MGM // 1955 // 149 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // May 15th, 2006
I love you,
A bushel and a peck,
A bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck
Ahh, Guys and Dolls, the Damon Runyon booklets turned into a Broadway show turned into a movie (in which Marlon Brando sings). It is now a Widescreen Deluxe Edition DVD that contains a booklet. Truly, we've come full circle. Guys and Dolls's story of redemption through love is fundamental to human nature, which helps explain why this offbeat musical has more staying power than it should.
Times Square is all abustle with petty crooks, lazy cops, and especially, gamblers. Gamblers are everywhere, from old ladies betting on horses to hardened craps shooters looking for big action. Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra, Ocean's Eleven) usually thrives on this hubbub, but today he and his pals are worried. There are several big players in New York, and all of them want to drop some dough on "Reliable" Nathan Detroit's craps game. Problem is, he doesn't have a location. Furthermore, he promised his long-suffering fiancée, Miss Adelaide (Vivian Blaine, State Fair), that he'd give up the gambling racket.
Nathan sees a solution when Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire) rolls into town. Sky has a reputation as a fast and loose bettor, and Nathan needs some fast cash to set up his game. When Sky fails to take Nathan's bait, he desperately bets that Sky won't be able to seduce Sergeant Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons, Spartacus, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within), the local soul saver and Goody Two Shoes Extraordinaire.
The die is cast, the fates engaged. With an assortment of colorful songs and colorful characters in tow, these two couples struggle through their complicated relationships.
The movie version of Guys and Dolls is a mixed bag of oddities. At first glance, its staying power is surprising. The film constantly waffles in its tone and style, from big, dumb, and dazzling musical numbers to intimate, low-key (and very long) conversations. The plot is extremely simple. With one exception, the songs have not found their way into the collective unconscious.
Though Frank Loesser is gifted, the songs in Guys and Dolls are not memorable. "Luck Be a Lady" is the biggest hit, but the rest of the songs have lukewarm staying power. Yet Guys and Dolls does not thrive on memorable songs; it thrives in the moment. When you are actually listening to the songs and watching the performers, the songs are highly entertaining. "Fugue for Tinhorns," for example, is a stellar half spoken, half sung round between three of the bit players (most notably Stubby Kaye as Nicely Nicely, who would later get his moment in the spotlight with "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat").
The gaudiest show tunes are owned by Adelaide, played perfectly by Vivian Blaine. From her psychoanalytic lament to bawdy numbers like "Pet Me Poppa" (an original tune crafted for the movie version), Blaine imbues Adelaide with a peppery mix of intelligence, wit, old-fashioned mores, and nasally attitude. The "big" numbers owe their soul to her.
But the small numbers belong to Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando. Based on the feral magnetism of his early works and the violent swagger of his latter, you wouldn't expect Brando to capably carry a musical number. But through hard work -- and more importantly, luminous acting -- his is the movie's most affecting song. I don't know how "Luck Be a Lady" would play on a CD, but watching the pain and apprehension on his face makes you feel the song deeply.
Jean Simmons is outstanding as the good girl unleashed. The Havana interlude has all of the magic you could hope for in a movie musical. The early sparks between Sister Sarah and Brother Sky never vanish, but they soften as the Cuban night works its magic. When she releases all reservation and proclaims her love in "If I Were a Bell," Sarah is so sweet and saucy that I wanted to eat her up with a spoon. Her expression is so tender, her hair and face so touchable that her performance elicits a delicious thrill. Jean Simmons is woman, hear her roar.
The musical numbers aren't all Guys and Dolls has to offer. Writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz directs a stellar cast and gives them clever dialogue to boot. Again, Brando steals the screen. His presence is so commanding and his youth so radiant that you cannot look away. His snappy lines, such as "Daddy...I got cider in my ear," are strange, but effective. The real story is the supporting cast. Though it is too extensive to list, each actor does a wonderful job. There are few wrong notes in the movie, and many small delights.
