Warner Bros. // 1955 // 149 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 12th, 2012
One of Broadway's most popular musicals!
"Everybody in the whole world who hates me is now here."
Life can be hard for a crook in New York City. That's a fact local gambler Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra, The Man with the Golden Arm) discovers when he attempts to find a location for an illegal crap game. Not only are his options incredibly limited due to increased police vigilance, but the owner of the one place he could hold the game wants $1,000 cash in advance. Nathan doesn't have the money on hand, so he makes a bet with famed gambler Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando, The Godfather). The arrangement: Sky must persuade any woman of Nathan's choice to go to dinner with him in Havana, Cuba. Nathan gleefully agrees and selects the pious Salvation Army Sergeant Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons, Spartacus). As Sky struggles to even start a promising conversation with Sarah, Nathan tends to his own romantic troubles with longtime fiancée Miss Adelaide (Vivian Blaine, State Fair).
Over the course of his lengthy career, writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz demonstrated that he could handle just about any genre. This is a man who gave us such diverse works as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, All About Eve, Julius Caesar, No Way Out, Cleopatra, Sleuth and The Barefoot Contessa. Considering his versatility, it's no surprise that Mankiewicz's work on Guys and Dolls feels like the work of a man who has been staging large-scale musicals his whole life. Just observe the joyful silliness of the opening sequence, in which a host of New York crooks engage in a sublimely-choreographed array of petty crimes. If the rest of the musical had been nearly as good, we might have really had something.
Perhaps that's being a bit harsh, but how on earth did a show like Guys and Dolls manage to win multiple Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize? It's a clunky Damon Runyan adaptation that drags a thin story out to an unreasonable length and provides a bevy of unmemorable songs along the way. I suppose I'm in the minority on this one, as the musical still has quite a few fans (and has been successfully revived on Broadway multiple times), but how can such a beloved show be so bereft of compelling tunes and interesting characters? The 1955 film version does what it can, but there's an overwhelming sense that we're witnessing a 90-minute trifle being needlessly inflated to 150 minutes.
It's often been asserted that the cinematic version Guys and Dolls is badly miscast, and I have to concur with that assessment. Frank Sinatra was reportedly quite unhappy about being saddled with the Nathan Detroit role (he had wanted to play Sky), and his discontentedness translates into a flat, uninvolving performance. Even Frank's singing seems unusually bland this time around; it's a phoned-in turn from a man frustrated with having to accept the fact that Marlon Brando gets to sing "Luck Be a Lady." Speaking of which, Brando also seems out of his element in this frothy affair. His typically method-y performance clashes with the feather-light vibe of the film, and the less said about his ungainly vocal performance, the better.
However, the ladies of the film fare a bit better. Jean Simmons is perfectly cast as the uptight Sarah, and her slow transformation from unyielding rigidity to carefree cheerfulness is fun to behold. Simmons is particularly fun during a goofy yet enjoyable scene in which she gets drunk on Bacardi-enhanced coconut milk. Good as she is, the real standout is the great Vivian Blaine, who practically bowls her more famous co-stars off the screen with an energetic, playful performance. It's a shame that Blaine's cinematic career never really took off; it's clear that she had both a great screen presence and a remarkable singing voice.
There are plenty of individual scenes that work quite well in Guys and Dolls (particularly those that focus on the sprawling ensemble of colorful background characters), but there's so little compelling forward momentum that the lengthy running time just seems unreasonable. Without enough compelling songs, engaging performances or interesting characters to fuel things along, the movie often feels flat and overextended.
Guys and Dolls (Blu-ray) has received a respectable 1080p/2.55:1 transfer, though it doesn't quite hit the heights of most of the other Cinemascope HD transfer I've seen thus far. The image tends to look a bit flat and faded at times, but detail is generally excellent and there's very little damage. A moderately thick layer of natural grain has been left intact and there are no signs of excessive DNR. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is also solid enough, offering some real punch during the larger musical sequence but otherwise proving merely functional. Despite the bustling New York City setting, there's very little in the way of complex sound design. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout (though there's nothing which can be done about Brando's occasional mumbling). Supplements include two informative and entertaining featurettes on the making of the film ("The Goldwyn Touch" and "From Stage to Screen," both of which run about 25 minutes), some brief "More Guys and Dolls Stories" interview clips, a handful of musical performances and a very long theatrical trailer. The whole thing is housed in a handsome digibook package which contains some full-color pages of photos, behind-the-scenes info and bios.
Guys and Dolls has its pleasures, but it's dragged down by problems provided by both the original source material and the film's cast. The Blu-ray release is a vast improvement on the DVD, but isn't the dazzling Cinemascope experience I had hoped for.
Not guilty, but I'm playing with loaded dice.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.55:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 149 Minutes
Release Year: 1955
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Performances