Film: Guys and Dolls
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.
I promise that I won’t bore you with my normal complaint about musicals in general. By this time, you’ve already heard it, and you know what I’m going to say. Suffice to say that I’m trying to watch about one per week so that I’m not leaving them all to the end. Since I’m also trying to get through some of the longer films on the list, I’ve buckled down to give Guys and Dolls a whirl. According to the trailer, Ed Sullivan thinks it’s the greatest musical ever made, which I guess puts me at odds with Ed Sullivan. He’s dead, though, so I don’t really care.
Enter Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra). He runs a floating craps game in New York, but is having trouble locating a place for the evening’s festivities. This is because Lieutenant Brannigan is on Detroit’s case and is looking to bust not only him, but all of his cronies, gamblers, and associates. Because of this, only one venue will offer him the place for the night, but the owner wants $1000 up front and in cash. This causes Nathan Detroit and his two associates, Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Stubby Kaye) and Benny Southstreet (Johnny Silver) to sing.
Things are more critical for Detroit because it is also the 14th anniversary of his engagement to Miss Adelaide (Vivian Blaine), and he can’t even afford a present for her. More problematic is that at the moment, there are dozens of the highest rollers in town looking for action, and none is higher or more action-prone than Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando). What’s a crooked racketeer to do?
What he does, aside from sing a lot and talk completely without contractions (more on this in a moment), is make a bet with Sky Masterson. Sky is nicknamed thus because he bets big and he bets crazy. Nathan comments that Sky once refused penicillin because he had a running bet that his fever would hit 104 degrees. Masterson will bet anyone on anything. The bet this time is for that fabled $1000 that Nathan needs for his craps game. The subject of the bet is Sister Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons), a Sergeant in the Salvation Army (and the user of all of my capital s’s). If Sky can get the priggish, upright, staid, and excessively religious Sarah to accompany him to Havana, he wins. If he can’t, Nathan wins and can run his game, and thus make enough money to finally make an honest woman out of Adelaide.
Of course, since this is a musical from the 50s and taking place in either the 30s or 40s (I think. I’m not really sure), you can expect that there will be a considerable amount of confusion, frustration, and whacky hijinks before it all comes out right at the end. That’s the way these things tend to work—we’re talking musical here, not opera, after all.
Several things strike me about these characters and this story. First, no one uses contractions. No one. Because of this, everyone speaks in an overly formal style that I find incredibly grating and stiff. It is (sorry, I am trying to demonstrate how this comes across), unnatural and weird. In addition to the lack of contractions, everyone enunciates everything completely. There are no elisions in any word or phrase, so everything is hyper pronounced, almost as if being badly recited after practicing for too long with Mommy before the school recital. My biggest problem with musicals in general is this disconnect with reality, and this only makes that disconnect larger and more glaring.
Second, and more important in the overall scheme of things in the film is that I dislike the characters in this film intensely. Part of that is no doubt the inability to use contractions or talk in a way that is even remotely natural. The main part of it is that our characters come in two, maybe three flavors. The predominant flavor is jerk. Nathan Detroit, Sky Masterson, Benny Southstreet, and all of the other gamblers and criminals are jerks who deserve a punch in the face more than my concern or empathy. These guys treat women shabbily, treat each other like chumps, and then smile and expect us in the audience to clap for them. The second, less overwhelming but equally unpleasant flavor of character here is self-righteous prig. That’s our pal Sister Sarah, who is two mules short of being interesting. She is supposed to come off as well-meaning and well-intentioned, but she comes off as holier-than-thou (or me) and prudish. If we have a third flavor, a toxic fudge swirl to go with the rancid vanilla and putrefied chocolate, it’s stupid. Adelaide and other women typically act like their brains have dislodged and are simply rolling around inside their skulls, connected to nothing.
I’ll give you that the songs are okay, but like any musical, I like them better out of context than in context. And for the record, Brando can sing well enough to get by. Good for him.
The final thing is this—while the songs are decent, the attitude of many of them, as well as much of what wanders past on the streets of New York while the songs are playing is, at least in the modern world, incredibly misogynist. Women aren’t anything here but accessories, and the men who love them love the idea of them more than the women themselves. Sky Masterson says early that “dolls” are great, but interchangeable. While he may well have changed the surface of that opinion by the end of the film, there’s no real evidence for me that his thinking goes any further than “this one has everything I want.” It’s also worth noting that the story plays into that classic fallacy of “I can get him to change for me.” No, you can’t. He just learns to fake it better.
Why to watch Guys and Dolls: Brando sings! Brando dances!
Why not to watch: If the characters aren’t rogues and jackasses, they are self-righteous prigs and jackasses.