A reminder, as a disclaimer, before we begin – I was a theater kid in high school and a drama student in college, and I worked in theater for 10 years. It’s been another 10 years since I was involved in theater, but that past still comes back to me in ways I don’t expect.
I tried to avoid that in this instance. Guys and Dolls was my high school drama club’s production my freshman year; I was only 14 and in the chorus, and an unorthodox ad-lib gave me a line (more on that at the end, just for fun), but largely I was on the outskirts of the action, watching the show from the wings. So I knew the story already – a gussied-up, family-friendly story of underworld gamblers in New York City, the missionary woman one of them tries to seduce, and how he gets seduced into clean living instead. I’d never heard of it before my high school did the show, and came to have a soft spot for several of the songs.
The movie takes a few liberties, but the story is largely intact. Frank Sinatra is Nathan Detroit, organizer of “the oldest-established” underground floating craps game in New York City; a fact he’s been hiding from his long-term fiancée Adelaide (Vivian Blaine), a night club singer. Nathan is looking for a venue for his game, but police crackdowns are forcing his usual hosts to demand a cash advance for their troubles upfront – and Nathan doesn’t have the cash. Fortunately, Detroit’s friend Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) likes to make oddball bets for high stakes. Detroit learns that Masterson is planning on a whirlwind jaunt to Havana for dinner, but is going alone – and dares Masterson $1,000 to ask a woman of Detroit’s choosing to go with him. If she refuses, Masterson needs to pony up. Masterson takes the bet – and Detroit chooses Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons), a crusading missionary at the “Save A Soul Mission”.
Masterson tries to persuade Sarah through a side bet of his own – promising that if she comes to dinner with him, he will round up “one dozen certified sinners” to attend a prayer meeting the Mission is planning to impress a visiting dignitary. Under these conditions alone, she accepts – but sparks fly while they’re on their trip, leading both to question their alliances. Meanwhile, Nathan’s got troubles of his own, juggling the craps game and Adelaide.
As for how this works as a film – well, it’s a musical. It’s a big fluffy candy-coated fairy tale, with show tunes and stylized choreography and big broad characters and exaggerated dialogue. There are some elements of the musical genre that are always gonna look weird to me – they always have, even when I was hip-deep in my theater days; I’ve not always dug the kind of choreography that is an overly-stylized take on another type of movement. So the big production number set at Detroit’s crap game which sees a whole phalanx of dancers balletically gesturing in a way that tries to look like “shooting dice” just left me glancing at the clock.
But I found I was bothered more by some quirks of the adaptation itself. One big problem I had is that they cut five of the songs, replacing them with all-new songs to shake things up a bit and to play to Sinatra’s style. However, two of the songs they cut are among my own favorites – one late-appearing girl-talk bonding duet between Adelaide and Sarah, and the lovely “More I Cannot Wish You“, in which Sarah’s uncle – another missionary from the group – gently reassures her that it’s okay to fall in love, even if it’s with Sky Masterson if that’s where her heart takes her. It’s not just sentiment that made me miss these from the play – those songs also fleshed out Sarah and Adelaide’s characters a little bit, and anything that makes them a little less two-dimensional is good in my book.
There’s also one bit of casting that is a bit of an elephant in the room – Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson. Not that he’s bad; he can carry a tune just fine, and there’s a brief scene he has with Adelaide – one invented for this film – that was quite affecting. Even so, the whole notion of Brando trying to bring his Method-Actor approach to a musical is frankly bizarre. Brando’s casting wasn’t an artistic choice, but rather a mercenary one – he was far and away the biggest box-office draw, and so that’s who the producers wanted. But his style is all about the small nuances and realistic touches that flesh out a character or make a simple conversation feel “real”, which doesn’t work in a genre where everything is exaggerated, oversimplified and larger-than-life. He’s not bad – he just seems out of place, like if someone booked a solo chamber harpist at Ozzfest.
Still, I’ve realized that a part of me wouldn’t have accepted Brando even if his style had fit in with the others. That same part of me wasn’t sold on Sinatra or Blaine or Simmons either, undisputedly talented as they all were. And I’ve realized that that’s because the performances I first heard, and to which I was comparing all the others, were the ones in that high school production all those years ago. I didn’t need to hear Marlon Brando singing “Luck Be A Lady” or Jean Simmons tipsily singing “If I Were a Bell” or Sinatra and Simmons singing their love duet “Sue Me” – because in my head, I already have Steve and Kerryann and Brian and Leslie’s performances, and their voices are always going to be the ones I hear when I think of any of these songs. Maybe it’s mostly sentiment, but it is what it is.
….As an epilogue – here’s the story of that ad-lib – in a scene with the chorus, we were all tasked with standing in the background and making general crowd chatter. Our director told us to just mutter the phrase “hugger-mugger” if we couldn’t think of anything to say, but that just made me determined to think of something to say “just in case the people in the front row happened to hear me”. I thought of something fairly clever, and got a bit overly-impressed with my own cleverness and decided to make sure the people in the front row overheard me. However, I underestimated how loud I’d be – and so on opening night, spoke that line loud and clear enough for everyone to hear me. Fortunately, they all laughed – so when I meekly went to apologize to our director afterward, he just chuckled and gave me his blessing: “It was funny. Congratulations, you now have a line.”