Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Guys and Dolls (1955)

MGM Studios was king of the musicals from the 40's thru the 60's. Nobody did them better. CrazyFilmGuy has many musicals on his list that he still needs to see but I was finally able to catch GUYS AND DOLLS (1955) recently starring the unlikely pairing of Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. The hottest young actor of the 1950's with the hottest crooner of the 1950's. Ironically, Brando and Sinatra don't have that many scenes together but it is inspired casting by writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz who had worked with Brando two years earlier on JULIUS CAESAR (1953).

Although doll is probably considered a sexist term in today's vernacular, I always liked the way it was  used in the 40's and 50's. A girl was something special if her man called her a doll. She wasn't inanimate or a play thing. She was his special girl.   GUYS AND DOLLS is based on a 1950 play that was adapted from a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows based on a couple of  Damon Runyon stories. Runyon wrote about colorful shady characters like gangsters, gamblers, pickpockets, and con men, all present in GUYS AND DOLLS.

Set in a bright, colorful, stylized New York, gambler Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra) needs a thousand bucks to set up a floating craps game for a group of the best gamblers in town but he's getting squeezed by all sides. Police Lieutenant Brannigan (Robert Keith) wants to arrest him and his cronies including Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Stubby Kaye) and Benny Southstreet (Johnny Silver). A missionary Susan Brown (Jean Simmons) with the Save A Soul Mission and her band roam the streets preaching against the sins of gambling and drinking. And Nathan's longtime girlfriend, nightclub singer Miss Adelaide (Vivian Blaine) is pressuring Nathan to marry her after fourteen years of engagement.

Nathan sees a chance to win a thousand dollars when he runs into the legendary gambler Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) who's also in town for Nathan's big craps game. Nathan bets Sky that  Sky can't convince the straight-laced Sarah to fly to Havana with Sky for a night. Sky accepts the wager and immediately visits Sarah at the mission, seeking help as a sinner, to give up gambling.

As the gamblers wait for Nathan to reveal the location of the craps game, Brannigan shows up ready to arrest everyone. Benny interrupts and lies to Brannigan, telling him that the men are all here for Nathan's wedding party. This is news to Nathan but Adelaide is ecstatic until she realizes Nathan is more interested in organizing the floating craps game than marrying her. Meanwhile, Sky and Sarah fly to Havana.  Sarah loosens up, drinking and dancing with Sky and even fighting with some of the locals when she gets jealous of Sky dancing with another Cuban woman.

When Sky and Sarah return to New  York the next morning, they discover that Nathan borrowed the empty mission to hold one of his craps games before Brannigan chased them away. General Cartwright (Kathryn Givney), the head of the national chapter of the Save a Soul Mission, also arrives in town with plans to close the mission if Sarah can't attract more sinners. Sky confides to Sarah he took her to Havana to win a bet. He promises to deliver two dozen sinners to her next meeting. Sky finds Nathan and the rest of the boys shooting craps down in the sewers.  Nathan loses all the money he's made to Big Jule (B.S. Pully) . Sky rolls the dice (and a thousand dollars to each man) against their souls. If  he wins, they have to attend Sarah's prayer meeting. I'll leave it to you as to how it turns out but GUYS AND DOLLS ends with a double marriage if that's any consolation.

The revelation of GUYS AND DOLLS is watching a young Marlon Brando dancing and singing. After powerhouse dramatic roles in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951) and ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) Brando apparently decided to go lighter in his next roles with GUYS AND DOLLS and a comedy THE TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON (1956). We're all accustomed to Brando's dramatic performances as Stanley Kowalski or Don Coreleone. But Brando singing and dancing is deliciously unexpected. Brando looks comfortable singing and he's decent. He's also light on his feet in a Havana dance number. 

Frank Sinatra is a bit understated as Nathan Detroit but then Nathan is a smooth, under control operator. Sinatra doesn't try to out act Brando but he's very confident in his role and seems born to play a Damon Runyon character. Ironically, Sinatra wanted the Sky Masterson part and was unhappy the role went to Brando. But Brando is better suited and more sexy as Masterson and Sinatra is excellent in the more comedic role as Detroit. Sinatra's confidence as an actor after his acclaimed performance in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953) shows in this film and he never flinches in his scenes with Brando.

Surprisingly, Brando sings the film's signature song Luck Be A Lady although Sinatra later made Luck one of his better known songs. Most of Sinatra's singing is with other performers, just part of the ensemble. One of the joys of GUYS AND DOLLS is the dialogue. Writer/director Mankiewicz captures perfectly the Runyonese language used by all the characters, spoken in present tense and without any contractions. Runyonese is to Brooklyn what Shakespeare was to Stratford-upon-Avon. Brando, Sinatra, and especially Sheldon Leonard as Harry the Horse speak Runyon's vernacular wonderfully.

The rest of the cast in GUYS AND DOLLS are fantastic. Both Stubby Kaye as Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Vivian Blaine as Miss Adelaide reprise their roles from the 1950 play and each have a couple of nice musical solos. Jean Simmons as Sergeant Sarah Brown is surprisingly funny as the prudish missionary. Simmons and Brando have a nice chemistry together and Sarah is a perfect comic foil to the slick Sky Masterson. Although it's obvious GUYS AND DOLLS is shot on a studio backlot, director Mankiewicz and his production designer Oliver Smith create a Broadway like city set that looks dirty and more realistic than most backlot city sets I've seen in movies, right down to puddles of water and garbage in the streets. Warren Beatty's DICK TRACY (1990) owes its production and costume design to GUY AND DOLLS style.

GUYS AND DOLLS is a play adapted into a film and it still feels like a play. The story is broken down into two easy to follow storylines following the relationships between Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide & Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown with the floating crap game intertwined amongst both couples. GUYS AND DOLLS takes its time with both storylines. Brando and Sinatra disappear for good portions of the film when their plot line isn't center stage.

One of the great things about film are the interesting connections that can made with actors, films, and characters. In GUYS AND DOLLS, Brando plays for the first time a type of gangster (a gambler) that he will later be immortalized as when he played Don Vito Corleone, a Mafia don in THE GODFATHER (1972). As Sky Masterson, it's deja vu when he makes the other craps players an offer they can't refuse to win a thousand dollars or attend a prayer meeting. It's prophetic when Sky tells his fellow craps players he would "consider it a great personal favor" if they attended the prayer meeting. Don Corleone will make similar, deadlier offers and ask for favors to get his way. THE GODFATHER even has a subplot where a Frank Sinatra-like character named Johnny Fontane begs Corleone to help him a get a plum role in an upcoming war film. Corleone makes the film producer Woltz an offer which Woltz refuses. The producer ends up with his prized horse's head in his bed and Fontane gets the part. In reality, Sinatra jump started his film career with the WWII drama FROM HERE TO ETERNITY but I don't believe any thoroughbred race horses were killed so that Old Blue Eyes got the part.

GUYS AND DOLLS runs a bit too long at 150 minutes.  MGM shamelessly promotes its Goldwyn Girls (think West Coast Rockettes) in a couple of dance numbers.  A few songs could have been cut including the awful Kitty Meow Song with Miss Adelaide and yes, the Goldwyn Girls. But overall, GUYS AND DOLLS is a colorful, funny musical with great performances, an endearing love story (or two), and the one and only time a film fan will get to see Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra acting and singing in the same film.

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