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Saturday, 22 September 2007

Guys and Dolls (1955) Joseph L Mankiewicz

The opening scenes are startling but as stylised as could be. Everything's very cool, in a very fifties sense, and it describes well just how New York city street life works. However it's really annoying and it's a good thing that it soon quits and we get to pay attention to Jean Simmons, as a Salvation Army sergeant trying to preach about the evils of drink and gambling. Nobody pays attention, not even a chubby Stubby Kaye. He's Nicely Nicely Johnson and, together with other colourfully named friends, he works for high powered crap game host Nathan Detroit, played by no less a talent than Frank Sinatra. After all, if you're going to cast a major musical, Sinatra would be a pretty solid name to choose to appear in it!

He isn't even the star though, being third credited behind Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando, which he apparently really wasn't happy about. Brando was obviously exploring his range as an actor. He'd done the serious thing in a couple of massively acclaimed films, A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, and his next film would be The Teahouse of the August Moon, in which he played a native Okinawan in what played like a sitcom pilot. He'd done Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar and The Wild One, yet this was only film number eight for him. A musical fits in with those films about as well as they fit in with each other, but maybe that's why he made such a name for himself: avoiding typecasting.

Brando is Sky Masterson, the highest of high powered gamblers, and he's in town tonight when Nathan Detroit's floating crap game is at risk of being shut down by Lt Brannigan. Putting Brando on the other side of a table from Sinatra is pretty high powered stuff right there, but for some reason writer/director Mankiewicz forces his actors, from Brando and Sinatra on down, to speak some highly deliberate, pronounced, emphasised and annoyingly artificial dialogue.

Behind the annoying dialogue, Detroit ends up pressing Masterson into a sucker bet. He's going to Havana on the morrow and he bets for a thousand dollars that he can take any girl with him that Detroit can name. Detroit names Sister Sarah Brown, who is naturally not going to be an easy target to convince, but the first great scenes are the ones where he tries to do the convincing. Brando and Simmons work well together, which has a lot more to do with them than the situations, but the situations really help too. Getting an abolitionist drunk in Cuba is a gift of a situation to be in, and they make the most of it.

Sinatra has his own story too, given that he's been engaged to a club singer called Miss Adelaide for fourteen years, and yet only now discovers that she's already told her mother in letters over the years that they're already married and now have five kids. She wants him to quit the gambling game yet he ends up getting married only to keep the floating crap game alive under Lt Brannigan's nose. Vivian Blaine brings an acute accent to Miss Adelaide but I was surprised to see Sinatra so far back in the mix. He doesn't really dominate any scenes that he's in, which I'm used to seeing him do.

Brando is the one dominating here, seeming natural throughout the film and even passing muster in the singing and dancing stakes, though he admittedly doesn't do a lot of either and it apparently took a lot of takes to get things right. Jean Simmons is great as Sister Sarah and she's great both as the sincere sergeant in the Sally Band and as the much looser and lively young lady who's been fed a string of rum and milks. She reminds me in many ways of Ruby Keeler, but a Ruby Keeler that I'd actually want to watch. I could see myself watching films to see Jean Simmons rather than taking advantage of Keeler scenes to hit the bathroom.

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