The slickest big-time New York City gamblers, Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire) and Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra, The Manchurian Candidate), can't resist making or taking a bet on anything. So when a pretty missionary (Jean Simmons, Spartacus) sets up shop in the neighborhood, Nathan stakes a grand that Sky can't seduce her. But all bets are off when Sky falls madly in love in this romantic musical spectacular that sets the Big Apple afire with excitement.
After more than 60 years, 'Guys and Dolls' remains one of the most popular, oft-revived, and flat-out delightful shows in the Broadway canon, combining an array of clever, hummable Frank Loesser tunes with an irresistible blend of romance, comedy, and memorable Damon Runyon characters. All the ingredients for a classic musical are here, and though producer Samuel Goldwyn's big, brassy film adaptation tries its best to capture the unbridled joy of the stage original, it somehow falls short. Questionable casting and stilted direction surely contribute to the mediocre results, but there's still a lot to like about the film version of 'Guys and Dolls.' Unfortunately, the isolated bits of magic never quite add up to a satisfying whole.
Runyon's milieu was Broadway, and he was a master at depicting the suave, streetwise gamblers, blustery thugs, and sassy babes that roamed the midtown New York streets. His colorful characters spoke like no others, spouting double-talk and shunning contractions, and the resulting formal, awkward speech patterns evolved into a unique, strangely lyrical dialect that could only be called Runyonesque. 'Guys and Dolls' immortalizes that world and Loesser sets it to music, composing a marvelous array of catchy melodies enhanced by inspired lyrics that perfectly suit the material.
The simple story of virtue, vice, and ultimate redemption is told like a fable, and chronicles the romantic travails of two couples. The commitment phobic Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra), who runs "the oldest established, permanent floating crap game in New York," has been affianced to marry the charmingly ditzy Miss Adelaide (Vivian Blaine), a sexy nightclub singer, for 14 years (yes, 14 years!). Nathan has deftly dodged the altar, but the stress of the interminable engagement has taken a toll on Adelaide, triggering a psychosomatic respiratory affliction. "In other words," she sings in her iconic musical lament, "just from waiting around for that plain little band of gold, a person can develop a cold." Nathan is sympathetic, but is preoccupied with acquiring some quick cash to front a game for out-of-town big shot Big Jule (B.S. Pully). In a last-ditch effort, Nathan bets debonair gambler Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) a thousand bucks he can't convince prim and proper Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons), the leader of the local Save-a-Soul mission, to accompany him to Havana for dinner. This sets in motion a typical opposites-attract romance that tests the will of both Sarah and Sky, forcing them to accept each other's frailties and make critical concessions in the name of love, all amid lively songs and energetic choreography by Michael Kidd.
From the get-go, the movie version of 'Guys and Dolls' raised eyebrows. Producer Goldwyn shelled out the then-record sum of $1 million for the show's rights, then bankrolled the rest of the $5.5 million budget himself. In other surprising moves, he hired Oscar-winning director Joseph L. Mankiewicz ('All About Eve'), who had never before (or, ironically, since) directed a musical, to adapt and film the material, and tapped Sinatra to play the subordinate role of Nathan instead of the more dashing Sky (much to the actor-singer's dismay and disgust). Sky went to, of all people, Brando, who also had no prior musical experience. (Reportedly, Sinatra, unable to contain his resentment, sulked through the filming, causing strained relations on the set.) The beautiful Simmons, another non-singer, somehow landed the part of Sarah, while the only sensible casting choice allowed Blaine to reprise her portrayal of Adelaide, which she originated to great acclaim on Broadway.
And instead of shooting the film on location in New York City, which would have lent 'Guys and Dolls' a priceless authenticity, stylized sets were used, heightening the sense of artificiality and staginess that often permeates this film. Mankiewicz's screenplay beefs up the characters' personalities, but his straightforward shooting method lacks the fluid motion and creative composition necessary to spark excitement. While it's impossible not to be entertained by the songs, dances, and characters (the material is that good!), the film still tends to plod along at times, as if afflicted by a nagging malaise. 'Guys and Dolls' is a humdinger of a show, but this production lacks the oomph that has made this musical such a perennial favorite.
Like many stage-to-screen adaptations, new songs were written for the film, replacing old standards. Unfortunately, the lilting 'I've Never Been in Love Before,' bouncy 'A Bushel and a Peck,' reflective 'My Time of Day,' and spritely 'Marry the Man Today' were all dropped in favor of three subpar melodies (all penned by Loesser) that never seem to blend into the show's fabric. Thankfully, though, such favorites as 'Luck Be a Lady,' 'I'll Know,' the title song, 'Adelaide's Lament,' 'Take Back Your Mink,' and 'Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat' are all still here and performed with appropriate vim and verve by the cast, which includes a few holdovers from the Broadway production, the most notable of whom is the rotund Stubby Kaye as Nicely-Nicely Johnson.
