by Steven LaVigne
If ever a hit musical needed to be faithfully transferred to the screen, it’s Guys & Dolls. Considered by many to be the greatest musical ever written, Guys & Dolls has the distinction of being the only show to ever return its investment before it opened in New York. Based on stories by Damon Runyon, it chronicles the wheelers and dealers of Times Square in the 1940s. Adapted by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, with an outstanding musical score by Frank Loesser, Guys & Dolls is solid entertainment, too!
Under George S. Kaufman’s direction, with choreography by Michael Kidd, sets by Jo Mielziner and costumes by Alvin Colt’s Guys & Dolls played 1,200 performances at the 46th Street Theater (now the Richard Rodgers and home to Hamilton). It starred Sam Levine as Nathan Detroit, Vivian Blaine as Miss Adelaide, Robert Alda as Sky Masterson, Isabel Bigley as Sarah Brown and Stubby Kaye as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, but only Blaine and Kaye made it to the movie’s cast.
The story centers on Nathan Detroit, a second-rate gambler who runs “the oldest-established, permanent floating crap game” in the area . He’s been engaged to Adelaide, a Hot Box showgirl, for 14 years. In order to raise the funds to hold his game in the back of the Biltmore Garage on 47th Street (yes, it’s really there), Detroit bets professional gambler Sky Masterson that he can’t take straightlaced Salvation Army Sergeant Sarah Brown to Havana for a night. Along the way, such characters as Harry the Horse, Brandy Bottle Bates, Rusty Charlie and Big Jule, sing and dance their way through this delightful show.
Guys & Dolls was such a professionally-assembled show that distinguished directors like Tyrone Guthrie and Laurence Olivier had it on their wish lists. Olivier scheduled it for his National Theater in 1970, with himself as Detroit, but cancelled it when he was hospitalized. The best production I’ve ever seen of this classic was at the Guthrie in 1982. Under Garland Wright’s sure-handed direction, Jerry Stiller as Nathan, Barbara Sharma as Miss Adelaide, Roy Thinnes as Sky Masterson and Kathy Morath as Sarah Brown lit up the stage in a triumphant production. Recently, I saw a superb production at the Old Log Theater.
The production that got away was proposed by John Belushi who planned to use the original Saturday Night Live Cast. Belushi cast himself as Nathan Detroit, with Dan Ackroyd as Sky Masterson, Gilda Radner as Miss Adelaide and Jane Curtin as Sarah Brown, however Lorne Michaels rejected the idea. Imagine how much fun it would have been.
Guys & Dolls isn’t actor-proof and can be done badly, especially when the muscle for a production stupidly doesn’t trust the material. The 2009 Broadway revival is an example. Directed by Des McAnuff, with a cast that included Lauren Graham, Oliver Platt and Craig Bierko only came to life when Titus Burgess turned “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” into an 11:00 number.
And then there is the film version.
Produced by Sam Goldwyn, it was released through MGM, in 1955 as the studio system was ending. Joseph L. Mankiewicz had never made a musical, but he’d had back-to-back award-winning hits with A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve and had just directed Ava Gardner and Humphrey Bogart in The Barefoot Contessa. His film version of Guys & Dolls would be the last appearance of The Goldwyn Girls, who played the Hot Box Girl. Frank Sinatra campaigned for the role of Sky Masterson, but was cast as Nathan Detroit instead.
The new kid on the block was Marlon Brando. In five years, he’d repeated his stage role as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, played Mark Antony in Julius Caesar, Napoleon in Desiree, was The Wild One and won an Oscar for his performance in On the Waterfront. Looking to do lighter fare, he was cast as Sky Masterson but this and Teahouse of the August Moon squelched that goal. Grace Kelly was sought for the role of Sarah Brown, but Brando’s co-star in Desiree, Jean Simmons was cast. She’d never done a musical before either, although two decades later she would play Desiree in the original London cast of A Little Night Music.
On its own terms, Guys & Dolls isn’t a terrible movie, but it’s a poor representation of the stage version. To begin with, like McAnuff in 2009, Goldwyn and Mankiewicz didn’t trust the material. Subplots, such as Sarah’s relationship with her grandfather, Arvide Abernathy was eliminated (losing the lovely tune “More I Cannot Wish You” along with it). Vivian Blaine’s performance as Adelaide doesn’t work onscreen because it’s full of her stage nuances. This is obvious from her delivery of “Adelaide’s Lament” which rings false. The growing friendship of Adelaide and Sarah has also been eliminated, so we’re deprived of their charming duet “Marry the Man Today.” Except as background music, two other songs “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” and “If I Were a Bell,” the latter sung when Sarah finally lets loose after she’s drunk, are also gone.” The strip number, “Take Back Your Mink,” doesn’t work because instead of fur coats, the women are wearing stoles, referred to as “the fur thing.” What?
Loesser wrote three new songs for the film: “Pet Me Poppa” with the girls costumed as cats pointlessly replaces “A Bushel and a Peck,” “A Woman in Love” replaces “If I Were a Bell” and Nathan’s ballad, “Adelaide,” was added to give Sinatra another song, but doesn’t fit well into Guys & Dolls.
Fortunately, Mankiewicz and Goldwyn were smart enough to capture Stubby Kaye’s marvelous 11:00 number “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” (although it’s been truncated here). Nicely-Nicely Johnson is one of Kaye’s two signature roles. A year later he’d create his second one, Marryin’ Sam in Li’l Abner. While most of the cast’s musical performances are solid, Brando’s were pieced together from various takes. Somehow it manages to work, even though he’s hopelessly miscast and clearly uncomfortable in the role.
Neither Sinatra or Brando got along and their rivalry is evident onscreen, especially during the Strudel vs. Cheesecake scene at Mindy’s. Brando deliberately flubbed his lines during the cheesecake scene and Sinatra became sick. Sinatra’s nickname for Brando was “Mumbles” because of his line delivery.
Another mistake was that while the story and characters are meant to be cartoonish, Mankiewicz asked set designer Oliver Smith and costumer Irene Sharaff to add realism for the characters. By doing so the nature of the show was lost.
Michael Kidd’s brilliant choreography is a highlight of Fred Astaire’s best film (in my humble opinion), The Band Wagon, and both Goldwyn and Mankiewicz were smart enough to leave his sewer crap game, with its amazing, athletic dance intact. Here Sharaff’s costumes enhance Smith’s colorful sewer set design and it’s one moment that resembles the stage version.
There’s been talk of a remake for at least a decade, but I don’t think we need to hold our breath. There are other hit musicals that deserved better film versions, which I’ll be writing about. Sadly, Guys & Dolls should have been better.
Maybe Lorne Michaels should have listened to John Belushi.