Guys & Dolls
Movie Review by Diana and the Undercover Tourists
Creator: Damon Runyon, The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown
Starring: Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Jean Simmons, Vivian Blaine
Rating: Imperial Star Destroyer (Crowd Pleaser)
Everyone must know this movie, which first introduced the world to a dancing, singing Marlon Brando! Many will not remember, but Frank Sinatra is a more-than-capable dancer as well as singer, but in this film he doesn't show his happy feet. The director wanted Sinatra for his "vocalizations" and added a song to the script so that the man could croon a quirky love-song to his beloved, and changed some of the original script a bit to get Franky to sing (rather than simply be sung about). The revised movie version is so ingrained in our collective psyche that we were startled when we saw the original, and wondered where an extra song came from, what song was "cut," and why wasn't Nathan Detroit singing there??
Of course, this movie is based on a Broadway musical of the same name, but they're really two different things. Guys & Dolls the movie was meant to be a dance and song vehicle for Gene Kelly, who'd come out with Singin' in the Rain in 1952 and who was to play Sky Masterson. But Kelly turned out to be unavailable, having been slated to appear in It's Always Fair Weather (the one where he tap-dances on old-fashioned rollerskates), and so the studio scrambled to find a replacement. That replacement was Marlon Brando, which shocked the studio. To paraphase Runyon-speak, "Dis was not a singer, dis was not an dancer. Dis was a dangerous man who had played a gang punk and he is 12 years younger than Kickin' Kelly!"
Though it must have seemed a tense choice at the time, seeing the movie now makes the choice of Gene Kelly curious and odd. True, Kelly and Sinatra had appeared together on other movies as a tapping and singing duo, but these were men in their 40s at this point, albeit fit, top-of-their-form men. All the gangsters hanging around with these two svelt men seem pudgy or outright fat, as befits men who are past their primes, and who have experienced the cushy lives they so desire.
Choreographer extraordinaire Michael Kidd worked many hours to show Brando to move like a dancer. Kidd was the choreographer for the Broadway show, and hired ballet dancers for the male chorus to dance his stylized craps games. Never had such lowlife danced so beautifully! (Kidd is also responsible for the balletic/athletic choreography for Oklahoma! and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, both branded as "cowboy ballet." Jerome Robbins, of course, was heavily inspired by Kidd when he created the dances for West Side Story.) The script writers also must have spent many hours retooling the songs to deal with the singing and non-singing cast members, too. Many songs are different, removed, or added; like we said, if you know the stage version, it's a little unsettling.
Every character and every set on this movie are caricatures of caricatures. Arguably, how we consider tough-guys in real life is largely based on having seen Guys & Dolls at a young age. The colors are comic-book bright, the language is precise and nothing like you've heard any thugs ever utter, but that's the point. They dress sharper and snazzier, too. Even the fake sets suit this movie, making the depiction of Times Square too cozy, too bright, too loud. Though come to think of it, life has followed art, and it seems the renovated Times Square has been modeled after the nightmare/fantasy world in Guys & Dolls. And was Havana really like that outside of our dreams?? In other words, it's all really, really perfect in our minds because it's perfect in the film.
What's an Italian crooner from Hoboken doing playing a Jewish craps operator? Or a French Midwesterner playing the streetwise gambler who bets so high he's univerally known as "Sky"? Vivian Blaine is wonderful recreating the over-the-hill marriage-pining Miss Adelaide -- she was the original Broadway doll, too. And Jean Simmons was an odd choice for Sarah Brown ... she can't sing or dance, but she's pretty, she acts, and her transition from prude to a woman who loves someone she couldn't is realistically uncomfortable. It all works; thank goodness Gene Kelly was too busy to take the role of Sky!
Some of us spent all our lives watching what we thought was a "wholesome" musical film, never once suspecting what kind of men were shooting craps in a sewer, or that the "Hot Box" meant something other than ... well, you know ... And whether you know it or not, it taught us the grayness of right and wrong, and how criminals are not all the same. There are the craps-shooting, three-card-monty hustlers -- who are just trying to beat the odds and make a living -- and then there are the hard-boiled gangsters like Big Julie or Harry the Horse (we suspect) who do deserve to be fitted for a pair of cement shoes or be taken on a nice, long vacation "upstate." It is just that kind of film, where reality is suspended and the dancing, singing, costumed, enunciating cast make us believe that gangsters and strippers are good people, even on the surface. You need to own this on DVD or video, or stop and watch when it shows up on television on any Sunday afternoon.
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