Guys and Dolls (1955)

From all accounts, Marlon Brando was hired as Sky Masterson for Guys and Dolls because he was the most bankable star in the world at the time of its production. This may be true and explain the strange casting against type, but it fails to explore Brando’s own relationship to and interest in the part. According to Stefan Kanfer at least, Brando was going to be trained up in singing and dancing, but it never really happened as he would have liked, and one reason was the immensity of the Sinatra entourage, which contratsed with Marlon Brando's loner limage.  Apparently, on the first day of rehearsals, Brando asked Sinatra if they could meet and run some lines together, as he was new to the musical scene; but Sinatra was blunt, and replied 'Don't give me any of that Actors Studio shit.'

 

The story of Christian Brando (1958 – 2008) is particularly depressing, horrible and pointless. It goes to show what the benefits of parental responsibility may be, when you consider what effects the Brando lifestyle may have had. In the case of Christian, who spent his childhood shuttled between his warring parents, a life of nannies and servants culminated in a ten year spell in prison for manslaughter, and then death from pneumonia at the age of 49. And he wasn’t the only Brando to suffer. But more of that elsewhere — if you can bear to read it.

What Guys and Dolls the movie lacks is not a common subject for debate, because it offers so much in terms of colour, production, character and atmosphere. But the casting is not great, and for those who know the material better, one always wonders about the efficacy of Sinatra as Nathan Detroit. For one, the show’s composer Jospeh Loesser did not like the way Sinatra crooned Nathan Detroit’s songs, and the two never worked again.

And although there are those that say that Brando can sing, I don’t think he’s that great at it — you have to wait 35 minutes before he bursts into song, anyway, and his musicality is side-lined in favour of his excellent screen presence and his range of facial expressions. And why does he not dance? It was maybe even in his contract.

Brando’s face is exceptional, this can’t be denied, but I’m not sure if there’s much more to his performance than this. This was 1959 and the world hadn’t seen the 10 or 12 Marlon Brando facial expressions that by now are legendary — it must have been revealing and exciting to see what more he had in store. Not a hell of a lot, it turned out, not til 1970 at least.

The production of Guys and Dolls itself is well done, although the first hour is far, far superior to the remainder, and in fact the whole thing tails away somewhat during the Havanna sequences. The opening has the best dances, and my favourite song, the Fugue for Tinhorns sung by Nicely, Benny and Rusty. The opening itself boasts exceptional and full on street scenes which were lovingly choreographed and shot, even featuring the only Afro-American in this production. That by the way, is really stating something. I know that nobody cared about this sort of thing in 1959, but in a cast of literally hundreds, it is still somewhat odd that the ethnic balance is most un-American.

As always it’s great watching Brando act. I don’t think I particularly like Brando, and even though I don’t rate him as a versatile actor either, he still has a look that is screen-perfect. I can name numerous actors whose work is far superior — but few perhaps who simply look that good. Sometimes the Cinemascope conspires against this.

Because the Cinemascope lens was so wide, it often could not focus properly on actors close up, and you can see the resulting effect (nicknamed ‘the mumps’) quite clearly in Guys and Dolls, and it happens a couple of times when Joseph Mankiewicsz is trying to snake the camera up on Marlon Brando. If you think how ridiculously wide Cinemascope was, then you have to look to a song like ‘Fuge for Tinhorns’.   Looking at this still from that number, you can see how beautifully the Cinemascope lens can capture three singers standing side by side — even with room for another left of frame.

This is great for musicals in general — street scenes and chorus lines — but in the more common two person dialogue, particularly for the necessary romantic close ups, Cinemascope sucks.

The story of Guys and Dolls is slight to say the least, but there are powerful moments, so if you can hold up until the two hour ten minute mark, you do get the great satisfaction of the initial gambling set up paying off, when Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson delivers the promised sinners to the mission.   Other than that, I’ve never seen a whole lot to rave about, other than the sheer oddity of Brando in musical fig, the greatest star of his era, hamming it up for the matinee crowds who lapped this up in their millions.

This was the second time that Marlon Brando had been given a role that Frank Sinatra coveted, and biographers often add to this the fact that with rock 'n' roll on the rise, and Brando as a figurehead of the youthful rebellion that threatened his career, Sinatra was pretty insecure.  Ceratinly he took a conservative view of rock 'n' roll, which he said was 'the most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has ever been my misfortune to hear.'

The men were polar opposites.  Brando liked multiple takes and constanyl changed the lines, while Sinatra hated repeating himself and never blew a line.  The result is at least on the top tier something of a mess, although the many Broadway regulars that were in the picture were great enough to carry it.  Both Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra were inadequate, but the box office didn't think so.  The worst moment for Brando probably came at the New York premier at the Capitol Theater, at which Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons car was assaulkted by excited fans, who broke its window.  As Brando was carried through the raging crowd by six cops, somebody got hold of his tie and nearly throttled him, an experience that naturallyu haunted him a long, long time.