anyone. What did come as a surprise was the filmmaker's decision to use Marlon Brando as the leading man in a musical. The acclaimed actor was already well recognized for his roles in A Streetcar Named Desire, The Wild One and On the Waterfront, but nobody expected him to ever attempt (let alone be any good in) a film loaded with musical numbers. Tackle a musical he did though, and his presence in the film is, at least for me, a breath of fresh air. His singing is respectable despite not coming anywhere near Broadway standards (well above-average, with that being said), but his unpolished musical experience lends the character a bit of unexpected realism. When Brando acts as a man dabbling in organized crime, he's believable (insert random Godfather reference here), yet when he needs to tone things down and be a gentle creature living in a gray area where love can be just as permitted, he's just as effective.
The only thing I can really criticize this film for, is leaving out the wonderful number, A Bushel and a Peck. Five total tracks were left out with three new ones in their place, most likely to better suit the Hollywood adaptation, but my favorite, A Bushel and a Peck, was left out of the theatrical mix. I can see why such changes were made though, as the film as it is comes to 2 and a half hours, and I'm mostly satisfied with the final product and how each number effectively furthers the plot, or at the very least provides more background info. Some critics and even the creator of Guys and Dolls, Frank Loesser, have complained that Sinatra wasn't the right fit for Nathan Detroit, but I can't agree with their assessment. All in all, Guys and Dolls is still one of the most captivating Hollywood musicals I've ever seen, and it's proved over the decades that its appeal isn't likely to fade in the near, or even distant future. If you've seen this film before, you already know this to be true. As I said at the beginning of my review - A story should ideally have passion driving it, and a cast that's even more passionate about presenting it. Even if you don't consider yourself the 'musical' type, I highly recommend setting that bias aside and giving Guys and Dolls a try anyway. It delivers on both story and cast, and the music is just as toe-tap catchy as it was years ago. This is one of the most diversely accepted musicals of all time, and you owe it to yourself to find out why.
Guys and Dolls croons its way onto Blu-ray with a 1080p, AVC encoded transfer (2.55:1), and although it has some minor issues to note, it's definitely something to sing about. Sharpness, clarity and color saturation have been improved upon greatly, although skin tones have a tendency to look a little unnatural at times, looking a little closer to brown than they should. A full blown restoration probably would have made things look considerably more natural as opposed to the 'aged film' look that's going on, but I respect the studio for not doing anything to further degrade the picture quality. There doesn't appear to be any digital noise reduction, as film grain is consistently present and detail stands out as much as the film source allows (which is still somewhat softer than some other films on Blu from that era). Artifacts and banding never seem to enter the equation, and there doesn't appear to be any edge enhancement lingering about to artificially sharpen things. The only complaint to be made is that black levels can be a little too dark in some of the dimmer scenes, so black clothing can, at times, mix into the shadows. Still, this is the most impressive version of Guys to Dolls on home video to date, and the issues are minor enough that they're not likely to cause an uproar on the internet. This is a solid, unhampered release and any musical fan should be proud to display this in their home theater.
As expected, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track proves to be leaps and bounds better than its SD predecessor. Dialogue is crisp and clear, but the orchestra is the true star of the sound design. The track isn't as dynamic as what we're used to and the rear channels don't do much in the way of providing an enveloping experience with sound effects, but that's to be expected. The only real problem I noticed are some minor sync issues from time to time, but it's hard to decide if it's a genuine sync issue on the disc or if this was due to some sort of production error. All in all, it's easy enough to overlook and doesn't ruin an otherwise excellent experience with one of the best Hollywood musicals of all time.
This release comes in a gorgeous digibook that has a blue shine coating the entire backdrop. This 41 page book contains information on all the major players, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, producer Samuel Goldwyn, as well as information on how the production was refitted for Hollywood. There's also a great deal of behind-the-scenes info, too.
-The Goldwyn Touch - This featurette gives us a good amount of background info about the musical, offering interview clips with members from Frank Loesser's family, as well as Samuel Goldwyn Jr..
-From Stage to Screen - The focus here is mainly about the transition made from Broadway to the big-screen.
-More Guys and Dolls Stories - Adelaide / Brando Dance Lesson / Goldwyn's Career / On the Set / Rehearsing Adelaide - All of these are short mini-featurettes, with various people briefly discussing the subject of each supplement. Although these pieces are short, there's some decent info contained within - One of the songs for the film were written specifically for Sinatra, we get some insight on how Brando learned to dance for the film, and more.
-Musical Performances - Fugue for Tinhorns / I'll Know / Guys and Dolls / Adelaide / Luck Be a Lady / Sue Me - Basically serves as a direct access menu for the songs in the film.
Guys and Dolls is a classic Hollywood musical in every perceivable way. It stuns with both its cast and a story that's romantic and dramatic, and although there's plenty of moving parts to consider in the 2 and a half hour runtime, things are kept simple enough as to not make the experience feel taxing. No, Guys and Dolls is pure entertainment through and through, and it's one of those rare films that truly offers something for everyone. Warner Bros. have given this film the treatment it deserves, with a huge boost in the A/V department, although the supplements feel somewhat outdated. Still, the decision to give this release a classy digibook design is a nice touch that's likely to entice the collector in most everyone. Highly Recommended.
The audio should have a solid 3.5, but the minor sync issues, as infrequent and non-bothersome as they might be, deserve to be reflectedin the score.