Guys and Dolls (1955): Mankiewicz Musical, Starring Brando and Sinatra

The stage musical Guys and Dolls ran for three years on Broadway, followed by a successful run in the U.K. and an American tour.

The film version is based on the 1950 Broadway musical by composer and lyricist Frank Loesser, with a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, based on “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure,” two Damon Runyon short stories.

In the first five years, the stage musical grossed over $16 million. Samuel Goldwyn acquired the movie rights for $1 million, and then allocated a solid budget of $4,500,000.
Goldwyn hired a director who had never before done a musical, Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Moreover, two of the stars, Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons, had no song-and-dance experience. However, since the songs were integral part of the narrative, both thespians were allowed to sing instead of being dubbed by professional singers, as was the norm then.

Frank Loesser wrote three new songs for the film: “Pet Me Poppa,” “Your Eyes Are the Eyes of A Woman in Love,” and “Adelaide,” which was written specifically for Sinatra.

At the same time, five original songs from the stage musical were deleted: “A Bushel and a Peck,” “My Time of Day” (they’re heard as background music), “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “More I Cannot Wish You,” and “Marry the Man Today.”

The dances were choreographed by Michael Kidd, who had also staged the Broadway production’s numbers.

Damon Runyon’s tales are known for their weird, amusing offbeat characters and cynical tone, which were major assets for the sophisticated stage musical. Thus, Goldwyn and Mankiewicz decided to revise the screenplay by making the characters softer and more appealing.
The role Nathan Detroit, performed to great acclaim on Broadway by Sam Leven, was assigned to Frank Sinatra, who was popular at the time as a singer and Oscar-winning actor (“From Here to Eternity,” 1953).
Of the original Broadway stars only Vivian Blaine was cast in the film. Two of the original supporting players, Stubby Kaye as “Nicely-Nicely Johnson” and Johnny Silver as “Benny Southstreet,” made their film debuts.
Mankiewicz’s version follows the play (written by Jo Sterling and Abe Burrows), rather closely, opening with Sergeant Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) exhorting a small, uninterested crowd on the street to enter her Save-a-Soul Mission but failing to get a sole convert. Nearby, Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Benny Southstreet meet Harry the Horse (Sheldon Leonard) who asks them if they know the whereabouts of Nathan Detroit’s crap game, because he’s got $5,000 from collecting the reward on his father and wants to gamble.
They tell him that Lt. Brannigan (Robert Keith) is out to get Detroit but that the irrepressible Nathan will doubtless stage a game someplace soon. The only place Nathan can get is a garage where the owner wants a $1,000 cash advance, which Nathan doesn’t have. He doesn’t even have money to buy an anniversary gift for Adelaide (Vivian Blaine), the chorus girl he’s been engaged to for 14 years.
Things change when Nathan learns that Sky Masterson (Brando), a gambler with a reputation for taking on any bet, is in town. Talking together, Masterson claims that all women are alike, which Nathan challenges, making a bets that Masterson couldn’t persuade the Salvation Army doll to go with him to Havana.
Visiting the Save-a-Soul Mission, Masterson promises to produce a dozen sinners for her meeting next Thursday if she’ll have dinner with him. She accepts and then learns the dinner is in Havana. After a few drinks in a Havana nightclub, Sarah begins to change; she dances, turns amorous and even participates in a brawl. They return to New York to find crapshooters gathering for the Big Game. Thinking that Masterson had been involved in organizing it, Sarah angrily leaves. She’s relieved when told he is innocent, although still concerned about the fate of her mission depending on a dozen spiritual derelicts showing up.
Masterson joins the crap game, now staged underground in a city sewer. He gives Nathan the $1,000, which the broke-but-lucky guy then turns into a winning. He and Masterson and the crapshooters take their places in the mission and Sarah is able to keep her commission. In the end, a Salvation Army officer performs a double wedding, Sarah and Sky Masterson, and Adelaide with Nathan Detroit.
The musical’s charm derives from its eccentric characters and breezy, occasionally witty dialogue. About half of the narrative consists of songs, reflecting Frank Loesser’s conception of “Guys and Dolls” as a musical play. Among the highlights are the opening “Fugue for Tin horns” and “Follow the Fold,” Nathan singing about “Adelaide” and her rejection of him, “Take Back Your Mink,” Sarah’s discovery of happiness, “If I Were a Bell,” and Masterson gambling with a new-found urgency, “Luck Be a Lady.”
Again proving that he could handle any assignment, dramatic, comedic and musical, Brando plays the role lightly, almost casually. After studying the songs with Loesser, he opted for baritone, and his singing is greatly aided by his dramatic ability. Jean Simmons sings with greater musicality, but it’s her acting that makes her memorable.
Even so, despite the marvelous production values, its fine cast, musical direction by Jay Blackton, choreography by Michael Kidd, “Guys and Dolls” was not the success that Goldwyn had expected, grossing $12 million, a decent figure but not sufficient for such a large-scale production. The critics complained that there was too much talk; this was after all a Mankiewicz (“All About Eve”). The magic and joy of the stage version seems to have disappeared when transferred to the big screen.
Despite its flaws, Guys and Dolls, released on November 5, 1955, was One of Brando’s most commercial films, grossing close to $7 million in domestic rentals.
Oscar Nominations: 4
Cinematography (color): Harry Stradling
Art Direction-Set Decoration (color): Oliver Smith and Joseph C. Wright; Howard Bristol
Scoring of a Musical Picture: Jay Blackton and Cyril Mockridge
Costume Design (color): Irene Sharaff
Oscar Awards: None
Oscar Context:
The winner of the Color Cinematography was Robert Burks for To Catch a Thief.
Picnic won the Oscar for Art Direction, by Joe Mielziner
Oklahoma! received the Scoring Oscar, and Love Is a Many Splendored Thing won the Costume Award.
Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando)
Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons)
Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra)
Adelaide (Vivian Blaine)
Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Stubby Kaye)
Benny Southstreet (Johnny Silver)
Big Jule (B.S. Pully)
Harry the Horse (Sheldon Leonard)
Lt. Brannigan (Robert Keith)
Arvie Abernathy (Regis Toomey)
Lverne (Veda Ann Borg)
General Cartwright (Kathryn Givney)
Rusty Charlie (Dan Dayton)
Angie the Ox (Joe McTurk)
Society Max (George E. Stone)
Calvin (Kay Kuter)
Agatha (Mary Alan Hokanson)
Louie (John Indrisano)
Mission Member (Stapleton Kent)
Pitch Man (Earle Hodgins)
Waiter (Harry Tyler)
MGM (Samuel Goldwyn Production)
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn.
Directed and written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on the play; book by Jo Sterling and Abe Burrows, from a story by Damon Runyon.
Camera: Harry Stradling.
Art direction by Joseph Wright.
Choreography by Michael Kidd.
Edited by Daniel Mandell.
Music supervised and conducted by Jay Blackton.
Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser.
Running time: 149 minutes.
Fugue for Tin Horns
Follow the Fold
The Oldest Established
I’ll Know
Pet me, Poppa
Guys and Dolls
If I Were A Bell
A Woman in Love
Take Back Your Mink
The Crap Game Dance
Luck Be a Lady
Sue Me
Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.