Tuesday, November 03, 2015

The Godfather Meets West Side Story

"The companionship of a doll is a pleasant thing even for a period of time running into months. But for a close relationship that can last us through all the years of our life, no doll can take the place of aces back to back."

Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando)

"Guys and Dolls," which made its movie debut on this day in 1955, began its existence as a successful Broadway play in 1950.

It was so successful, in fact, that it was assumed that the movie would do just as well — and so commentary on the movie project before it began centered not on whether it would do well but on who would be chosen to star in it. Frank Sinatra wanted the starring role of Sky Masterson, but it went to Marlon Brando, the hottest male star in Hollywood at the time. It was the second time that Brando had been given a lead role that Sinatra wanted.

The first time had been "On the Waterfront" the year before. Sinatra wasn't Brando's co–star in that one, though. He was Brando's co–star in "Guys and Dolls."

Brando's role was of a rakish sort of character, noncommittal, new girl every night type. He was challenged to seduce (remember, that word is being used in the context of 1950s movies) the most prim and proper individual in the movie (Jean Simmons), a straight–and–narrow member of an anti–gambling group modeled after the Salvation Army.

Well, seduce really isn't the right word. It fits the image of the guys in the movie — most of whom were involved in shady activities of some type — but their relationships were pretty tame. Brando was actually challenged to take Simmons to dinner in Cuba, not to bed.

Sinatra's character, on the other hand, seemed to have a different kind of issue with commitment. He had committed to a 14–year engagement with a girl who wanted to stop being a fiancee and start being a spouse (Vivian Blaine).

That, in essence, was the plot of "Guys and Dolls" — a mid–20th century tale that comes across as terribly lame by 21st–century standards — and it probably goes a long way toward explaining my general dislike for movie musicals.

I don't hate movie musicals. There are even some that I really like — and I have written about many of them on this blog — but "Guys and Dolls" really failed to hold my interest.

And I have tried to watch it several times. I always manage to watch it all the way through, but I never feel as if I have invested much in the experience — except for my time, which is valuable enough.

The American Film Institute clearly disagrees with me. AFI didn't put "Guys and Dolls" on its list of the top 100 movies of all time — but it did rank it #23 among the movie musicals.

I guess I perceived it as being kind of preachy. To win the challenge, Brando had to pretend to be a gambler who wanted to change his ways. Simmons was suspicious. Brando was dressed well. He had obviously prospered. "It's just so unusual for a successful sinner to be unhappy about sin," she said.

I've always kind of regarded it as "The Godfather" meets "West Side Story."

OK, perhaps that is oversimplifying things. But it sums it up pretty well for me.

"Guys and Dolls" was nominated for four Oscars and lost them all — for Best Musical Score (lost to "Oklahoma!"); for Best Color Art Direction (lost to "Picnic"); for Best Color Cinematography (lost to "To Catch a Thief"), and for Best Color Costume Design (lost to "Love Is a Many–Splendored Thing").