In times like these, it may sound redundant — to say nothing of that old bugbear, “escapist” — to retreat to the heightened artifice of the studio-bound Hollywood musical. Globetrotting adventures and passionately physical romances would seem a more attractive antidote to our currently cooped-up, isolated lives. Yet, when the time came for me to revisit Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1955 adaptation of the Broadway smash Guys and Dolls (something I’d been planning to do since long before the Coronavirus hammer fell), my expectations of disillusionment and ennui were quickly squelched. Recalling Dorothy Gale’s dream of “someplace where there isn’t any trouble,” I found the gaudily colorful soundstage world of the film to be a surprisingly sweet tonic. A story of gangsters and their long-suffering molls that, in tone and aesthetic, is as far away from noir as one could possibly get, Guys and Dolls revels in its own improbability. It’s the loud, creaky hinge that closes the door on one age of Hollywood spectacle, with its top-billed star pointing the way to what’s to come.
The presence of Marlon Brando in the film is commonly viewed as the fly in the ointment here: his miscasting, and by extension, Frank Sinatra’s miscasting opposite him, serving to hobble the film, if only slightly. The stories of tension between the naturalist Brando and the more traditional performer Sinatra don’t bear any visible fruit onscreen, but their two characters, Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit, have only a few scenes together anyway. If a more bombastic actor had taken the Masterson role, Guys and Dolls probably would have hewed closer to the Arthur Freed productions, those 1940s films that perfected the form and spirit of the American musical. But in its way, Brando’s ill-fitting presence only adds to the genial fakery of the film as a whole. His scenes with fellow musical novice Jean Simmons possess an acutely charged push-and-pull between attraction and resistance. Simmons’s own technique and experience as a former child star make her more suited to the open-armed emotion that musicals require, but Brando gives her plenty of charm and style to work against. And Brando’s authentically ordinary singing voice lends the right kind of suspense to the climactic number “Luck Be a Lady.”
The other primary guy-and-doll pair in the story is Sinatra’s Nathan Detroit and Vivian Blaine’s Miss Adelaide. Sinatra, while certainly more familiar with the ins and outs of musicals than Brando or Simmons, was also arguably ill-fitted to the role as originated on stage. A new song, “Adelaide,” was written specifically for him to croon. His somewhat gawky sheepishness, immensely entertaining to watch as it is, may be seen as closer to Brando than the triple-threat confidence of someone like Gene Kelly. Blaine, on the other hand, is the only one of the four to have originated her role in the original 1950 Broadway production, and, as such, she’s the most authentically traditional musical presence in the film. Everything from her exaggerated Brooklyn accent, to her leggy stage performances, to her tendency to squint one eye at a time for emphasis speak to the kind of showmanship that the other three performers are hesitant to attempt. It’s no surprise that she — along with Stubby Kaye, also a veteran of the original production — handles some of the bounciest musical numbers in the film.
One would be tempted to consider the success of Guys and Dolls onscreen to be merely a matter of faithfully transcribing the stage artifice to a new medium. Mankiewicz, often more well-regarded as a writer than a director, might be particularly prone to being dismissed in this way. While the CinemaScope frame of the film does serve primarily to mimic the dynamism of a well-populated stage set, there are some particularly effective two-shots with Brando and Simmons. And Mankiewicz uses the uniqueness of cinema to startling effect in one point-of-view shot from inside Miss Adelaide’s medicine cabinet, inexplicably distended to fill the frame. The wordless opening five minutes of the film, showing a city full of small-time hucksters and grifters at play, is easy to envision in a stage format. It probably would have won me over just as easily in that setting. Still, the use of editing and camera movement make the transparently fake New York onscreen feel bigger, livelier, more apt to surprise.
We mustn’t discount the writing skills Mankiewicz brought to the table, either. With uncredited assistance by Ben Hecht, he successfully brought to the screen the often hilarious, contraction-free dialogue from the Damon Runyon short stories on which the musical is based. The two guys of the title are both dedicated gamblers who live by night, with Nathan Detroit in particular seeming to derive some kind of thrill from constantly being on the edge of ruin. Their respective dolls, in turn, spend the film doing their best to domesticate them. The untouchable Sky and the prim Sarah Brown (Simmons), the evasive Nathan and the lovesick Adelaide, all are beautifully and wittily realized. It should be said that the bloat of the film’s running time, at two and a half hours, is a problem, and even so the double-wedding finale feels strangely abrupt. But on a scene-by-scene basis, Guys and Dolls is amiable company indeed.
Roughly two-thirds of the way into the film, as Sky and Sarah return to New York in the pre-dawn stillness after a raucous night in Havana, Sarah comments on the unusual nature of the light. Sky responds, “In Times Square, the dawn gets turned on by an electrician.” Besides being a poetic invocation of the Big Apple’s self-contained universe, the line doubles as a reference to the artificial light of the Hollywood set on which it was delivered. As a forerunner of the New Hollywood of the 1960s, with its final rejection of the old studio system, Brando might be expected to sneer at all that artificiality. And yet, here he was, strolling down a fake sidewalk, singing in a fake sewer. The old Hollywood lie, an entire world marshaled with impeccable control, should perhaps be indulged sparingly as we try to navigate a real world that’s so often out of control. But, in this case and in so many others, it’s so lovingly crafted and expressive that it breaks through my defenses even at the worst of times.