#289. Guys and Dolls (1955)

In some part of either the publicity or behind-the-scenes material for Judd Apatow’s movie Funny People, which is all about the world of stand-up comedy, Jonah Hill and the cast talk about how Apatow made them all write some stand-up material, take it to a comedy club, and do a live set. I don’t remember how long the sets had to be, or how often they had to do it, but I remember being surprised that few of these comedic actors had done actual stand-up. Jonah Hill in particular talked about how terrified he was to be up there, how he bombed.

He also said that, while the jokes were bad from beginning to end, the audience would cheer and laugh for the first five minutes of his material. What he posited, though, is that they were laughing and clapping out of excitement. Jonah Hill had recently been made a huge star with his role in Superbad and they hadn’t expected to see him at this comedy club and so their excitement just manifested as laughter.

            My dad’s a good speaker and he’s been tasked with giving a few eulogies and he says that if he tells a tasteful joke during a eulogy, even if it’s not that funny, the place explodes with laughter.

            Again, though, it’s not because the joke works. It’s because everybody’s full of emotion, whether grief or tension or whatever, and the opportunity to shriek with laughter is an opportunity to shriek.

            So they take it.

            Eli Roth talks somewhere about how this is also what’s so beautifully tribal and cathartic about going to see a major horror movie, in a big theater, at 8 or 9 p.m. on opening night: people just recently finished a week of work (wherein they suffered the slings and arrows of God-knows-how-much outrageous fortune), they might’ve had time to stop at happy hour and get a couple drinks in em before the show started, and now they’re all here, they’re all ready to be entertained, and they scream when the scary shit happens…and then they laugh.

            Hitchcock pointed this out, too, and compared it to roller coasters.

            They go for the ride, they grip their seat, they scream and twist and shrink toward the floor…and then they walk out giggling.

            Bit of a tangent there, and it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the movie in question, but I latched onto the Jonah Hill thing, about his fame being the thing that made skeptical audiences go along with even his shittiest work, because it was the star-power of Guys and Dolls that led me to think I’d enjoy it. Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Vivian Blaine. Also, I was thinking of how often I’ve gone grudgingly into a big flamboyant musical expecting to hate it and ended up weepy and adoring (42nd Street, On the Town, Love Me Tonight, A Star is Born).

            And y’know…the movie’s OK. I like it. But it’s something to be seen in two sittings—which, in a feat of obstinance about needing to see these movies the way an original audience mighta seen em, I didn’t do. I watched it in a single Sunday night and, taken that way, its two and a half-hour runtime serves nobody.

            Guys and Dolls is a “gangster” story about Nathan Detroit (Sinatra), a bit of a degenerate gambler, who’s tryna have a big score by putting on a huge crap (craps?) game for a buncha mobsters. In order to get it started, though, he needs a thousand dollars, so he bets Sky Masterson (Brando) a thousand dollars that he can’t seduce a religious woman, Sara (Simmons), into going on a lovers’ trip to Cuba with him.

            It’s an amusing premise for a comedy and, while I was following along with everything as it unfolded, it’s only now, reading over the plot description on Wikipedia, that I’m appreciating the beauty, the seamlessness, with which the story unfolds and the stakes escalate and the characters’ interpersonal lives are made more complicated by their professional ventures, and how their professional ventures, in turn, become more complicated because of their personal lives.

            That being said: it’s over two and a half-hours long, and one of the unwavering convictions I’ve developed in the course of the Project is that light entertainment should be longer than 90 minutes in only the most exceptional circumstances; and in those exceptional circumstances it might—might!—be allowed to run two hours in length.

            But that’s it.

            Pretty strident, I know, and A Star is Born is an obvious exception that slaps the face of my stupid dictum (although it’s more melodrama than romance or comedy, so maybe it preserves the integrity of what I’m getting at here), but really, as Eli Roth pointed out, “Nobody ever said, ‘I wish that joke was longer.’” And yes, Guys and Dolls isn’t just a comedy; it’s an earnest romance, with all of the attendant angst and melodrama of a stage-acted love story; also, there’s a crime element (though the cops here have the same kind of peripheral looming quality as the Grecian trio of cops in my beloved Little Caesar), and then—most compelling of all—there’s the storyline of Sinatra playing a typical Sinatra character.   

