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FIVE STAR FILMS #74: Guys and Dolls (Joseph L. Mankiewicz – 1955)

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The stage musical Guys and Dolls premiered on Broadway in 1950. It would go on to win five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Director (Musical) for George S. Kaufman, and Best Actor (Musical) for Robert Alda (yes: Alan’s dad). It also scored a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Based on a story and characters by Damon Runyon, its book was by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, with music and lyrics from Frank Loesser.

Veteran film producer Samuel (Sam) Goldwyn, for his penultimate production in a forty-plus year career, purchased the musical’s film rights for one million dollars. In the early 1950’s, this was a staggering amount. To have any chance of recouping his money, he needed to produce a lavish production with box-office draw stars. Goldwyn’s choice of director – George L. Mankiewicz – was a potentially risky one. Though Mankiewicz was a lauded director and four-time Oscar winner, he’d never directed a musical before.

[SIDE NOTE: For more on one of Mankiewicz-s Oscar-winning films: All About Eve (1950), see this previous Five Star Film entry.]

Goldwyn’s decision to give Mankiewicz the gig, along with one particularly contentious casting decision (more on that shortly), clearly paid off. Guys and Dolls was a commercial success, and many critics rated it positively. The classic Hollywood musical is deserving of Five Star Film status – and here are a few of the reasons why …

1. FRANK LOESSER’S MUSIC

Accomplished composer/lyricist Frank Loesser had his first big hit in 1944, with the song Baby, It’s Cold Outside. It went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song after it was sold to MGM and used in the film Neptune’s Daughter (1949). Over the years, the song would be covered by an eclectic range of artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, Bette Midler, Tom Jones, Sammy Davis Jr, Norah Jones and Seth MacFarlane.

Loesser had written the full music and lyrics for a number of musicals prior to Guys and Dolls – but none of these had been as huge a hit. The iconic songs from Guys and Dolls (most came across from the Broadway score, but a few were added for this film version) entered popular culture in such a way that they are recognisable even to those unfamiliar the hit musical. Highlights include Luck Be a Lady, Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat and The Oldest Established … (the one with the classic line ‘… good old reliable Nathan, Nathan, Nathan, Nathan Detroit’). These magnificent songs are not only catchy, but full of clever and witty lyrics.

2. CINEMASCOPE WIDESCREEN & EASTMAN COLOUR

Guys and Dolls was shot in Cinemascope, the super wide-screen format with an aspect ratio of 2.66 to 1. This format was particularly suited to a film like Guys and Dolls, as it allowed for huge musical numbers with a wide range of movement – including characters dancing across a large area of the set. This looks particularly impressing in Guys and Dolls’ mammoth streetscape ensemble scenes. Characters could travel across and through the streets, with the camera following them, while new characters would come into view on their travels. The colourful and extravagant Times Square set looks terrific with scores of dancers travelling through it. Director of Photography Harry Stradling does beautiful work here.

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For the film colour in Guys and Dolls, the Eastman Colour negative system was employed This gorgeous hyper-real colour was also well suited to this lush musical. A lovely example of the resplendent colour palette of the film is a scene where Miss Adelaide (Vivian Blaine, who originated the role on Broadway) goes to get some cough mixture from her dressing room’s medicine cabinet. The cabinet is stocked with bottles in an array of stunning colours. Costume designer Irene Sharaff’s wonderful creations also look dazzling in Eastman Colour.

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3. BRANDO SINGS! BRANDO DANCES!

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Director Mankiewicz wasn’t the only person on Guys and Dolls with no musical experience. Leading couple Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando were also traditionally non-singer/dancers.

Sam Goldwyn originally wanted Gene Kelly for the male lead Sky Masterson, but MGM (to whom Kelly was under contract) wouldn’t loan him out. This is quite ironic, given that MGM ended up distributing the film (and it was actually the only time MGM ever distributed a Samuel Goldwyn Company production).

When Gene Kelly didn’t get the role of Sky, Frank Sinatra lobbied hard for it. Sinatra ended up playing the second male lead Nathan Detriot (more on this later). He was extremely unhappy that a non-musical performer like Brando beat him to the coveted lead role.

Four years earlier, Brando’s breakout role as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) bought him to the public’s attention. Two years later he starred in the iconic youth rebellion film The Wild One (1953). Then the year before Guys and Dolls, he won the Best Actor Oscar for On the Waterfront (1954) (from his fourth Lead Actor Oscar nomination in four years).

Brando was a huge box office draw. His casting as Sky could be considered an early example of ‘stunt casting’. He was clearly cast against type, in a role that he really wasn’t well suited for. BUT … and here’s the rub: he was still great. As strange as it sounds, the fact that Brando was unsuited to the role actually enhances his performance. Yes, he mumbles. Yes, he talk-sings. No, he’s not a top dancer. But it doesn’t matter! His presence is so commanding, and his acting is so strong, that all the other problems get forgotten. His facial expressions are priceless, and he brings a wonderful extra depth to Sky.

 

4. FRANKIE AS DETROIT

 

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Unlike Brando, Sinatra was not only an experienced musical film performer, but also a chart-topping recording artist. He’s exquisite as Nathan Detroit, the gambling organiser in search of a venue for an illegal crap game. He tells us ‘I’ve been running the crap game since I was a juvenile delinquent’. Sinatra’s sublime singing voice and slick dancing make him a fabulous Nathan – and even though he’s not as strong an actor as Brando, he does hold his own in their scenes together. The famous ‘cheesecake versus strudel’ dialogue between Nathan and Sky is just delicious. Sinatra and Brando’s differing acting styles actually complement each other, and their characters’ conversation is mesmerising.

 

5. INTERESTING SUPPORTING CHARACTERS

 

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Unlike some film musicals where the supporting or ensemble players are just one amorphous mass of identicals, Guys and Dolls has a unique collection of character roles with varying personalities and eccentricities – played by actors in a range of shapes and sizes, and of various ages.

Runyon gave his characters such great names. Some of the best include Harry the Horse, Rusty Charlie, Society Max, Big Jule and Nicely-Nicely Johnson. These guys are basically a bunch of crooks, but you can’t help loving them. Their style of speech is really interesting too – because they (like Sky and Nathan) speak in a very deliberate way, where their words are not contracted. You never hear them say ‘I’m not’ or ‘They won’t…’. It’s always ‘I am not …’ or ‘ They will not…’. It’s not how you would expect these gamblers and criminals to speak, and it enhances the linguistic style of the film. Their idioms and use of language also make them unique. Case in point: When Nicely-Nicely Johnson wants to know where Harry the Horse got $5000 dollars from, he asks ‘If it can be told, where did you take on this fine bundle of lettuce?’.

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If you haven’t seen this delightful film, I urge you to check it out: even if it’s just to see Brando dance!
Lisa Malouf – follow Lisa on Twitter here: @lisamalouf

 

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