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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Guys and Dolls

GUYS AND DOLLS (Also Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U.S.: Joseph Mankiewicz, 1955 (Warner Brothers)

guy doll

If there was ever a part Frank Sinatra was born to play—and sing—it was Sky Masterson, the lady-killing, dice-rolling, high-living gambler who is the main man and big shooter of the classic New York-Broadway musical (and the Hollywood movie made from it) Guys and Dolls. Sinatra loved the show, loved the part, and liked to include Sky’s signature song, “Luck Be a Lady” in his acts. And. Frank was at the top of his career and game and box-office clout when the movie (produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed and written by Joseph Mankiewicz) was released in 1955. There’s no question that, in 1955, Sinatra was the greatest, most famous, most admired pop singer/recording artist in the world. (His only peers and rivals then, like Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald, were unsuitable casting for Sky.)

But when the movie was cast, Goldwyn decided instead to go for the guy who was then regarded as the greatest movie actor in the world, Marlon Brando. Sinatra was cast in the movie too, but in the, less charismatic role of Nathan Detroit—New York City gambling entrepreneur and proprietor of The Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York. Sinatra is swell as Detroit—it’s actually one of his best movie musical roles—and Brando is not half-bad as Sky. His acting is superlative; he‘s slick as a whistle and handsome as a Times Square gent in full streetwise blossom. But face it: As well as he could fake it (and he does act out the songs a bit like Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady”), Brando could not sing like Sinatra. Sky was Frank’s part, and he proved it a few years later when his record company, Reprise, released an album of the songs from “Guys and Dolls,” with Frank singing some of Sky‘s, and other numbers recorded by Dean MartinSammy Davis, Jr. and Crosby. (It was a gasser.)

Even with its dubious bit of star casting however, the movie of Guys and Dolls is a killer show. Set on Times Square, in Havana and in the high spots and delis of Broadway, adapted and directed by Mankiewicz and with a fantastic, witty, street-smart song score by Frank Loesser, it’s a hard-boiled romantic comedy based on Damon Runyon’s hard-boiled, vernacular-heavy Broadway stories of life among the guys who gamble and the dolls they gamble for. Here those high-rolling guys include Brando’s Masterson and Sinatra’s Nathan, with dolls Vivian Blaine (the only holdover from the stage version) as Miss Adelaide, Nathan‘s longtime fiancée, and Jean Simmons as Sergeant Sarah Brown, a fiercely faithful, beautiful and seemingly proper soul-gatherer for the local Salvation Army—and also the gal who eventually conquers the ace gambler‘s luckiest and most vulnerable spot, his heart.

Other denizens of this choice slice of Manhattan folklore include Sheldon Leonard as slickster Harry the Horse, B. S. Pully as granite-faced gangster Big Jule, and those two amiable horse experts, Johnny Silver as Benny Southstreet, and the perfectly cast Stubby Kaye as Nicely-Nicely Johnson. The pudgy dynamo Kaye probably, during the run of the stage “Guys and Dolls” stole the show every night twice—the first time as part of the ensemble in the unforgettable “Fugue for Tinhorns” (“I got the horse right here; his name is Paul Revere…”) and the second time with the unbeatable “Sit Down, (Sit Down, Sit Down,) You‘re Rockin’ the Boat.” “Guys and Dolls would probably still be a great musical if it included just those two songs and the big ballad “A Woman in Love,” and “Luck Be a Lady,” But the movie was so crammed with first-class tunes with great lyrics, that it could survive Goldwyn‘s perverse removal of one of the show‘s biggest hits, “A Bushel and a Peck”, and its replacement with the cute but so-so “Pet Me, Poppa.”


The man who wrote those songs—both the music and the lyrics—was another Frank: Frank Loesser, one of he best and most inventive and funniest and most purely lyrical pop songsmiths ever. (Loesser also wrote the words and music for the excellent scores of the stage shows “The Most Happy Fella” and the Pulitzer Prize-wining “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”) Guys and Dolls was written for the stage by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, and they (and Runyon) are responsible for its Runyonesque language and lingo, which are both oddly formal and engagingly raw —like the speech of finicky but uneducated gangsters trying to tip-toe into high society.

