Guys and Dolls Almost Hits the Mark

Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra, Vivian Blaine. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (letterbox). Dolby Digital 5.1. 159 minutes. 1955. MGM 908093. NR. $19.99.

If anyone were to come up with a list of the top 10 stage musicals that did not include Guys and Dolls, I'd have serious reservations about their judgment. (Last year, the American Theater Critics Association selected the top 25 American Musicals of the 20th century, and Guys and Dolls was ranked third, tied with Show Boat.) This show has everything: comedy, romance, gamblers, a Mission doll, a clever book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, and great songs by Frank Loesser. I must have seen the show at least a dozen times—including the most recent Broadway and West End revivals, and, just a week ago, a production featuring a talented group of high school students under professional direction at the Grand Theater in London, Ontario—and have never failed to enjoy it. I like the movie, too, but I wish it could have been better.

In turning a stage musical into a movie, there are critical choices involving casting (Broadway vs. Hollywood), style (theatrical vs. cinematic), rewriting the script, and cutting/adding numbers. For Guys and Dolls, movie actors were cast in three of the four lead roles, with Vivian Blaine repeating her classic performance as Adelaide, and the supporting cast was taken mostly from the stage production. The choice of Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson has been controversial among musical theater fans (in the revue Forbidden Hollywood, Jason Graae does a devastating parody of Brando's singing), but I think he has the right quality in the role, and his singing isn't really that bad. Sinatra's singing is, of course, much better, and it's been suggested that he would have been better cast as Sky than in the comic role of Nathan Detroit. (Apparently, producer Sam Goldwyn wanted Dean Martin to play Sky, which would have been great casting, and Jerry Lewis to play Nathan, which would have been a disaster.) Jean Simmons makes a lovely Sarah Brown, and does a nice job with the singing, too. The movie's visual style is more theatrical than cinematic, with the look of a stage set, and the script sticks pretty close to the stage version. Not a bad set of choices, so far.

So what's my complaint? Well, for reasons that I can only guess at, the film-makers cut three of the best songs in the score: "My Time of Day," "I've Never Been In Love Before," and "More I Cannot Wish You." The first two are part of an important scene that establishes the relationship between Sky and Sarah, and were dropped presumably because Brando couldn't handle the singing. They're replaced by some extended dialogue and the less effective (but easier to sing) "A Woman In Love." "More I Cannot Wish You" is a little gem, one of the most tender, touching songs in all of musical theater, and the only reason I can think of for it being dropped is that the actor playing the role was not a "name." While they were at it, they replaced "A Bushel and A Peck" with "Pet Me Poppa"—again, not a good trade. Sinatra got a new song, the pleasant but forgettable "Adelaide."

Enough of the stage show is left that the movie is far from being a total loss, and it should be much enjoyed by those who don't know what they're missing (assuming they like musicals in the first place). The DVD has somewhat oversaturated colors and good, but not outstanding, sharpness. The soundtrack has been remixed from stereo to Dolby 5.1, with very good results. There are no extras worth mentioning, and the box as well as the DVD label mistakenly identify Guys and Dolls as having been released in 1938, which is off by more years than the length of Adelaide and Nathan's engagement.