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  • Writer's pictureDiana Balakirov

The Sky's the Limit

I've known about, heard about and read about it for as long as I can remember. A highly popular motion picture that's loved by many. An iconic tale that's as old as time but never gets old. A production that manages to epitomize the musical genre on Broadway and in Hollywood. A title that reverberates all by itself as soon as it's spoken aloud. You get the point. Despite all the accolades attributed to it over the years, I had no idea what Guys and Dolls was about. But when the Paramount Theatre hosted its annual Summer Classic Film Series in 2021, I was determined to find out.


The curated series of selections that makes the Paramount cut is a cinematic experience to which I look forward every year, and the act of catching a film or two during the summer season has become sort of a personal tradition that I've cherished ever since I first caught a showing of An American in Paris almost 10 years ago. Since then, I've developed an immense appreciation for the historic venue that stands tall with its iconic marquee and all at the heart of Congress Avenue in downtown Austin, Texas. When it came time for Guys and Dolls, going all out by seeing the new-to-me musical in a grandiose setting was, without a doubt, the way to go.


Guys and Dolls is loosely based on a collection of short stories written by columnist-reporter Damon Runyon in the 1930s that were turned into a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows and directed on the Broadway stage by George S. Kaufman in 1950. After its conversion into a screenplay by director Joseph Mankiewicz, the musical received a first-class treatment at the hands of independent producer Samuel Goldwyn. With Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM) backing the film's distribution, the 1955 version of Guys and Dolls set off down a street paved with gold.

 

*Contains spoilers*

The 72-page scrapbook alone is worth it!

Musicals in which characters randomly burst into song-and-dance numbers or add melodies to conversations are not always appealing to a general audience, though it's fair to say that some moviegoers can stand a bit of singing and dancing as long as they are integrated into an act that takes place on a stage or in front of the camera in other words, scenes where characters are officially performing in front of spectators. Hollywood's presentation of Guys and Dolls falls on the former end of the spectrum but also appeals to the latter crowd. A fine line to walk, indeed.


The film's opening scene, regardless of one's musical preference, is a surefire winner in every way, immediately drawing viewers in and setting just the right tone and pace for the rest of the story. Recreated from the 1950 stage production, the number shows the events, from the mundane to the extraordinary, that occur in the daily lives of busy New Yorkers. The city itself is depicted in a highly stylized fashion and with an abundance of details – from the costumes and cars to the buildings and props – that are colorful and eye-catching. With so much happening at a moment's notice, one hesitates to blink or look away for fear of missing an important development. This momentum builds until the very end, when "Fugue for Tinhorns" turns the page on the unfolding story and prepares the audience for what's to come next.


 

It is often said that the magic of Guys and Dolls, thanks largely in part to Samuel Goldwyn's vision, lies in its superb cast. From familiar stars to lesser-known supporting players, each role is thoughtfully filled, skillfully executed and memorably placed in each and every scene. Performers who do not sing (more on that later) are given a chance to shine without vocal dubbing – a practice that was all too common in the Golden Age of Hollywood productions. Comedic moments are flawlessly delivered, and the more dramatic occasions tug at heartstrings for just the right amount of time but without overwhelming a viewer's sensibilities. The musical stylings of composer and lyricist Frank Loesser are matched only by the intentional choreography of Michael Kidd and the brilliant cinematography of Harry Stradling. A unique blend of everything that makes a motion picture great is brought to life in a way that is difficult to ignore or even dislike. And at the heart of it all is a legendary leading man who knows no boundaries when it comes to fully embracing the practiced art of method acting.


Though he's got over 40 films to his name, Marlon Brando is more widely recognized for his portrayals of salesman Stanley Kowalski in 1951's in A Streetcar Named Desire, former prize fighter Terry Malloy in 1954's On the Waterfront, Don Vito Corleone in 1972's The Godfather and Colonel Walter Kurtz in 1979's Apocalypse Now. You name it, he's done it all. Over a course of several decades, each and every role that Marlon conquered has been played to perfection, leaving an indelible mark on cinematic history. It is of little wonder, then, that someone who is considered to be one of the best actors of the twentieth century ends up – out of all places – in a musical production. And does it justice.


Guys and Dolls' Sky Masterson is neither good nor bad, given his profession. A gambler by trade, he challenges the audience to figure out who he is and, ultimately, decide whether he's worth rooting for. Even though I never considered myself a particular fan of Marlon, even with my acknowledgement of his legendary status, I was pleasantly surprised at how well he fit the musical mold and began warming up to him more and more as the story progressed. Through a series of unexpected circumstances and chance encounters, Sky's morals and values are brought to the surface and put to the test. Marlon Brando himself is no exception, taking an actor's approach to learning songs and mastering dance steps required of his character in the same way he memorizes lines from a screenplay. Vocally, Marlon is no match for his co-stars, but he fares well and does not disappoint.


