GUYS AND DOLLS—-Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote & directed the glitzy, expensive, generally entertaining 1955 film version of the smash Broadway musical, based on some of Damon Runyan’s ‘funny-hoodlum’ stories. With a gross of $19,600,000, it claimed the year’s #7 spot, just behind another serving of tuneful Americana, Oklahoma! As with many stage musicals adapted for film, some numbers were jettisoned, and new ones were tacked on; Frank Loesser was the man behind the melodies and lyrics for the fifteen numbers that decorate the 150-minute running time.
“I plead the fifth commandment.”
The setting is ‘Noo Yawk, Noo Yawk’, as the diction-airy lingo of the Big Wiseapple’s denizens let you decipher in ‘toim’s’ they should only know, from 42nd to Flushing or, be it the case, Flatbush. The jargon patter is consistently amusing, the score has several familiar faves, the stylized production design (Oliver Smith) is laudable, evidence of the $5,500,000 producer Samuel Goldwyn poured into the shoot.
The off-kilter casting is variable, the length is excessive, the mid-section sags; they could’ve cut fifteen numbers to ten: who’d know besides those who’d seen the play? As proto-gambler ‘Sky Masterson’, Goldwyn and Mankiewicz gambled on Marlon Brando, figuring his acting prowess and high-profile star power would compensate for his being not exactly a vocalist (presage paging Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin painting themselves into wagon and Peter O’Toole chewing Chips in La Mancha). Brando’s acting is fine, but a tune is something he can not carry. Giving him the show’s signature number “Luck Be A Lady” just reminds how much better co-star Frank Sinatra would slay that she-dragon. Sinatra coasts in semi-sulk (he and Brando did not see much the same way—except maybe dolls/dames/broads—relations went to the freezer and stayed there) in the comparatively neutered role as ‘Nathan Detroit’, who enjoins Sky on a bet-you-can’t bet that Sky can woo & win the favors of Salvation Army Sergeant ‘Sarah Brown’. She’s Jean Simmons, in another casting dice roll, one that pays off. From the stage production, Vivian Blaine delivers further spark as Nathan’s eternal fiancée, ‘Adelaide’.
“Nathan, no matter how terrible a fellow seems, you can never be sure that some girl won’t go for him. Take us.”
Brando and Sinatra are okay, Simmons and Blaine best them, and Simmons gets to unload any ideas about being too English Rose demure when she lets go with sexy abandon in the wild Havana bar scene. She can throw a mean punch, too. Michael Kidd’s zippy choreography is a winning hand, Mankiewicz’ and helpers deft handling of the dizzying to & fro on the extras-jammed sets is splendid, and the supporting cast (including a few more veterans of the play) is polished. All in, a fun watch, and a quick fix way to notch another piece of American stagecraft. You’ll whistle/hum/belt “Luck Be A Lady” until someone finally implores you to “switch, already!” to “Bali Ha’i” or “America”.
Academy Award nominations went to the Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design and Scoring. With Stubby Kaye (‘Nicely Nicely’), Johnny Silver (‘Benny Southstreet’), B.S. Pully (‘Big Jule’), Sheldon Leonard (“Harry the Horse’), Robert Keith, Regis Toomey, George E. Stone, Veda Ann Borg, Larri Thomas. “If a guy did not have a doll, who would holler on him?” Indeed, but we “wouldn’t have it any other way”.
* Despite his boiling irritation with Marlon over a wide variety of things, and being billed third (after Simmons), Frank scored big that year, doing yeoman work in Not As A Stranger and The Tender Trap and copping a Best Actor nomination for The Man With The Golden Arm.
Brando on Sinatra: “He’s the kind of guy that when he dies, he’s going up to heaven and give God a bad time for making him bald.” Needless to say, neither of the supremely talented men were known to be easy to work with.
Mankiewicz on Simmons: “the dream…a fantastically talented and enormously underestimated girl. In terms of talent, Jean Simmons is so many heads and shoulders above most of her contemporaries, one wonders why she didn’t become the great star she could have been.”