Friday, December 18, 2020

CANON OF FILM: "GUYS AND DOLLS"

GUYS AND DOLLS (1955)

Director: Joseph L. Mankeiwicz
Screenplay: Joseph L. Mankiewicz based on the musical play by Abe Burrows & Jo Swerling from the story “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown,” by Damon Runyon



Believe it or not, one of my go-to background movies, movies that I just keep on in the background as I go about my day, is "Guys and Dolls". I don't know exactly how well it holds up today; I'd hardly rank it among the greatest of Hollywood musicals, even of its time it wasn't the biggest hit or considered the best musical or anything; nowadays I think it's more regarded for it's stage musical. I suspect part of my appreciation of it is that I'm and Italian-American and Sinatra and Brando leading the same movie is a hard thing to pass up. Doesn't hurt being a Vegas-born Italian-American too, and the movie is centered around gambling. Actually "Guys and Dolls" was one of the first big Broadway productions to have a prolongued, successful stay in Vegas way back in the '50s, right around the time the movie was released. The original stage production was based on a few Damon Runyan stories and it's got a lot of his signatures; he's an interesting guy who people should look up one day, but there's a lot of interesting people involved in this. Abe Burrows's Communist connections for instance, meant that the play's Pulitzer Prize for Drama was disallowed and the Pulitzers decided to just not give out the award that year. Much of the original cast of the play never saw this film version, especially Sam Levene, for whom the role of Nathan Detroit was written for. Now, I like Sinatra's performance personally, but you can tell in places that the role was originally written for someone with more of a low-class, rougher voice, and had more of a Jewish slant to him. Levene also didn't have many songs in the play 'cause he wasn't a natural singer; obviously that changed 'cause I'd be damned if you cast Old Blue Eyes in a musical and don't give him a few songs. (Especially these Frank Loesser songs, although ironically, it was Brando who got the movie's most known Sinatra song, "Luck Be a Lady", which is unfortunate admittedly.)

Ironically, Sinatra didn't want to play Nathan Detroit either; he wanted to play Sky Masterson, the big time gambler who's come in for the floating crap game he runs around New York that's hit a sudden snag by the hardheaded ways of Lt. Branigan (Robert Keith) hovering over the Broadway streets. But, eh, in hindsight the movie works best with this casting. Sinatra as the longtime hood, struggling to both hold together his relationship and his crap game seems like it's almost perfectly cast for him and Brando at his most romantic peak, trying to bet and scheme his way into the pants of Sarah Brown (Jean Simmonds, who probably gives the best performance in the filmI might add) is far more idyllic to me. 

In general, I think it's a good idea to try to capture a great stage production to the masses, so I'm generally on the side of creating some kind of film production, even if it's not exactly the same as seeing it on the stage. The fact that it's a Hollywood musical shot mostly on a stage makes it feel dated; normally I only feelt that with '60s musicals that feel like they were shot in the '50s but it kinda applies here to. Although I think the biggest reason it seems outdated is that it's about the fact that its about how much gamblng, drinking and sinning is better then strict religious virtue and redemption from se acts, which-eh, yeah, this movie is totally a fantasy. Even Brando I don't think would convince a missionary nun this stringent to go for to Havana and get drunk on a Saturday night whim in any form of real life. Although I totally believe that Sinatra would be engaged for fourteen years to his showgirl girlfriend Miss Adelaide (Vivian Blaine) and still not get married. Honestly, though, the biggest sign of the times with this film is the cliched double-wedding at the end; I don't know why that constantly became a thing in musicals around then, but it feels like the weirdest of trends. It's not even the best musical that ends in a double wedding, that's easily "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" but I can't help loving "Guys and Dolls" more anyway. 

It's exactly what you expect and still just a ball of fun. The film was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, most known for "All About Eve" and not particularly known as a director for his auterish styling, but the choreography was done by the great Michael Kidd, one of the more underrated of the great choreographers of the time; he never gets the credit that the Jerome Robbins, Agnes De Mille or Bob Fosse's seem to get in either Broadway or feature films, but he's right up there. I think of him mostly for his work on "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers", but his stage work on "Guys and Dolls" is his biggest claim and there's a lot of good choreography here; not even just dancing choreography too. The dancing itself is great, but there's some great subtle choreography too, like a montage in the beginning opening involving how and where a yo-yo get passed around, or how phone booths are used depending on who's in them and how. It's a fun movie you don't have to think about and in these days this feels like the highest of currency. 

Probably not enough currency to blow it on a floating crap game and still be okay, thankfully, but you know, enough escapist fun currency.

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