When I think of Frank Sinatra, I tend to place him into two separate categories. The first contains his younger self from the 1940s, donning a bow tie a recording artist under the Columbia Records label and a supporting player in several musicals made with Gene Kelly. From Anchors Aweigh and Take Me Out to the Ball Game to On the Town, his characters are reserved, charming and highly likeable. But in that is where his earlier appeal lies. The second Frank is a more mature and seasoned entertainer, now wearing his signature hat, appearing in films such as Ocean's 11 and The Manchurian Candidate, hanging out with the Rat Pack, bringing the world some of the most beloved and iconic songs ("Fly Me to the Moon," "My Way" and "New York, New York") and carving a name for himself in his first major film role in Guys and Dolls, for which he received critical acclaim, as powerhouse gambler Nathan Detroit.



It is no secret that Frank Sinatra (and Gene Kelly, for that matter) had coveted the starring role in Guys and Dolls, the former resenting Marlon Brando, whom he begrudgingly nicknamed Mumbles, for stealing his shine. The golden-voiced crooner also disliked rehearsals, preferring to film any given scene once even as his co-star went at it as many times as needed. This context led to tension between the two performers but also made a few particular scenes in the movie stand out. When Guys and Dolls begins, Nathan is organizing an illegal game of craps but cannot find a suitable location without a local policeman, Lieutenant Brannigan (Robert Keith), breathing down his neck. A hefty deposit, which Nathan doesn't have, is required to secure a spot at a local garage. It is then that he turns to Sky and makes him an offer he can't refuse.


During a particularly memorable interaction, during which the two men discuss the terms of a wager, Nathan is seen eating a slice of cheesecake. This dessert, while certainly a crowd pleaser at Lindy's a deli and restaurant chain in Manhattan that Damon Runyon frequented in real life was detested by Frank. Consequently, Marlon made a dedicated effort to jeopardize his lines, take after take, bite after bite. When Frank could take no more cheesecake without feeling sick, the filming of the scene was postponed until the following day. By then, Marlon was on his best behavior and willing to nail the Lindy's shot in one go.

 

Although there may be some argument as to whose role is truly superior, Nathan's presence being just as prominent as Sky's with the on-screen enhancement of both personas, there is little doubt that both men are equally yoked when it comes to romance. Nightclub singer Adelaide, backed by a sultry lineup of showgirls – originally depicted as more of a burlesque act on Broadway but toned down for the film by the Goldwyn Girls has been engaged to Nathan for over 14 years. While eagerly waiting for wedding bells to ring, Adelaide also hopes that her fiancé will turn over a new professional leaf. A pillar of strength, she is endlessly patient and understanding; despite all the heartbreak and disappointment that come her way, Adelaide keeps a stiff upper lip and attempts to tackle life's challenges as they come. She may be over-the-top in her looks and a bit eccentric in her mannerisms, but part of what makes Adelaide so appealing is the honest and endearing portrayal of Vivian Blaine, who truly brought the character to life when Guys and Dolls flawlessly transitioned from the stage to screen.


Sky, while certainly not looking for love, finds it in all the right places. Taking Nathan up on his bet to bring a woman of his choosing to Havana, Sky seeks out Sergeant Sarah Brown, a "sister" appointed to the New York branch of Save-a-Soul Mission, and promises to recruit a dozen sinners to her cause in exchange for one date. At first glance, Sarah, who self-identifies as a prude, seems uptight and oblivious to the world around her. But when she begins to open up to Sky on a magical evening in Cuba, Sarah's layers are removed to reveal a fiery, passionate and inspiring woman. The decision to cast British actress Jean Simmons in Guys and Dolls is the smartest one ever made. Not only is she strikingly beautiful, a fantastic singer (undubbed in the film like Marlon Brando) and a highly sensitive performer, but her depiction of Sarah leads to Sky's emotional growth as he finds, within himself, a better man.


The exotic, picturesque and lively depiction of Havana is one that evokes a feeling of nostalgia and an appreciation of a bygone era that will never come back. Promoted as a popular and accessible destination for Americans, at least throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the Cuban city is the perfect setting for Sky to reveal his true colors and Sarah to let down her guard. With perfect comedic timing, Sarah drinks her way through several Bacardi-spiked cocktails (thinking they are milkshakes) and dances the night away even as Sky becomes protective of her and proves that he is a true gentleman. As the two develop romantic feelings for each other, emotions simmer underneath the surface and lead to "A Woman in Love," a movie addition that serves as the overture to a genuinely heartfelt and tender scene in the film – my personal favorite!