MGM has supplemented this release with a scrapbook commemorating the movie. It is mostly filled with marketing materials and photos, but it kicks off with a thorough (and most self-congratulatory) background and history. This self-congratulatory tone runs through the other extras also, which highlight Goldwyn's vision and genius. These Special Features are perhaps the most grandiose example of back-patting I've yet seen. If it had come from an independent source that would be one thing, but the "G" in MGM stands for Goldwyn. On the other hand, it is impossible to argue with MGM's success, and they've earned the right to crow a little about their history. The bottom line is that the extras are as "big" as the show tunes in Guys and Dolls.
The main feature is a pair of featurettes that cover the genesis and execution of the movie. Tom Mankiewicz, son of the director, is heavily featured, as are children of Loesser and Goldwyn. The gist of the featurettes is that Goldwyn wanted to produce Guys and Dolls and went about it in lavish fashion. "More Guys and Dolls Stories" seems like clips that didn't make it into the main featurettes, with some of the same people speaking. "Musical Performances" is a handy table of contents that takes you directly to the musical numbers.
I've explicitly praised Brando, Simmons, and Blaine, but there's another principal cast member: Sinatra. If I told you that Brando showed more spirit in his performances than Sinatra, would you consider it a victory for Brando or shame on Sinatra? Even though Goldwyn and Mankiewicz made every attempt to highlight "The Voice," going so far as to write a custom number for him, Frank seems uncharacteristically dull here. His performances lack the suave croon that made him an international star. This makes many of the Nathan Detroit scenes slow and cumbersome.
MGM previously released Guys and Dolls to a non-anamorphic DVD. I haven't seen that one, but I'm not bowled over by the video quality on this one. Many of the biggest scenes (including the entirety of the opening number) are marred by smearing and blurriness. The film element (or possibly the camera) doesn't seem stable in the frame. The colors lack fidelity and seem washed out. There is heavy grain in some places and edge enhancement in others. The transfer generally lacks contrast and detail, particularly in shadows. It doesn't look bad, but neither is it a sparkling transfer like those produced by Warner Brothers in their recent restorations of classic movies.
The sound quality makes up for it with a nicely remastered 5.1 track. Again, I can't compare this one to the former release, but I can say that the 5.1 mix is subtle and detailed, with a broad sound stage. Surround effects are suitable demure, but add a sense of envelopment. The 3.0 mix is also clean and expansive.
My biggest gripe with Guys and Dolls is not Sinatra or DVD mastering, but fundamental decisions made about its conversion from stage to screen. As one of the world's great producers, Sam Goldwyn had strong ideas about where to take a picture. I can't fault him for having a vision and executing it, but in retrospect I think he made the wrong call on the songs. "Bushel and a Peck" may be on the cute and sappy side, but it is a blockbuster song and has been singable for decades. Goldwyn didn't like the song and yanked it. I was displeased to find the ending credits and nary a word of "Bushel and a Peck," or some of the other great songs missing from the stage version. "Pet me Poppa" is okay as a visual number, but not better than what was pulled to make room for it.
The screen adaptation of Guys and Dolls never quite gels into a cohesive musical. The supporting cast is outstanding and the leads mostly competent. Some of the musical numbers are interesting, and some are forgettable -- which is a crime that highlights the absence of better songs. Nonetheless, the snappy dialogue and sense of humor makes Guys and Dolls an appealing gangster fantasy. It isn't the definitive musical like the extras would have you believe. But it is a good one that you'll enjoy watching more than you'll enjoy singing the songs afterward.
I plead the fifth commandment.
Review content copyright © 2006 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.55:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 3.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 149 Minutes
Release Year: 1955
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* 72-page Booklet
* Guys and Dolls: The Goldwyn Touch
* Guys and Dolls: From Stage to Screen
* More Guys and Dolls Stories
* Musical Performances
* Photo Gallery