I love musicals. I love it when the main characters spontaneously burst into song, I love the pretty costumes, I love the dancing, I love the creativity, I love everything about them. I love virtually every musical I have ever seen. And musicals that also star Frank Sinatra? Bonus. So, I was very happy to re-watch “Guys and Dolls” for the umpteenth time for my musical this week. It comes in at #23 on the AFI’s Best Musicals list and it comes in pretty high on my personal favorites list as well.
“Guys and Dolls” takes place in 1950’s New York City and begins by introducing us to Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra). The first thing we learn about Nathan is that he runs an illegal underground crap game and is currently searching for a new place to hold it. The only place that will host his game also plans to charge him $1,000…a sum that he does not have. However, Nathan’s luck seems to change when he realizes that high roller Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) is in town. Knowing that Sky is loaded and hoping to make an easy grand, Nathan bets Sky the $1,000 that he can’t take a certain girl on an impending trip to Havana with him. Sky takes the bet but instantly regrets it when Nathan names the missionary, Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) as his pick. Now Sky must find a way to convince this good girl to fly to Havana with a man she just met while Nathan tries to patch things up with his own girl, Adelaide (Vivian Blaine), who wants him to give up gambling, marry her, and get a real job.
One of the greatest things about this movie is its wonderful, award-winning score. It boasts multiple famous hits such as “Luck Be a Lady,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Sue Me,” “A Woman in Love,” “Adelaide’s Lament,” and “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” to name a few. I’ve been singing these songs my whole life and I know I’m not the only one. They’re such classics and they don’t lose their magic upon repeated listens. The movie was made in 1955, 5 years after it opened on Broadway, and 3 new songs were added for the film version: “A Woman in Love,” “Pet Me Poppa,” and “Adelaide.” A few songs from the Broadway version were dropped from the movie as well, perhaps most notably “A Bushel and A Peck.” But whether you’re listening to the Broadway or the movie version, the music is simply wonderful.
When “Guys and Dolls” began making the transition from stage to screen, only one of the principal actors from the Broadway version reprised her role in the movie: Vivian Blaine as Adelaide. The rest of the principal roles were up for grabs and no one made their voice heard more than Frank Sinatra. From the very beginning, he wanted in. However, he was aggressively campaigning for the lead role of Sky Masterson as opposed to that of Nathan Detroit. When the studio decided to cast non-singing-actor Marlon Brando as Sky and demote Frank Sinatra to the role of Nathan, Frank was very upset. He accepted the role of Nathan Detroit and played him perfectly, but he always resented the fact that a non-singer won the lead role. I have to say, while I love Nathan Detroit (I actually think Nathan and Adelaide are the more entertaining couple in the film), I do share in his frustration that they gave the lead role in a musical to an actor who couldn’t sing. And I don’t mean that Marlon Brando couldn’t sing on Frank Sinatra’s level, I mean that he couldn’t sing at ALL. If you don’t believe me, watch this and hear for yourself:
All of Marlon’s finished songs in the movie were strung together from multiple takes. Now, there is no denying that Marlon Brando was an exceptionally talented actor. He was moody and at times downright crazy, but he was truly overflowing with talent. Acting talent, not singing talent. He was a great choice for the role of Sky Masterson in that his acting was spot on, but it always makes me squirm just a little when he starts to sing. Putting him in the same movie with Frank Sinatra didn’t help either. But, that being said, his singing isn’t so painful that it detracts from the overall enjoyment of the film, so I’ve always given him a pass.
There are plenty of songs that I could, and want to, post in this entry, but I thought I’d start by sharing a scene that doesn’t actually have a song in it. This is the scene where Sky and Nathan make their bet and I’m sharing it to show that whatever drama went on behind the scenes, Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra really did create excellent chemistry onscreen.
Now I can’t talk about a musical for very long without actually showing a song or two. The hard part for me is narrowing it down! There are so many wonderful songs in this movie and I want to share them all, but I’m going to force myself to stick to just one: “Sue Me.” This isn’t necessarily my favorite song in the movie (although I do love it), but I’m showing it to highlight Vivian Blaine as Adelaide. As I said, Vivian was the only Broadway principal cast member to reprise her role on the screen and in many ways I think she steals the whole film. Her Adelaide is nasal, neurotic, quirky and loveable. She’s a pleasure to watch, especially in her scenes with Frank Sinatra. The two of them share a humorous, off-beat chemistry that’s in stark contrast to the relationship between Sky and Sarah Brown:
It’s always so easy for me to see why the musicals have stood the test of time – it’s almost always because of the music! When you take a handful of catchy, classic songs, mix in a great cast, and create a good story to boot, the outcome is pure, delightful entertainment that’s fun to watch over and over and over again. And of course, the main moral of the story is, a little Frank Sinatra always helps.