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Guys and Dolls

Guys and Dolls(1955)

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teaser Guys and Dolls (1955)

Despite all the joyful cavorting on screen, the set of Guys and Dolls was marked by significant hostility. Brando and Sinatra did not get along at all, and the cast and crew were quickly divided between Brando's supporters (among them Mankiewicz and Jean Simmons) and Sinatra and his entourage. Eventually Brando and Sinatra spoke to each other only through intermediaries.

Shortly after signing to do the part of Nathan Detroit, Sinatra realized Brando's role was the more substantial and romantic one, and he quickly let his jealousy show. "Sinatra was snotty and very difficult, as he really didn't want to do "the role," supporting player Regis Toomey later said. "He can be very cruel and disagreeable. Joe [Mankiewicz] had an awfully hard time on that picture." Sinatra refused to perform his one ballad, "Adelaide," in character as the comic, Bronx-accented Detroit, turning on all his romantic crooner charm instead, and composer Frank Loesser was less than pleased with the star's turn in the comic "Sue Me" number. ("We'll do it my way or you can f**k off," he reportedly told Loesser.) When Brando pointed out to Mankiewicz that he should tell Sinatra how to sing his songs ("We can't have two romantic leads," Brando allegedly said), Mankiewicz refused. Brando swore never to work with him again - and he didn't. In 1959, Sinatra said his role in this picture was the only one he was ever disappointed with. "I wanted to play Masterson," he told Newsweek. "I mean nothing disparaging about Marlon Brando, but Masterson didn't fit him and he knew it."

The tension between the two male leads started right off. Brando approached Sinatra asking for help with musical numbers and suggesting they get together often and work on them. Sinatra told him he didn't go for "that Method crap" and refused. The singer resented Brando's acting style and what it represented, which was a major departure from the Hollywood glamour he had known. He referred to Brando as "Mumbles" and "the world╒s most over-rated actor." Sinatra also claimed he had been promised the part in On the Waterfront (1954) that won Brando the Oscar®.

Brando retaliated against Sinatra's hostility by saying, "Frank's the kind of guy, when he dies, he's going to heaven and give God a bad time for making him bald." He also antagonized Sinatra through his own exhaustive working methods. Sinatra was known throughout his career for refusing to rehearse and hating to do more than a single take. "I don't buy this take and retake jazz," he said. "The key to good acting on screen is spontaneity, and there's something you lose a little with each take." Brando's approach, however, was to discover something new with each take, working up to the character's rhythms and emotions. This drove Sinatra crazy, and Brando was soon using it against his co-star, doing an entire scene between them brilliantly, then blowing the last line, forcing a retake. In one scene, Sinatra had to eat cheesecake while Brando talked. Each new take brought Sinatra another piece of cheesecake. After eight takes he was feeling nauseated. When the ninth attempt was scrapped, Sinatra threw his plate to the ground, jammed his fork into the table, and screamed at Mankiewicz, "These f**king New York actors! How much cheesecake do you think I can eat?"

Working with Sinatra wasn't Brando's only challenge during production on Guys and Dolls. Although he worked very hard at the musical aspects, constantly working with voice coaches and choreographer Michael Kidd, Brando thought his voice sounded like "the mating call of a yak." He had to spend many hours in the sound studio recording his numbers over and over again. In the end, his songs were patched together from countless retakes for playback during shooting. Years later, he wrote in his autobiography, "They sewed my words together on one song so tightly that when I mouthed it in front of the camera, I nearly asphyxiated myself because I couldn't breathe while trying to synchronize my lips."

The hostility between Brando and Sinatra did not extend to the rest of the working relationships on the set. Simmons and Mankiewicz got along splendidly; in fact years later she said, "Yes, I was aware that he was in love with me, and I think I was with him, really, which I've never admitted to anybody." And Goldwyn was so pleased with Brando's behavior on screen and off, that he rewarded him with a brand new white Thunderbird, which Brando immediately began racing around the streets. In return, Brando went against his usual practice and agreed to do substantial publicity for the picture. However, his good intentions were short lived and after some initial appearances on behalf of the film, he eventually refused to do any additional promotion, stating "I've done enough for that white Thunderbird."

Mankiewicz had the highest praise for Michael Kidd's choreography. He was skeptical at first when Kidd wanted to stage the crap game as a big ballet but the choreographer's unique conception and execution of the number impressed everyone when it was finally screened.

Mankiewicz decided to strive for realism only in the characterizations but not the settings. There was no location shooting, no rear projection, only actors on highly stylized sound stages to comply with the feel of the play, which was subtitled "A Musical Fable of Broadway." Oliver Smith's sets emulated the playfully surreal look of the stage production, using some authentic touches then coloring them incongruously to set them off as non-naturalistic. Irene Sharaff's costumes, for which she received an Academy Award nomination, followed much the same pattern, exaggerating color and line within a mish-mash of period styles (the gangsters are clad in the styles of the 1920s, while Adelaide and the chorus girls are definitely out of a 1950s fantasy). Mankiewicz and Sharaff worked together to use costume as character cue, as in Sarah's nervous habit of opening the second button of her tightly cinched jackets, signaling her desire to be free of her prim existence.