Despite being a serious Hollywood star with some heavy rolls under his belt, Sinatra somehow seems smaller and more vulnerable here than in those other movies.

            And what’s a typical Sinatra character, such as we’re to deduce from his appearances, so far, in On the Town, From Here to Eternity, and The Man with the Golden Arm?

            Well, in the first movie he’s in the Navy, he’s coming into New York City for a 24-hour furlough, and he’s trying to have a good time while simultaneously keeping his shit together, his crew together, and making sure they everybody makes it back to the ship at dawn. His life is also made way more complicated by the exploits of a horny friend.

            In From Here to Eternity it’s kinda the same thing: he’s a low-level soldier, dutiful and humble, well-intentioned, but he’s got his vices. He goes out and has a little too much fun on occasion, gets himself into serious trouble, but, at his core, he’s a good guy. But he ends up dying because of his impulsiveness. And, finally, his friend dies trying to avenge the brutal consequences of Sinatra’s actions.

            Jump ahead to Man with the Golden Arm and we see a guy who’s ostensibly post-impulse. Reformed. He was the kinda Sinatra character we saw in those last couple movies, but now he’s dedicated to not only becoming a musician, but playing drums in a band. He wants, again, to be part of something. But his vices come back into play. He’s being dragged down by a manipulative loved one, in the form of his wife, and he’s got an ostensible “friend” (his dealer) who’s doing the same.

Sinatra, earlier the same year, in Man with the Golden Arm

            And here, in Guys and Dolls, Nathan’s gambling habits are driving him toward (1) ruin, and (2) an effort at uniting people—the gangsters, namely, so that they can have this big gambling tournament thing, but also, in a halfhearted duplicitous way, he’s tryna get Brando and Simmons together. He also ends up getting reluctantly engaged as a result of his exploits here.

            Maybe this is archetypal and doesn’t have anything to do with Sinatra himself, or the characters that attract him, but he does seem to be drawn toward figures who are trying to overcome serious demons and to do the right thing. They’re trying to change or to uphold the changes they’ve already made to their character. Same goes, in the early 1960s, for the characters he plays in Some Came Running and The Manchurian Candidate. Not only that: loyalty is made an avenue of ruination. Either he is ruined by his loyalty to others, or they by their loyalty to him.

            We also see here, in Guys in Dolls, a smirking cool-guy version of Brando that sports some obvious skill (tarnished though it is by his awful singing) but that doesn’t seem to sport the bravado or fierceness (since when do I use these words about actors?) that we saw in A Streetcar Named Desire or On the Waterfront.

            This movie’s not for me. Resoundingly not for me. And by the time we get to that fucking sewer-set gambling scene where, oh hey, here’s Brando, jutting his jaw and bein’ a real cool cat and singing and dancing, I was just so fucking done.

            Same with Golden Coach and Lola Montes and some forthcoming Victorian-type shit—I’m keen to just say at this point that the movie isn’t for me, draw up some notes about it, and move on. I’m glad to’ve seen it and to’ve gotten a sense of how it plays into Sinatra’s filmography and the stain it places on Brando’s but…whatever. Onto the next.

            (I’m also kinda pissed that I can’t find the notebook in which, a couple months ago, I wrote a three-page assessment of this movie in the same weird, overly-enunciated, contagiously eloquent way that the characters—Nathan in particular—talk. It all sounds like an impersonation of an older Jewish woman from mid-century Brooklyn or something. I like it, and I don’t.)

4 comments

  • Serious question – were you aware of the existance of the Broadway musical this was based on before watching?….this was my high school’s drama club show my freshman year, and I ended up with a line by sheer accident (long story, which I will tell upon getting to this film) so that’s how I was aware.

    but yeah, what you describe is par for the course with most musicals of this period – be they filmed or stage. That’s just kind of the nature of the beast.

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    • I did know OF it, but had no idea when it was set or what it was about, whether it was romance or comedy. But from banter in high school I got the impression from drama friends that putting on GUYS AND DOLLS is kind of a huge undertaking for a high school cast. Is that the case?

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      • ….I don’t remember it being any more so of an undertaking than your usual high school musical, to be honest. Any play is kind of an ordeal, but drama club nerds tend to be SUPER motivated and enthusiastic. (Then again, my high school also did HAIR, so my own scale of “what is a big undertaking may be a little skewed.)

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