But Loesser is the main reason the stage show is a classic. It’ s hard to analyze his special qualities as a songsmith, but one of them is his almost perfect matching of the words and music, a quality he shares with Cole Porter. Loesser’s lyrics sound absolutely right, and his songs are so well wrought that they practically sing themselves—which is why Brando almost gets away with Sky Masterson. Loesser had spent most of his career writing not for Broadway but for Hollywood, where his most famous song was the ingenious seduction ballad and double-entendre Oscar-winner “Baby It’s Cold Outside.“ When he wrote the songs for Guys and Dolls, he was at his peak, his work has an effortless grace and wit—and he was just a few years away from another great score for the underrated 1952 Goldwyn/Danny Kaye movie musical, “Hans Christian Andersen.”

Joseph Mankiewicz, Goldwyn’s choice to direct Guys and Dolls, was no Stanley Donen or Vincente Minnelli, and probably not even a George Sidney. In fact Mankiewicz never directed another musical, before or afterwards—which at least gives him a very high average in that genre. It can be argued (but I wouldn’t) that “Mank“ didn’t really (totally) direct this musical either, since his strategy was to handle all the dialogue and acting scenes (of which there are quite a few) and hand over all the singing and dancing numbers to his genius choreographer Michael Kidd, whose romping, stomping signature was already all over the classic Western numbers of Donen’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers—and who here proves just as synchronous with the rhythms of America’s biggest, classiest city and one of the best musicals ever set in it.

The movie Guys and Dolls, has long taken a second row in the movie musical pantheon to the great dancing musicals of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. But the show, both on stage and on film, has grown in stature over the years, until the play is now generally regarded as one of Broadway’s best—if not the best. The movie is revered to such an extent that even the numbers written for and added to the picture, like Sinatra’s “Adelaide’s Lament,” have been added to the play revivals as well. The movie is everything the slightly illegal side of Broadway was (or how we like to imagine it: fast, breezy, clever, high-stepping full of inside dope and rapid chatter and the promise of big rewards—and the zing and sting of romance in the city.

One question has to be asked. Should Sinatra have played Sky Masterson instead of Brando? The answer is probably yes. Brando tries hard– and he’s absolutely magnetic when he’s just doing dialogue. But singing? It’s like Pagliacci telling us he coulda been a contender. It’s not that he doesn’t hit the notes. He does, but the strings of your heart don’t sing as they would for Frank. In a way, it’s a shame they couldn’t have waited a few years and cast Frank and Dino, like the Reprise album. (One of Dean’s biggest record hits, by the way, was Loesser’s “Standing on the Corner” from “Most Happy Fella.”)

Better yet though may have been a piece of casting that was actually available at the time and would have given Hollywood’s Guys and Dolls a good shot at being remembered today as a great musical in the Singin’ in the Rain/Top Hat/An American in Paris class. The part of Sky Masterson was actually offered to Sinatra’s old On the Town partner, Gene Kelly—and though Kelly couldn’t sing as well as Frank either, and sometimes not even as well as Brando, he (and Kidd) could have given Guys and Dolls what it doesn’t have now: great dance numbers to go with those great songs. Imagine Kelly waltzing to “A Woman in Love” or careening all around the crap game to “Luck Be a Lady.“ As Marlon once said (in a taxi cab): “Wow!“

What happened? MGM wouldn’t loan Kelly out—even though Goldwyn was their middle name. Listen… Ah, why make a fuss when it’s already over? Anything can be improved, even Singin‘ in the Rain. (For one thing, they could put back those deleted scenes on the DVD.) But hey, Mr. MGM of the 1950s, let me inform you: It may be Sam Goldwyn’s fault that Frank did not sing “Luck Be a Lady.

But it’s your fault Gene did not dance it. Youse were not gentleman, I fear. Now, sit down; You’re rockin’ the boat.

Extras: Documentaries The Goldwyn Touch and From Stage to Screen; More musical performances; Trailer; Booklet.


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