Mankiewicz objected to Goldwyn's insistence the film be shot in CinemaScope, because of what the director called that format's "dollar-bill proportions," and he wasn't happy with the result. "When you've got to fill the CinemaScope screen, everything spreads out," he said later. "On that screen you had twice as many gangsters, twice as many twirls, and twice as many intricacies."

by Rob Nixon

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teaser Guys and Dolls (1955)

Marlon Brando in a musical? Back in 1955, it seemed an unlikely proposition (and still a bit unbelievable today). The role of ace gambler and man-about-town Sky Masterson in the film version of Guys and Dolls (1955) was originally supposed to go to Gene Kelly, a musical star perfectly suited to the role. But Kelly's studio, MGM, wouldn't release him to work on the Sam Goldwyn production. And having paid a million dollars (against 10 percent of the picture's profits) to the owners of the rights to the hit Broadway play - even now a staggering figure for a story property - Goldwyn wasn't about to throw his project away on nobodies. He retained from the original stage cast Stubby Kaye, B.S. Pully, and Johnny Silver in supporting roles, and Vivian Blaine in the key female second-lead of Adelaide (after Betty Grable was unavailable). But for his stars, Goldwyn intended to go all out. He and his director Joseph Mankiewicz - something of a superstar himself after a string of smash successes including A Letter to Three Wives (1949), All About Eve (1950), and The Barefoot Contessa (1954) - considered a number of big names (Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum) and some lesser ones (such as Tony Martin). Bing Crosby and Clark Gable pushed hard for the lead, and Goldwyn even considered for a moment casting the biggest comedy team of the era, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, as Sky and crap-game organizer Nathan Detroit.

In a way, getting Brando was something of a casting coup. In the mid-50s, Hollywood was divided more or less between two camps, those who sought to combat the threat of television and diminishing audiences by producing even bigger and splashier movies, and those who sought to bring gritty realism to the screen, intimate and challenging dramas that could beat TV at its own game. With Guys and Dolls audiences got an odd marriage of the two - the full-out mega-production of old-time producer Goldwyn with the Method brashness of Brando. The actor was reluctant at first, concerned about his ability to pull off a musical. But Mankiewicz, who had recently directed him as Antony in Julius Caesar (1953), greatly admired Brando's skills and convinced him by saying: "You have never done a musical; neither have I. We never did Shakespeare either."

For Nathan Detroit, Goldwyn gave in to Frank Sinatra's pleas for the part, against Mankiewicz's objections that the singer-actor was all wrong for the role (he wanted the theater original, Sam Levene). But with the Oscar winners Brando and Sinatra on the marquee Goldwyn was sure he'd have a hit. And to guarantee that further, he went after Grace Kelly for the part of the prim Salvation Army worker Sarah. When both she and Deborah Kerr turned it down, he went with his third choice, Jean Simmons, who had just appeared with Brando (as Napoleon) in Desiree (1954).

Mankiewicz and Goldwyn wisely decided not to tamper with the dialogue of the play, which had been a smash on Broadway. The word "Runyonesque" had already entered the language, and the filmmakers knew much of the charm of the piece depended on the quirky characters and idiosyncratic dialogue of Damon Runyon, from whose story, "The Idyll of Sarah Brown," the play was adapted. It concerned the efforts of Nathan Detroit, proprietor of "the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York," to find a location for his latest venture. Needing $1,000 to secure a spot, he bets gambler Masterson that Sky can't get mission worker Sarah Brown to accompany him to Havana. The bulk of the story concerns the tangled efforts of Nathan to get his game going under the nose of the law; his dealings with his chorus girl girlfriend Adelaide, who wants him to give up gambling and settle down; and Sky's burgeoning relationship with Sarah.

The producers retained most of the hit songs from the stage version, although at least two ("My Time of Day" & "I've Never Been in Love Before") had to be thrown out to accommodate Brando's thin voice. But Runyon's characteristic dialogue - with not a contraction in the script - stayed intact.

Runyon created an entire world based on the denizens of New York's Broadway and Times Square areas, not a sharply realistic world by any means, but rather a fantasy Manhattan peopled by chorines, card sharps, hustlers, battle-ax wives, and easily duped cops. He used many of these characters over and over from story to story. In Guys and Dolls, Stubby Kaye does the show-stopping number "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat" as the rotund Nicely Nicely Johnson. The same character appeared in the Henry Fonda-Lucille Ball movie The Big Street (1942), played by the equally portly Eugene Pallette.

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Screenplay: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on the play by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling and the story by Damon Runyon
Cinematography: Harry Stradling
Editing: Daniel Mandell
Production Design: Oliver Smith
Art Direction: Joseph Wright
Music: Frank Loesser, Jay Blackton
Cast: Marlon Brando (Sky Masterson), Frank Sinatra (Nathan Detroit), Jean Simmons (Sarah Brown), Vivian Blaine (Adelaide), Stubby Kaye (Nicely Nicely Johnson), Sheldon Leonard (Harry the Horse), Regis Toomey (Arvide Abernathy).
C-150m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Rob Nixon

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