Guys and Dolls (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1955)

“For two weeks I gambled in green pastures. The dice were my cousins and the dolls were agreeable with nice teeth and no last names.”

Introduction

I mentioned it a few times, but between 16 and 18, I was part of an Amateur Dramatics society, named TADLOP in Shropshire. This led me to gaining a bit of a better understanding of musicals – specifically South Pacific, My Fair Lady and Brigadoon. Outside of these I was a part of a Summer Youth Project whereby I even nabbed a lead role in West Side Story and Barnum. So, I knew of Guys and Dolls and, in some ‘lots-of-songs’ performance, I even was a part of a rendition of ‘Luck Be A Lady Tonight’! One thing I always wished I was a part of was Bugsy Malone (Now, at the age of 27, I am too old) but, after watching Guys and Dolls, I now regret not being a part of a Guys and Dolls performance – because I would have loved to sing some of these brilliant songs!
A Gangster Musical – with The Godfather and Sinatra
In the first instance, the actors alone are a strange combination. Originally the broadway version cast a gruff-voiced singer in the role of Nathan Detroit … which then went to Frank Sinatra and his silky voice. In fact, many songs were omitted from the stage version – whilst two songs were added to the film: namely ‘Adelaide’, written for Sinatra himself. Apparently, Sinatra’s ‘crooning’ was critisized heavily by Frank Loesser – the composer – as it was not in keeping of the character he played, but Loesser was still expected (by Samuel Goldwyn and Mankiewicz) to write the three additional songs, including ‘Adelaide’. Marlon Brando was also seen as bad casting – hired only because of his recent successes having come off On the Waterfront in 1954 and The Wild One in 1955. Interestingly, in The Wild One, Brando was pitted against Robert Keith who plays a similar law-abider in Guys and Dolls, playing Lt. Brannigan rather than the Sheriff he played in The Wild One.
The gambling narrative involved Nathan Detroit (Sinatra), in desperate need of $1000 to set up an illegal card game, he bets Sky Masterson (Brando) that he can’t take a “doll” – Christian Mission girl Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) – to Havana. Detroit is under the impression that Sky makes stupid bets and, this bet, will guarantee him the money to set up the card game. Funnily enough, Detroit finds out that Sky does indeed take Sarah Brown to Havana … whereby they both fall in love…
Squeeze in Songs
Musicals often have a habit of making unneccessary songs and squeezing them into the story – and Guys and Dolls does seem to have a habit of doing this. One specific song stalls the story completely as we wait for Detroit to go to the Christian Mission and his ‘doll’ [of fourteen years] thinks he is lying and there is a whole song about how much she doesn’t believe him and how Nathan is torn between convincing her he is telling the truth but additionally leaving to fulfill his part of the bet and go to the Mission… you want to hit him round the head and just tell him to get the hell out the door.

Having said that, they use Detroit’s ‘doll’ exceptionally well as she is part of a dance group who perform in a local club and so all their songs fill in gaps in the story. For example, ‘Pet Me Poppa’, Adelaide (Detroits ‘doll’) sings about how – like a cat – she will roam if she is not married soon! She sings: “You know you’ve been mean to me/ And you know when you’re mean to me/ How it always makes me wanna roam/ And you know there’s a danger/ That some gentle stranger/ Might pick me up and make me feel at home”. The whole song is clearly stating the same message as Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it)’… and when you watch the film, the leotards and high legs seem a little too similar …

The Bet on Faith
There is a strange conflict at the centre of the story. Sky Masterson – a successful gambler – seems to ‘win’ Christian Missionary Sarah Brown through taking her out and getting her drunk. To make matters worse, he is content in getting her drunk without her knowing. I know this is all a joke, but it does nevertheless lead to the same Sarah Brown not only getting drunk and getting into fights but – when all the illegal gamblers reluctantly go to her Mission to fulfill Skys bet, she even lies to the police about the gamblers the previous night (whereby the group broke into the Missionary when it was unattended and conducted an illegal card game). Does this film condone lying to the police? I don’t think any of the gangsters get a comeuppance either – and none of them actually turn to Christ having attended the Missionary. They are constantly begrudging the fact that they are even there at all! I think I would go so far in saying that the film actually takes the mickey out of Christian attitudes and morals – with the very clear intention of stating that Christians have a very prudish and unfulfilling life.

There is also a philosophical argument (and I’m sure people may hang me for bringing such psuedo-highbrow thoughts to a review on Guys and Dolls). Blaise Pascal created an argument aptley titled ‘Pascals Wager’ or ‘Pascals Gambit’. The idea was that any rational person would believe in the existence of God – arguing that, if you were to bet on such a thing, it would make sense to bet on the existence of God because if you are right – you have everything to gain (post-death I presume) whereas, if you are wrong, it wouldn’t matter anyway. Because you’d be dead in the ground. Take this argument and apply it to the sequence involving ‘Luck be a Lady Tonight’. Sky bets everyone to merely attend the Mission for prayer that evening – otherwise he would give them $1000 each. For each of those ‘sinners’ they have nothing to lose – but everything to gain. Though this may be a tangible link, the idea of having faith at all is clearly central to the story – getting married has an element of risk and you have to have the faith to stand by her/him if you make the decision. Life is a game of luck, as they say.

The reality is that this is all very unclear – for example, despite Sky getting Sarah Brown drunk and involving her in a fight, he stops short of sleeping with her telling her it would be wrong… assuming his actions prior to this was right?
A Marriage Made in Heaven
The film ends with, what feels like, a random wedding. Both Sky and Sarah Brown get married after their whirlwind romance, whilst Detroit and Adelaide, after 14 years, get married in the same ceremony. Even Lt Brannigan walking Sarah Brown down the aisle. All the actors in the film make a little appearance – with the hint of the start of a relationship between different friends and families.

The casting of Brando and Sinatra, in hindsight, was great – I don’t believe any other movie stars both actors. The fact that Brando and Simmons both sing simply shows how capable they are at holding a musical note. The shame is how Joseph L. Mankiewicz seems to bring to the table little considering his background. Mankiewicz is the man who directed All About Eve and he went on to direct Cleopatra and Sleuth! This film seems to play very much like the MGM musicals – bright colours, MGM dancers filling the screen, studio set, etc rather than anything more thought-provoking.

At any rate, like the best musicals, the success hunges on the songs and this film has indeed got some unforgettable songs. Specific songs about male and female attitudes to relationships, as sexist as they are, they are a lot of fun to watch. Adelaide sings about how scared of commitment Nathan – and men – can be in ‘Adelaides Lament’. But then, against this, the guys follow this and sing ‘Guys and Dolls’ about how a guy can under the thumb. They are merely in jest and comedic in their nature but it is what holds this film together and makes it a fun watch rather than simply romantic melodies. Its strange to think that Sinatra was nearly cast as Johnny Fontaine in The Godfather, which would’ve marked Brando and Sinatra’s second collaboration …

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5 comments

  1. I love this movie. I saw the revival on Broadway in the 1990s with Nathan Lane, Faith Prince and Peter Gallagher, but Sinatra, Brando, and Simmons can't be beat.

  2. @Jess – The film has indeed inspired me to hunt out a live show but, currently, I know of none in London. At any rate, I have a feeling the stage version is different to the film version in many ways.

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