I was fifteen or so when I first became introduced to Guys and Dolls. I saw the play at my high school and remember sitting in the audience, bored out of my mind. I was much more preoccupied at the time with the boy I had a crush on and the fact that he’d brought a different girl to the play.
As such, I always had a negative impression of Guys and Dolls. I associated it with that high school experience and as a result, didn’t really have much interest in watching the film. However, in my late teens, I was introduced to Brando – not old Brando, but instead, the Brando of On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire. Around the same time, I also saw a small film called So Long at the Fair which starred a young Jean Simmons.
When I happened to see the cover for Guys and Dolls with Brando, Simmons, and Sinatra, I decided it was worth a chance. I did not expect to fall in love with the film though. I’ve always loved musicals, but was somehow convinced that Guys and Dolls didn’t have a lot of depth. Turns out I was half right. Samuel Goldwyn worked with director and writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz to create more of a backstory and add a little more depth to the characters than originally existed in the stage musical.
A little background first: Guys and Dolls, made in 1955, follows a gambler, Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra) who desperately makes a bet that Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) cannot take out Sergeant Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons). Detroit is also trying to make it work with his fiance, Adelaide (Vivian Blaine).
There was a lot that went into this film, but it wasn’t the easiest film to make, partly because of the hostility that existed between Sinatra and Brando. Long story short, Sinatra believed he should be playing Sky Masterson as he was the more musically adept. However, Brando had just won the Oscar for On the Waterfront and was very in demand. Brando knew of Sinatra’s jealousy and loved annoying him, messing up takes on purpose just to piss Sinatra off.
When Brando sang “Luck be a Lady”, Sinatra apparently went around set, telling people, “It’s going to sound a lot better when I sing it tonight!” Sinatra did shows almost every night in Vegas and “Luck be a Lady” was apart of his set. Looking back, it is hard to believe that Sinatra didn’t sing the song in the film, as it became one of his signature songs.
Now, on to the important part. Why do I love this film? There are so many reasons, but probably the biggest one is the incredible actors. Brando, while not a great singer, adds a credibility to the film that it just wouldn’t have without him. Simmons is absolutely lovely as Sarah Brown. She has poise, a great voice, and great comedic sensibilities. Sinatra, while not wanting the role he was given, also gives a great performance. They even added a few songs for him that were not in the original musical.
Musicals are by their very nature unrealistic. And while this film had a set akin to a theater stage, there was something that made you suspend your disbelief. Joseph L. Mankiewicz accomplished something very specific. He gave the audience a taste of what seeing the broadway show was like while also creating characters that had depth. Outside of all of that, the movie boasts wonderful songs and is just plain fun. I think you’ll agree.
Vintage trailer below.