Friday, June 14, 2024

"Guys and Dolls" (1955)


Guys and Dolls
 (1955) is my favorite movie musical.  I love so much about it -- the songs, the cast, the costumes, the scenery, and the storyline!  But above all, I love the dialog.  This musical is based on the short stories of Damon Runyon, particularly his 1933 story "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown."  Runyon wrote a distinctive style of dialog that became known as "Runyonese" that is filled with slang, humorously uses long and flowery words at random, and diligently avoids contractions.  The dialog for the film embraces Runyonese, with spectacularly funny results.


When I saw this movie for the first time, I was fifteen and had no idea what it was about, what Runyonese was like, nothing.  My friend Jesse and I had spent the afternoon painting faces at a Halloween festival, and we stopped to rent a movie on the way back to my place.  We both loved old classic movies, and we thought the colorful VHS cover at the video store looked really fun, so we rented it on a complete whim.

We spent the next two and a half hours laughing and laughing and laughing. We both fell in love with all the songs and the crazy dialog and the costumes -- in fact, I watched the movie all over again the next day with my mom and brother before returning it to the video store.  And Jesse and I would fangirl over it with great glee for months afterward, whenever we happened to get together.

A few years later, I found a collection of Damon Runyon's stories and read them, and was endlessly delighted to discover that Runyonese is just as funny when you read it as when you hear it.


Guys and Dolls revolves around two romantic pairings: Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra) and Miss Adelaide (Vivian Blaine), and Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) and Sergeant Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons).  Nathan and Adelaide have been engaged for fourteen years, but Sky and Sarah have only just met.  


Nathan Detroit needs a thousand dollars to rent a place to hold his famous floating crap game, and he bets Sky Masterson a thousand dollars that Sky cannot take any random woman on a date.  Sky takes the bet, Nathan names Sister Sarah as the woman he should take out, and the bulk of the film is about Sky's attempts to convince Sarah he is a repentant sinner who wants her street mission to save his soul, when really he just wants her to fly to Havana with him so he can win the bet.  Except that, he starts to fall in love with her for real, which complicates everything.


Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons were not trained singers, but they recorded their own songs for this film anyway.  Brando later said that they cobbled his songs together from the multitude of takes they recorded, but Simmons sang well enough she did not need such extreme editing.  Neither of them hold a candle to Sinatra, but they do not need to!  The unpolished, more realistic sound of their songs adds to their charm.  Not only are neither Sky nor Sarah great at singing, neither one has ever been great at this whole falling-in-love thing.  But they do so anyway.  It totally works.


I have read that Sinatra very much wanted to play Sky Masterson and was so angry that the studio cast Marlon Brando instead, who was not really a singer or a dancer (but WAS hot box office right then), that he refused to speak to Brando most of the time.  They spent the bulk of the filming communicating through others.  Their characters definitely come across as rivals who like to one-up each other, so the off-screen antagonism does not hurt the film.


One of my favorite parts of the whole movie is the crap game staged as a ballet set in the sewers.  Which is not a sentence you will run into very often, am I right?  But it works gorgeously, and it involves my favorite song from the film ("Luck be a Lady").  I would link to clips of it here, but it is kind of the climax for the plot, and I do not want to ruin it for anyone here who has decided they want to see the movie for the first time.


I have heard a lot of people saying that Marlon Brando is miscast in this film, and I think that is hogwash.  His Sky Masterson is unfairly attractive, all elegant masculinity and effortless cool.  There is no reason to wonder why Sarah Brown is drawn to him despite her best intentions not to be.  I have always been upset that Brando has never played any other character quite as wonderful, though, admittedly, I have only seen ten of his other films, so perhaps I will stumble on one sometime that I also love him in -- his turn as Mark Antony in the 1953 Julius Caesar is the closest I have found so far.

Random historical tidbit: when Damon Runyon was an up-and-coming New York City reporter, he was mentored by famed western lawman-and-gambler-turned-sportswriter Bat Masterson.  It is widely acknowledged that Runyon named his coolest character, a gambler from the west called Sky Masterson, after his mentor.


Is this movie family friendly?  Basically, yes.  Miss Adelaide is a singer and dancer at a nightclub, and her songs are a little risque both in the lyrics and her costumes (see above).  Not racy enough to stop me from watching this movie recently with my kids, who are currently 12, 14, and 16, but some families may find they wish to fast-forward or skip those scenes (you can skip them without missing any part of the plot).  There are some kisses and some very mild innuendos in the dialog elsewhere.  By today's standards, it is super tame, but for the '50s it was probably almost a little edgy.

You can watch this movie on DVD and Blu-Ray, or stream it on Amazon Prime, YouTube, FreeVee, Tubi, the Roku Channel, and probably other places too -- it is not hard to find.


