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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Joseph L. Mankiewicz | Guys and Dolls

cider in the ear
by Douglas Messerli

Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Ben Hecht (screenplay, based on the musical by Jo Swerling, Abe Burrows, and Frank Loesser from stories by Damon Runyon), Joseph L. Mankiewicz (director) Guys and Dolls / 1955

 As anyone who has read my reviews on International Cinema Review or my pieces on my American Theater Review site will have perceived, I am very fond of American musical theater and even consider myself an authority of sorts on the American musical genre. My favorite film musical, as I have written elsewhere, is West Side Story, but my favorite stage musical, hands up, is Guys and Dolls (wonderful works such as Finian’s Rainbow, Oklahoma!, and The Music Man closely follow).

     I have seen several stage productions of the great Frank Loesser including the 1976 all Black production in Washington, D.C. and the enjoyable Jerry Zaks Broadway revival of 1992, as well as having seen, in concert, Barbara Cook’s incredible rendition of the lead song—with all its lyrics! It is hard to imagine a better reincarnation of the character Miss Adelaide than Faith Prince in the 1992 production. But I still prefer Vivian Blaine’s less-winkingly performed straight-forward satire  in the film musical.



       Despite its rather oddball casting, in fact, the film version still stands up to all other renditions (I did not see the original 1950 Broadway performance) I have experienced, in part because of Mankiewicz’s brilliant pairing of musical legends such as Frank Sinatra, Vivian Blaine, and Stubby Kaye with dramatic actors, Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons, who amazingly, he allows to actually sing in their own voices! Certainly there are songs I miss in the film—“A Bushel and a Peck,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “More I Cannot Wish You” and “Marry the Man Today”—but “Pet Me Proper” as the early strip number almost works almost as well. And nothing can match the high-voiced intensity of Brando’s warbling. He (as Sky Masterson) and Simmons (as Sergeant Sarah Brown)—her voice expressing itself a kind of wavering soprano—manage to sell the lead rolls far better than the spirited stage revivals, while offering a kind of honesty film musicals seldom proffer.

     Mankiewicz clearly saw the possibilities of Brando’s and Simmons’ intense acting styles coming through their inexperienced voice boxes. Simmons actually comes alive as a musician in “If I Were a Bell.” Brando is so disarmingly charming that if you didn’t fall in love with his natural good looks, you might want to take him home just for the high-piping incantations of “Luck Be a Lady” and the repeated whiningly melodious “Your Eyes Are the Eyes of a Woman in Love.”

      Sinatra (Nathan Detroit), as always sings marvelously—although Loesser, himself, thought his crooning not right for the role—but his acting is here represented by a kind of grumpy bemusement: he’s in the doghouse for most of the movie for failures to revive his “floating” crap games, nail-bitingly deep in trouble not only with the police and his fellow gamblers but with his long-lasting, sneezing and discontent life-long lover, Adelaide. At one point he bemoans: “Everybody in the whole world who hates me is now here.” 

     Back to Vivien Blaine, whose “Adelaide’s Lament” is perhaps one of the best musical numbers ever performed on stage and film. I’ve watched the film performance of that song hundreds of times and it has never lost one instant of its absolute wonderment:


So much virus inside
That her microscope slide
Looks like a day at the zoo
Just from wanting her memories in writing
And a story her folks can be told
A person can develop a cold.



     Brando’s acting, strangely enough, has little of the charm of his singing as he, a life-long misanthrope (“Figuring weight for age, all dolls are the same.”), seems to be playing out his bet to take the “doll to Cuba” with a kind of detached amusement all his own. Simmons, a kind of pre-feminist, failing evangelist, accordingly, gets the best lines, exploding into fits of perpetual frustration over the fact that the man for whom she has fallen fits none of her proper preconceptions. She has even analyzed herself as a frustrated maiden attracted to sin. But this is, after all, Damon Runyonland, and despite all the seemingly impossible pediments, things miraculously work out—Sky suddenly discovering himself, as his father warned him, “with cider in his ear,” falling in love with the Mission Doll Sarah, while Adelaide, after decades of waiting, finally gets to marry her delinquent gambler lover. How they’ll ever settle with her mother over the family she has already claimed to have had, is never explained.

     In between there is enough good dancing, singing, and, in the final act—just in case you’re losing interest—a rabble-rousing mission sing-out where Stubby Kaye (as Nicely-Nicely) joyously converts before the eyes of his fellow gamblers—to jam up the streets of any urban center, let alone of the few blocks of Manhattan’s Broadway which the double marriage closes down.

      Never has the Runyon style and upbeat vision of conformed sinners—that is every man and woman who falls in love—been better realized in this wedding of the hot (Simmons) and the cool (Brando), or is it the hot (Brando) and the school-marmish cool (Simmons)? One can only ask, after the screen goes black, who was the sinner and who the saved? After all, Sky Masterson knows the bible even better than his Salvation Army doll!


Los Angeles, August 11, 2012

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