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Guys and Dolls
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,Guys and Dolls

Guys and Dolls

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