Friday, September 16, 2022

Marlo Brando and Jean Simmons Find Their Rhythm in Guys and Dolls

         Offering a perfect example of what a big-budget, all-star cinematic production constituted circa 1955, Samuel Goldwyn’s opulent rendering of the smash 1950 Broadway musical Guys and Dolls manages the stage-to-screen translation with ample assets helping to outweigh an overgenerous running time and the omission a few key songs for the memorable Frank Loesser score. Given his unfamiliarity with helming a major musical production, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz pulls off his challenging assignment with skill, not only providing the screenplay of the Jo Swerling/Abe Burrows book (based on the work of Damon Runyon), but also showcasing performers possessing various levels of song and dance experience to their most advantageous, especially in the case of his prime star quartet, who put over the Loesser numbers with style and individuality. Mankiewicz also sagely allows Michael Kidd’s inventive, lively choreography to take the Cinemascope center stage at frequent intervals, which helps to move the lengthy venture along.

         Goldwyn took a substantial risk in hiring leads who, similar to their director, had no prior experience in the musical comedy field. However, this is one example wherein star names possibility used to bolster box-office chances also happened to possess the talent to rise to their change-of-pace material and richly add to a film’s success instead of hampering proceedings. The charm and conviction Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons bring to their assignments, along with the easy rapport they first established in the previous year’s Desiree, remains among the film’s chief assets. It’s easy to see how, upon the film’s release, any doubts regarding their unorthodox casting was quickly silenced, as both Brando and Simmons glide through their numbers in a beguiling manner, and provide a touching earnestness to their roles that make gambler Sky Masterson and his prim conquest, missionary Sarah Brown, compelling figures who fully earn the audience’s interest and support.

       By 1955 Marlon Brando had conquered both Broadway and Hollywood in revolutionary fashion with his explosive-yet-thoughtful, uncompromisingly realistic approach to acting, resulting in major stardom, first onstage via his electrifying work in Truckline Café and, specifically, his peerless Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, then with a terrific film debut at the decades’ outset in the fine, moving drama The Men, directed by Fred Zinnemann. Brando continued to fulfill his promise as the finest young actor of his generation and maybe ever, gaining four consecutive Oscar nominations for enthralling, dedicated performances in the adaptation of Streetcar, followed by Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar and On the Waterfront, which finally gained him a well-deserved win for his compassionate, complex Terry Malloy, confirming his status as an A-list star with plenty of box-office pull, even with Brando firmly upholding a fearlessly anti-establishment approach in opposition to the rules governing the Hollywood Studio system, and clearly determined to march to his own rhythm regarding his career and how it transpired.

        It would have been fitting for Brando to follow up an Oscar win for great dramatic work with another film rife with serious overtones, but it’s possible after several years of handling stark material he found the switch to a more playful role refreshing, even if he’d never before attempted to sing and dance onscreen. In any case, Brando slips into the role of the handsome, suave, somewhat mischievous Sky Masterson ideally, and especially shines while utilizing a sweet, light, romantic vocal style while singing “I’ll Know” and “A Woman in Love” to the attentive Simmons; Brando commented the recording sessions were done in note-by-note manner, as he couldn’t stay in tune for an entire verse, but the final product plays seamlessly onscreen, both in the aforementioned numbers and in his more lively and most famous number, the extravagantly-staged “Luck be a Lady.” The effortless tone Brando maintains throughout the movie is fascinating to watch, given how much was riding on such a large-scale production, and the likely pitfalls a star untried in musicals should have encountered via such a daring undertaking. However, in Brando’s confident hands Sky becomes yet another indelible addition to the actor’s long list of outstanding credits.

         Jean Simmons was also at an early career high during this period, following her 1948 breakthrough as an Ophelia for the ages in Laurence Oliver’s Hamlet, which garnered Simmons an Oscar nod as well as the Venice Film Festival Best Actress prize, with stellar, diverse work in So Long at the Fair, Angel Face, and The Actress mixed in with higher-profile fare such as The Robe and The Egyptian assuring Simmons a place among the top leading ladies of the 1950’s. As with her co-star, Simmons had developed a reputation as one of the finest young talents in the movies, but not one known to possess any aptitude in the musical field; however, Simmons carries off her big number, “If I Were a Bell” with a breezy comic flair, and also believably depicts Sister Sarah’s intriguing character arc, wherein she makes an abrupt switch from Sky’s stern adversary to his willing romantic partner in short order during a rendezvous in Cuba. Simmons would go on to continued success with The Big Country, Spartacus, possibly her best dramatic work in Elmer Gantry, a second Oscar nod for The Happy Ending, then a late-career Emmy for a mammoth t.v. mini-series hit, The Thorn Birds, but her diverting performance in Guys and Dolls remains a unique triumph in her career cannon, which gained her a well-deserved Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy and endures as a fine example of how well Simmons could deliver first-rate work in a lighter genre.  

