While the website Stomp Tokyo still exists, this particular review is on it no more…and I am not sure how well it fitted with Stomp Tokyo’s overall aesthetic of “B-movies, Godzilla and video cheese since 1996” For a while they had guest reviews of videos of which this was one…
Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando are both icons of natural cool, so it comes as a surprise that their one appearance in the same movie is so (relatively) little known and less celebrated. The received wisdom is that the spirit of the musical (adapted from Damon Runyon’s short stories) was lost, and that Frank and Marlon lacked “chemistry”, perhaps because they detested each other (Sinatra couldn’t stomach Marlon’s multiple takes – literally so in the cheesecake sequence; while Marlon said of Frank “he’s the type of guy that once he gets to heaven he’ll give God a hard time for making him bald.”
These points are valid, but nevertheless Guys and Dolls is a loveable, big shaggy dog of a movie. The film opens with a rather stylised dance sequence in a strangely deserted Times Square. Assorted dancers represent the feckless (but loveable) characters of Times Square as they do their various things: gambling on horses, pilfering the odd watch or wallet, avoiding the NYPD and the like – all in a very feckless (but loveable) way. In other words, very much pre-Rudy Giuliani. We are introduced in short order to Nicely Nicely and Benny, among the most amiable henchmen in motion picture history, whose boss is none other than Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra), proprietor of what is celebrated in song as “the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York.”
Unfortunately for Nathan, the NYPD, in the stern form of Lieutenant Brannigan (Robert Keith, a spectacularly glacial presence in an otherwise sunny film) are breathing hot down his neck. Nathan also has to contend with his fiancée Adelaide (Vivian Blaine), possibly the most dizzy piece of vanilla to be projected at twenty-four frames per second, who has ambitions for Nathan to become an unspecified “normal businessman”. In the face of these twin threats, Nathan is reluctant to abandon the game, after all: “I have been running that crap game ever since I was a juvenile delinquent” and more pertinently there’s a lot of very big money in town.
One of the most endearing features of Guys and Dolls, incidentally, is the precise, formal way the various feckless (but loveable) low lives who inhabit the film speak. No one ever says “It’s” or “I’ve” or “I don’t”; it is constantly “It is” “I have” and “I do not” which gives a strangely courtly air to proceedings. Early on Nicely Nicely asks “If it can be told, where did you collect this fine bundle of lettuce?” which is typical of the how the characters speak – politeness and slang mixing in the same breath.
Nathan finds himself needing $1000 to be in a position to hold the game, at which stage we encounter Skye Masterson (Marlon Brando), the highest roller of them all. Nathan tries to engage Skye in an all too transparent sucker bet for the $1000, which fails. At this juncture Skye holds forth on the fair sex, lecturing the soon-to-be-ex-bachelor Nathan that “The companionship of a doll is a pleasant thing even for a time running into months, but for a close relationship that can last us through all the years of our life, no doll can take the place of aces back to back.” J
ust as two cops who hate each other will, as part perhaps of an undiscovered Law of Physics, become best friends, with this speech Brando might as well have tattooed “I’M GETTING MARRIED IN THIS FILM” on his forehead. And one of the major pleasures of Guys and Dolls is having your expectations fulfilled, and the wit and style with which it happens. Nathan sees his chance and bets Skye $1000 that he can’t take any doll he cares to name to Havana with him the next day. The doll in question is Sergeant Sarah Brown of the Save-a-Soul Mission, a particularly unsuccessful evangelist (despite being played by the ever-radiant Jean Simmons) Sarah Brown is constantly buttoning and unbuttoning her blouse button, particularly in the presence of Marlon Brando, a habit that the greatest minds in psychoanalysis would fail to decipher.
Skye manifests himself at the mission to insinuate himself into the good Sergeant’s good books, despite her best efforts to repel the self-proclaimed “unhappy sinner.” Skye demonstrates his superior knowledge of scripture, since “I would imagine there’s only one thing that’s been in as many hotel rooms as I have – the Gideon Bible.” The rest of the plot of Guys and Dolls is at this stage probably eminently predictable to the average moviegoer. It isn’t perfect – some of the dancing sequences are a trifle stagebound and at two and a half hours, there are occasional longeurs. And Brando and Sinatra do lack a certain naturalness together that we see in Brando’s scenes with Simmons and Sinatra’s with Blaine. The sets are cheap and cheesy, but this is part of the whole charm of the piece – a Technicolor never-never land of fast talking guys and their dolls.