This has been my contribution to the Seventh Broadway Bound Blogathon hosted by Taking Up Room this weekend!  Guys and Dolls was originally a Broadway musical -- according to Wikipedia, it opened on Broadway in 1950, ran for 1200 performances, and won the Tony Award for Best Musical that year!

21 comments:

  1. You know, I've never seen this movie. Thanks for the tip that it streams on Prime Video -- I'll give it a watch and let you know what I think!

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    1. Debra, I realized while writing this that, when I recommend movies or shows in my author newsletter, I mention where they can be easily found, and why not do that on my blogs too? So I will try to add that from now on.

      I hope you get a big kick out of this movie! Even though I just watched it recently, reviewing it made me want to watch it all over again. It's so delightful.

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  2. I love this musical! I have the soundtrack on CD, and I've seen it live and it was just hilarious.

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    1. Katie, oh, I bet this is awesome when you see it live!!! I have the soundtrack too -- such fun songs :-D

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  3. I don't know what it is about Damon Runyon dialogue, but it wears me out. I think it's the lack of contractions that makes it seem a little too laboured for me. However, I enjoyed your review so much, I'm going to watch this film again.

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    1. Silver Screenings, yeah, I can see how it could take extra effort to keep up with the dialog. I love how very unusual it is -- having seen it so many times now, it doesn't seem labored or stilted at all, just like a unique dialect. But I can see how it could be distracting until you get used to it. I hope you get a chance to try it again, and maybe like it better!

      (Randomly, I didn't use any contractions in this review of the film and am waiting to see if anyone noticed. So far, no one has commented on that...)

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  4. I really must check this out, Marlon Brando in a musical sounds too go to miss.

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    1. Gill, YES! Brando in a musical -- and he shines. I read once that he did it just because he liked trying different things and had never done a musical, so he figured, why not? And he works. SO well.

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  5. The idea of Marlon Brando in a musical just blows my mind a bit.

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    1. Nitrate Glow, haha! Well, I agree, it's not what you really would expect from him. But he's great fun in it :-D

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  6. I grew up on old time musicals but I've never seen this one! I love your story of first discovering it; that rush of excitement over a new favorite is like nothing else.

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    1. Chloe, this one is not quite so famous for some reason, so I guess I'm not shocked you missed it. I hope you get a chance to see it!

      And yes, there is nothing like realizing you have found a new favorite and will love this movie or book or song forever now!

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  7. I greatly enjoyed reading your take on Guys and Dolls -- especially since I was listening to a podcast just today and one of the hosts was saying how much she loved this musical! You've made me want to check it out again!

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    1. Karen, what a fun coincidence! I hope you get a chance to revisit this movie soon :-)

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  8. Hi lovely, hope you can join this... hope you can join....

    https://weegiemidget.wordpress.com/2024/06/18/news-announcing-the-aaron-spellingverse-blogathon/

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    1. Thanks for the invite, Gill! I will check it out...

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  9. Got to try it. As a trained singer, I have this thing about actors without good singing voices, I'm far too pernickety I guess. Brando singing?! Is it really bearable? (I can understand Ol' Blue Eyes frustration not to have gotten the "lead" here...)

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    1. Andrea, well, I haven't had formal training, but I was in a women's choir in college that went on tour, and I was in the chorus for three productions of Gilbert and Sullivan musicals, so I do know a bit about singing, and I still find Brando delightful. He might not have the polished ease of Sinatra or Darin or Martin, but he has a sincerity and vulnerability to his singing that I find very appealing.

      As for Sinatra playing Masterson, I think he is much better suited to the role of smooth-talking New Yorker Nathan Detroit than to laid-back Westerner Sky Masterson. So I am glad the casting worked out the way it did.

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  10. We can truly feel your love and passion for this film through your review, Rachel! I also love this film but wasn't necessarily charmed on my first viewing like it was the case for you. But the more I watched it, the more I liked it and now it's definitely a favourite! I especially liked the case that it was directed by a non-musical director and stars two actors who were also unfamiliar with the genre. Just like you, I also love the ballet scene in the sewers. There's something about the choregraphy and costumes that reminds me of West Side Story! I also love the opening dance scene.

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    1. Virginie, my mom wasn't charmed by it at first, either. She doesn't like Brando much, and she used to just wander off during his scenes and come back for Sinatra's. It takes all kinds!

      And yes, that sewer ballet does remind me of the street ballets in West Side Story! Great use of odd-yet-ordinary locations.

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  11. This movie was so much fun, although I kinda wish Sinatra had sung more. That's a great story of how you discovered it. too. Thanks again for joining the blogathon, Rachel--it's always a pleasure! :-)

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