        As the third top name in the cast, Frank Sinatra brings a wealth of assurance to his role as the hustling-yet-casual Nathan Detroit, and clearly displays his exceptional musical abilities honed over decades, which found Sinatra achieving great fame as the preeminent male vocalist of his era (and the bobbysoxers’ delight during his 1940’s heyday), while gaining substantial success in films, partially when partnered with Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh, Take Me Out to the Ball Game and On the Town. After witnessing a career slump in the early 1950’s, Sinatra was in the midst of an incredible comeback following his Oscar win for 1953’s From Here to Eternity, and 1955 would prove to be a banner year in his resurgence, with Sinatra once again finding recording success (“Learning the Blues” and “Love and Marriage” were two big 1955 Sinatra hits) to match his movie hits, as in addition to Guys and Dolls Sinatra did nice work in Not as a Stranger, which cleaned up at the box office if not with critics, and was spectacular as a drug addict trying to kick the habit in The Man with the Golden Arm, which earned Sinatra a well-warranted Best Actor nomination for possibly his most committed dramatic performance. As Nathan, Sinatra is completely in his comfort zone, to the degree that upon the film’s release he received some criticism by those (Stephen Sondheim among them) who had advocated for Sam Levene (the original Nathan Detroit on Broadway) to play the part that Sinatra was too relaxed in the role. However, it’s hard to see how Levine or anyone else could equal peak-form Sinatra (both vocally and as a star presence), whether he’s beautifully putting over his solo, “Adelaide,” or partaking of the Runyon-flavored dialogue with verve; simply put, Guys and Dolls and Frank Sinatra suit each other to a “T.”

        As Nathan’s loyal, very long-term intended, Miss Adelaide, Vivian Blaine witnesses a triumphant return to the screen after scoring a smash success originating the role on Broadway. Starting her career on stage as a teen, Blaine had paid her cinematic dues throughout the 1940’s as 20th Century-Fox’s go-to, capable musical-comedy female lead, when Betty Grable or Alice Faye weren’t available, but outside of making a nice impact in possibly her best and most popular film of this period, 1945’s State Fair, most of her Fox output consisted of enjoyable yet standard, second tier offerings. The career-defining role of Adelaide finally gained Blaine the major stardom she warranted, and after many performances on Broadway, London and in Las Vegas, she was allowed to commitment her singular performance to film, thereby providing the blueprint for the scores of Adelaides that have followed. Blaine pulls off the rare feat of maintaining a fresh, spontaneous delivery style, even while it’s clear she has expertly fined-tuned the role and every indelible Adelaide inflection based on her years of experience with the part; she’s clearly in sync with the role and determined to leave every entertaining aspect of Adelaide’s makeup on the screen. This is especially apparent in Blaine’s ingenious execution of Guys comedic highlight, the brilliantly-penned “Adelaide’s Lament,” wherein the good-natured showgirl both forlornly and animatedly rues her predicament with the marriage-adverse Nathan, much to the audience’s delight. Blaine also does a wonderful job working with the Goldwyn Girls on two expertly-staged numbers, “Pet Me Poppa” and the clever, tasteful striptease, “Take Back Your Mink”; her lively, skillful contribution to Guys and Dolls adds immeasurably to the film’s value and supplies the signature performance Blaine will be remembered for. 

        Among the rest of the cast, Robert Keith and Sheldon Leonard make good impressions and Vera Ann Borg gets a few wisecracks in playing one of her trademark sassy, knowing showgirls. However, Stubby Kaye, allowed to transfer his stage success as Nicely-Nicely Johnson to the screen, gets the opportunity to shine brightest with one of the film’s last and liveliest numbers, “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat,” which must have killed them on Broadway and is exactly the pick-me-up the movie needs as it enters its third hour. Kaye performs the number and also recites his Runyanesque lines in a calm, matter-of-fact manner, and puts an original stamp on the colorful role that would guarantee further career success, specifically as the similar-in-character “Marryin’ Sam” on stage and screen in Li’l Abner and as Nat King Cole’s wandering, singing cohort in 1965’s Cat Ballou.

        Upon its release in early November 1955, Guys and Dolls proved to find great favor with moviegoers, becoming one of the year’s biggest hits, with eventual U.S. and Canadian film rentals tallying $9,000,000 (according to Variety), while also receiving a good share of critical praise, culminating in a Golden Globe win for Best Musical or Comedy Picture along with Simmons’ honor, and Marlon Brando also gaining a Globe that year for World Film Favorite, which the huge success of the movie certainly factored into, along with it being his only film released in 1955. Although Guys and Dolls has not maintained a place along the likes of Singin’ in the Rain and The Bandwagon at the forefront of the general public and critics’ perception of what constitutes the top 1950’s movie musicals, the strong, unique and sometimes surprising contributions of four stars at the peak of their talents, as well as the adept staging of a score of great numbers still adds up to quite a show, one that should guarantee fans of the genre and the major players involved (both in front and behind the camera) a rich, gratifying viewing experience.

        I recently finished a YouTube tribute video to Marlon Brando, using clips from many of his films. Reviewing the movies to obtain clips to edit the tribute together provided the opportunity to once again marvel at the prodigious talent of Brando, and how he fearlessly took risks in role after role- even in many of lesser films, he’s still in their doing interesting and often brilliant work, and you can’t take your eyes off him. The tribute can be viewed here:


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