Last week, 20th Century Fox announced a remake in the works of this 1955 film which was based on a 1950 Frank Loesser stage musical. The stage production was adapted from Damon Runyon’s short story “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown.” In all its incarnations, the story has proved delightful to many audiences; it is a story worth retelling. In my estimation, the most crucial elements to creating a successful remake will be the casting of actors who can sing, dance, and play their characters inventively without trying to be Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Jean Simmons, or Vivian Blaine. Most importantly, Michael Grandage (who was announced as the forthcoming film’s director) will need to pay attention to include many small details that allow the story to subtly move beyond its giddy, goofy, and lighthearted exterior into a story with substance about marriage, gender, sex, and faith as Joseph L. Mankiewicz did in the 1955 film.
Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) and Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra) are rival gangsters and gamblers who make room in their “careers” for very unusual dealings if the payoff is good enough. They bet each other over things like how much cheesecake a restaurant sells and whether or not Nathan can remember what color tie he is wearing at a given moment. The story is built around Nathan’s attempt to set up a crap game while knowing the police are trying to find and hinder the plan. As part of his attempt to make the game happen, Nathan and Sky make their strangest wager of all; Nathan bets that Sky cannot get a date with Sgt. Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) of Save-a-Soul Mission (think Salvation Army)in which he must take her to Havana, Cuba (from New York City). The scene where this bet is made, along with all early scenes involving Sky and Nathan together, show these two characters as extremely misogynistic. In one of these scenes, Sky utters the notorious line, “I am not putting the knock on dolls. It’s just that they are something to have around only when they come in handy, like cough drops.”
As Sky approaches Sgt. Brown, we see a type of conversion taking place. They talk about the Bible, about sin, about repentance, and he shows a respect for the Bible but disinterest toward any change of his life. As he continues the process of his bet, however, his attitude toward women, toward love, and toward his own life changes dramatically. There is a scene in Havana where he gets Sarah drunk (unwitting on her part). He has a perfect opportunity to take advantage of the situation sexually; typically in the 1950s, characters would be seen beginning to kiss as the camera shifts away to tell the audience that sex is about to happen without needing to show anything that the Hayes Code would not allow them to show. However, we don’t get a scene like that here. Sarah talks about a nervous habit where she fiddles with her clothing and accidentally unbuttons part of her top. When Sky is faced with the opportunity he entered the situation hoping for, he reaches toward her, quietly and unassumingly, and he buttons her back up.
Subtleties like this show believable changes in the characters and even indicate an openness to all of what Sarah Brown stands far, including her faith in Jesus. While the story finds no need in explicitly telling us any of Sky’s specific spiritual conviction (before of after Sarah), the audience sees a genuine spirit of repentance in Sky. We are invited to see how he has learned to love, not merely in a romantic sense, but through respect of other people that he did not possess at the beginning of the story.
Guys and Dolls is one of the funniest films ever made. By focusing on the moral and spiritual journey of Sky Masterson, I have probably given an impression of much greater importance than the movie actually claims. I do so, nevertheless, to encourage viewers to pay close attention to the small details throughout the movie. Through these nuances, great depth is evident, much more than we would expect entering such a crazy comedy. As with the wit, the musical elements are continuously entertaining. Even Marlon Brando’s singing is quite good. Frank Sinatra supposedly called Brando “Mumbles” throughout filming, never giving up his disapproval of the decision to cast Brandon in the role he wanted for himself. Brando’s performance of the show’s most popular number “Luck Be a Lady” is handled appropriately to compensate for Brando’s weaknesses as a singer and to highlight his masterful acting ability. Ironically, only a few years later, Frank Sinatra recorded a version of “Luck Be a Lady” that became his signature song. All the characters are well-drawn to fit the romanticized view of 1940s New York gangsters that all versions of the story have intended to portray.
So, in recommending Guys and Dolls, I recommend it for the fun, escapist entertainment that it appears to be. But I also suggest looking deeply into the messages hidden throughout the film. These messages of repentance, respect, and equality elevate the film from its surface escapism into an intelligent and spiritual experience.
Stumble Alert: Guys and Dolls has no objectionable content and is appropriate for all ages.
Also Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz: All about Eve (1950)