One of my biggest problems with the movie version of 'Guys and Dolls' is that Goldwyn hired Sinatra, the preeminent male vocalist of his day, to perform in a musical and - for all intents and purposes - didn't let him sing. Sinatra only has one solo (one of the new tunes, a forgettable ditty called 'Adelaide'), one duet ('Sue Me' with Blaine), and one brief assist (the title song) in a two-and-a-half hour film. While Brando makes a slick, graceful Sky and can surely carry a melody, his thin, nasal voice lends an anemic (okay, wimpy) quality to his songs, especially the show's centerpiece, 'Luck Be a Lady,' that only make us crave the more full-bodied, commanding, and rhythmic interpretation Sinatra certainly would have given them. (Ironically, Sinatra would later turn 'Luck Be a Lady' into one of his signature nightclub numbers.) Without question, Sinatra was a real-life Sky Masterson, so why he wasn't given the opportunity to play the role on screen never ceases to amaze me. And his devastation over losing the part - and jealousy of Brando - surely contribute to his lackluster portrayal of Nathan Detroit.
Many also decry Simmons' portrayal of Sarah Brown, but I'm a huge fan of her work in this film. Sure, Goldwyn could have found a more competent singer, but Simmons, one of the screen's classiest and most beautiful actresses, interprets the lyrics with such sincerity it's easy to forgive any vocal shortcomings. In fact, my favorite scene in the film is when a drunken Sarah sings the effervescent 'If I Were a Bell.' Simmons performs the number with such charm and abandon, we finally feel that elusive sense of joie de vivre for which we've been pining since the movie began.
That's the essence of 'Guys and Dolls,' and though such moments are fleeting in this uneven adaptation, the show's inherent brilliance, like a 7 or 11 in craps, trumps the bad bets that often threaten to bring the film down. Yes, there are far better movie musicals than 'Guys and Dolls,' but Runyon's characters and Loesser's score are so strong, we keep coming back.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Guys and Dolls' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in another classy Warner digibook. A handsome layout and wealth of color photos distinguish the 44-page volume, which contains a detailed account of the film's production, mini biographies of Brando, Simmons, Sinatra, Blaine, Goldwyn, and Mankiewicz, and assorted trivial facts. Tucked inside the back cover is a 50GB dual-layer disc. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted in the player, the static menu with no music (what's up with that?) immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
When done well, musicals - with their vibrant color palette, splashy sets, and glamorous costumes - can be a high-def lover's dream, and 'Guys and Dolls' is a perfect example of just how good a Technicolor classic can look in 1080p. I remember all too well watching faded, beat up prints of 'Guys and Dolls' on TV as a youth, so seeing Warner's meticulous remaster of this eye-filling musical was a revelation. Possessing a strikingly palpable film-like feel, thanks to a layer of fine grain, this high-quality AVC MPEG-4 effort combines cozy warmth with bold accents to create an extremely satisfying visual experience.
Crystal clarity and well-pitched contrast allow details to pop and lend the image a lovely sense of depth. Colors are beautifully saturated, with both luscious primaries and cool pastels emitting a nice sheen. The red carnations on the gamblers' jackets, their multi-colored neckties, and the red uniforms of the mission workers pump up the picture's excitement quotient and are complemented by rich and inky black levels and natural, stable fleshtones. Patterns, from the intricate plaid of Nicely-Nicely's jacket to Sinatra's muted pinstripe, are rock solid and resist shimmering, while the satin, feathers, and furs adorning the Hot Box Girls exude a fine array of textures. Close-ups are sharp yet never harsh, and background elements come through cleanly.
And speaking of clean, not a single nick, scratch, line, or speck of dust dot the pristine source material, which really looks like it was minted yesterday. A few soft edges occasionally creep in, but they're never pronounced enough to disrupt anyone's enjoyment of this superior effort. Any digital doctoring also escapes notice, and no banding, noise, or other annoyances crop up. Fans of classic cinema will be thrilled with this excellent transfer, which pumps even more energy into 'Guys and Dolls.'
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track pumps out clear, vibrant sound. Stereo separation is nicely pronounced across the front channels, with effects seamlessly dovetailing to the left and right, but rear activity is quite limited. Atmospherics, such as the din at Mindy's Restaurant, possess good presence, and accents like footsteps are crisp and distinct. Dialogue is always easy to understand, and a wide dynamic scale handles all the demands of the brassy score without a hint of distortion.
The musical numbers sound great, filling the room yet remaining connected to the rest of the mix. Vocals are nicely prioritized, but instrumentals never receive short shrift. There's even some stellar instances of weighty bass enhancing various melodies and the fracas in the Havana bar. Best of all, any age-related imperfections, such as hiss, pops, and crackles have been completely erased.
The 'Guys and Dolls' soundtrack won't blow anyone away, but for a 57-year-old film, the audio will be music to even the most discriminating ears.
A nice extras package adorns this release. An audio commentary would have been a vital addition, but I guess we can't have everything.
'Guys and Dolls' is far from the best Hollywood musical, but it possesses enough stellar moments to continue to merit our attention more than 60 years after its initial release. Damon Runyon's irresistible characters and Frank Loesser's exceptional score more than compensate for the offbeat casting and sluggish direction that consistently threaten to sabotage this classic show. Despite such challenges, 'Guys and Dolls' still manages to entertain, and this top-flight Blu-ray from Warner showcases all the flash and dynamism of this colorful production. Excellent video and audio transfers make us forget the film's age, and a nice array of supplements adds essential historical context that any classic movie buff will appreciate. Shortcomings aside, 'Guys and Dolls' remains one of the all-time great American musicals, and for that reason, as well as Warner's superior Blu-ray package, it earns a recommendation.