 

Business and pleasure don't often mix, but when they do, trouble may be afoot. While Sky and Sarah are away, Nathan attempts to hold yet another craps game at the abandoned mission building with a group of gamblers but is forced to flee and hide out in a sewer when Lieutenant Brannigan conducts a raid. Sky is falsely accused of masterminding the operation, losing Sarah's trust (and affection) as a result, and is inadvertently forced to hold up his end of the bargain. Determined to deliver a dozen sinners like he originally promised, Sky comes to Nathan's rescue and makes the gamble of a lifetime.


"Luck Be a Lady," the 42nd greatest film song that made the cut on the American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Songs list, is a not-to-be-missed performance that shows Marlon Brando stepping out of his comfort zone and staying true to his character...regardless of who's watching. All eyes are on Sky as he rolls the dice, but none are as judgmental as those of Nathan, as experienced by Frank Sinatra. Listening to Marlon, who was not a professional singer, tackle Sky's tune must have been difficult for Frank. But his discomfort was not meant to last. In exchange for "Luck Be a Lady," which Frank got to perform for the rest of his career, the crooner was presented with new song "Adelaide" that was well-received and eventually made its way back to the staged version of Guys and Dolls. Similarly, Vivian Blaine and her Alley Kittens meowed their way through the added "Pet Me Poppa" number. Other songs from the Broadway score – including "A Bushel and a Peck," "My Time of Day" and "I've Never Been in Love Before," which was replaced by "Woman in Love" – were not produced for the film but could be partially heard in the background of select scenes.

 

One of the most memorable moments in the film, a cinematic jewel in and out of itself, is the much-anticipated gathering of all the gamblers at Save-a-Soul. In danger of closing, the New York branch of the mission is given a chance to turn its failing operation around by the visiting General Matilda Cartwright (Kathryn Givney). Led by Nathan, the so-called unrepentant sinners take a stab at making confessions. Most are coerced into the situation and therefore unwilling to cooperate, but one, Nicely-Nicely Johnson, played by the hilarious Stubby Kaye, recalls a dream in which he experienced an other-worldly connection with God. Nicely's genuine account with an appeal for salvation during "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" is inspiring, infectious and influential. He is willing to undergo a personal transformation even as his buddies remain safely tucked away, at least this time around, from the clutches of the police (and a very confused Lieutenant Brannigan). It is also during this crucial time that Sarah finds out the truth about Sky's bet from Nathan and makes a decision that leads to one of the most creative and satisfying endings in musical movie history.


The on-screen finale of Guys and Dolls is very similar to the beginning and equally as busy, bringing the story back full circle but with an added bonus of a double wedding between the two couples we knew would be together. Nathan, after losing Adelaide earlier in the film, finally bites the bullet and decides to spend the next 14 years (unlike the first) living in holy matrimony. Sky, who was originally meant to join the mission's cause with Sarah, remains a gambler, at least in the on-screen depiction of the story, while Nicely takes his place alongside General Cartwright. The question of whether Sky will ever truly find himself a reformed man is never addressed, but that ambiguity, coupled with the fact that Sarah decides to marry him unconditionally, is what makes the story so satisfying.


 

It's hard to believe that 74 years have passed since Guys and Dolls first debuted on the Broadway stage and took the world by storm with its eclectic mix of characters, catchy soundtrack and feel-good storytelling that's just as fresh today as it was back in 1950. The beloved performers who immortalized the characters of Sky Masterson, Nathan Detroit, Sarah Brown and Adelaide are no longer with us, but their legacy lives on through the countless live productions that are still being put on around the globe. As of 2023, the staged version of Guys and Dolls was up to a run of ~1,200 performances and won the Tony Award for Best Musical. At least 10 international revivals followed, each one bursting with new faces and the unique talents of diverse and eclectic cast members that make the story relevant for a new generation of theatergoers.


For a musical lover like myself, the 1955 motion picture, in particular, is an essential component of a lifelong journey one that unlocks hidden doors and leads me to an endless discovery of rabbit holes that infuse Classics in Wonderland with the best of what the Golden Age of Hollywood has to offer. And as I revisit Guys and Dolls this month, recalling my wide-eyed viewing experience at the Paramount Theatre, my newfound appreciation for Marlon Brando and my deepening love of cinematic history, I realize that this is only the beginning.



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