Friday, November 17, 2023

Guys and Dolls

Guys and Dolls (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1955) I'm not a big fan of musicals, although there are musicals I'm quite fond of. It's the form that bothers me—the interruption of narrative flow for a serviceable song that may or may not have anything to do with what came before or after it. If it's an operetta, sure, I can go with that if everything is mostly sung, anyway. If the musical involves the musical field, breaking into song is a natural extension. I admit it's a small-minded prejudice and, despite my grumpy attitude, it isn't absolute—I admire things that are exceptions to the caveats. Hey, nobody's perfect. And when I lean away from my prejudices, it's usually because a song is so musically magical or the lyrics so damned clever that they would be sorely missed if they were taken away. Plus, there are musicals that elevate the inherent emotion with song in ways that merely dialog, however well-written, could not achieve. So, my collection of cherished musicals is sparse, with subject matter all over the map and in different formats, animated and live-action. They thrill me, rather than having me carp through a song: "Get on with it..."
"Guys and Dolls" is one of those exceptions. Based on two Damon Runyon stories—"The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown" and "Blood Pressure", it was a Broadway "smash" when it debuted in 1950 (directed by George S. Kauffman!), with a book by screenwriter Jo Swerling, which was rewritten by Abe Burrows, with songs (composed between the two drafts) by Frank Loesser. The later script had to merge into the songs from the earlier draft, which causes a little bit of a fracas here and there, but it makes for an entertaining and charming evening. 
So, you'd think when the movie adaptation came along, after 1,200 Broadway performances and 555 in London, everything would be on the square and level. But, the movie adaptation, produced by the Samuel Goldwyn Company, compounded issues by dropping songs—some of them ("A Bushel and a Peck,""Marry the Man Today,""More I Cannot Wish You," and "My Time of Day") already made very famous by the Broadway run—and then added three new accommodate the casting, which was done with an eye toward box office returns, rather than production logic. More on that later, but first give us to introduce personae dramatis:
The story revolves illegal betting in New York City. One of the high rollers is one Nathan Detroit (played in the film by Frank Sinatra), who, through his connections, runs a necessarily "floating" crap game from many locations throughout the city. But, due to the efforts of the local police constabulary, Nathan Detroit, one particular night, cannot get one of his usual locales to provide the hosting duties for the evening's festivities. The Biltmore Garage might do it...but with the first presenting of a security deposit of one thousand clams. This, Nathan Detroit does not have.
But, he happens upon another high roller in the well-tailored form of Mr. Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando), who is a good bet to never turn down any bet. Nathan Detroit then wagers with Mr. Sky Masterson that he cannot convince any woman of his choosing to go to a romantic dinner in Havana, Cuba. To Masterson, this is a cinch of the lead-pipe variety. Until, of course, Detroit chooses Sergeant Miss Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) of the "Save a Soul" Mission. For Masterson, this is akin to drawing a Nothing card hand, or rolling Snake Eyes.
The film then follows Masterson's efforts to win the bet, thus saving himself a thousand G's, and Detroit's efforts to secure a hospitable roost for the Big Game in the happenstance that he should be the loser of the bet. Oh...and to further put-off his fiancee of fourteen years, Adelaide (Vivian Blaine—the only hold-over lead star from Broadway*), a nightclub dancer at the Hot Box Club.
Goldwyn was thinking Gene Kelly for the role of the smooth Masterson, who is the romantic lead role and has quite a few songs to sing, but Kelly's studio—M-G-M—would not loan him out (which is ironic as they ended up distributing the movie for Goldwyn, anyway). The next choice, naturally, would be Frank Sinatra, who desperately wanted to play Masterson. But this circumstance was not to be. Goldwyn chose, in his stead, to give the role to the biggest box office bonanza at the time, which happened to be Marlon Brando. Marlon Brando, who could not sing...maybe could dance a little. It was fine with the director, Joseph Mankiewicz, who had directed Brando in Julius Caesar, a role of some considerable acclaim and status...and moolah made at the box-office. Brando got the role. 
This did not impress Mr. Sinatra, who could sing and could dance and had displayed these abilities in many a previous musical production. The Masterson role was played on Broadway by Robert Alda (father of Alan Alda), who had a rich voice and who could acquit himself well with a song. But Sinatra was stuck in the Nathan Detroit role, which was more of a character type, played by Sam Levene on the stage (and one must say that Levene was not too accomplished a crooner) and so, received simpler "talky" songs. This was a situation for which Sinatra could not be feeling gratified about. He was much aggrieved and could only wish that a stage light would fall on his co-star, so as he might be able to step into the role.
But, he was given a conciliatory song—"Adelaide" (which he sang out of character)—and sat back while the actor he called "Mr. Mumbles" was given voice lessons that he might warble the songs that Sinatra could do at the drop of a down-beat.
The results, however, for all the effort, were none too shabby.   
Sure, they had to splice together a usable version of the ditties from many Brando attempts, but Brando brought Method to the madness and "acted" his way through it, which was compelling enough for Mankiewicz and the paying rubes who hadn't taken in the stage version.
And, by the by, it's not a bad production. Mankiewicz doesn't try to make it realistic in any way, creating a stagey New Yawk gangster bubble-world where everything is immaculate—even the sewers!—and there is merely the suggestion of rough-house among these sharps, but nobody really gets hurt...or "offed". No "rods" are produced, and no legs get broken. Not even a nose gets bent out of shape.
And the only "singing" that is done is...well, it's a musical, no matter how many "takes" takes.
But, it's not the Tony Award-winning stage version. Oh, folks did get to see a version of Vivian Blaine's performance (with a couple of her songs axed). And they got to see the performance Mankiewicz was most grateful for--
Jean Simmons' turn as Sarah Brown. She was a third-choice compromise after the director had been turned down by, first, Grace Kelly, and, second, Deborah Kerr. Simmons was accomplished and well-known (and already Oscar-nominated...for playing Shakespeare, fer crying out loud) and she had the added advantage of already having worked with Brando before (in Désirée the year before). He called her "the dream...a fantastically talented and enormously underestimated girl. In terms of talent, Jean Simmons is so many heads and shoulders above most of her contemporaries, one wonders why she didn't become the great star she could have been."
And, of course, they got to see "the show-stopper" in the play's last act--"Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" performed by the stage-show's 
Stubby Kaye (who played the role of Nicely-Nicely Johnson in both versions).
It was one of the "sure things" in a production that spent a lot of its time rolling the dice, hoping for the best.

* Marilyn Monroe lobbied for the part.


  1. Vivian Blaine did not win a Tony Award for her original Broadway performance in Guys and Dolls. Robert Alda was awarded a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical and Isabel Bigley was awarded a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.

  2. Thanks, Joseph, for classing up the joint! Fixed. By the way, check out Joseph's web-site, dedicated to his Dad, Sam Levene, who originated the role of Nathan Detroit on Broadway. He shoulda done the movie!