“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)
Yes, Viriginia, Marlon Brando really can do it all.
Brando plays Sky Masterson, a slick gambler who’s never lost a bet. That doesn’t keep fellow gangster Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra) from hoping to settle his debts by betting Sky that he can’t get pristine Salvation Army worker Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) to go to Havana for dinner with him — all in the hopes of getting the money to finance an underground crap game. Meanwhile, Nathan’s own fiancee of more than 10 years, a showgirl named Adelaide (Vivian Blaine), impatiently awaits the day he finally decides to marry her.
There’s no coincidence between the musical’s vernacular of “guys” and “dolls” in the title and script and its most famous song, “Luck Be a Lady,” which begs fortune to be polite and loyal during a crap game. The gamblers involved treat invisible fate — the unseen power that controls dice — with more respect than they do the female human beings in their lives. Take Nathan, for example, who puts off Adelaide in favor of a sewer craps game, or Sky, who uses Sarah’s affection to win $1,000 from Nathan.
Of course, they both get their comeuppance when they find themselves hopelessly in love with the women and less enamored by the dangers involved in illegal gambling. Likewise, Adelaide and Sarah undergo a change of heart — Adelaide realizes she’s as allergic to non-commitment as Nathan is to commitment in a humorous bit “Adelaide’s Lament.” Sarah recognizes that not all shysters are doomed to hell, as she’s been preaching from her literal soap box.
The journey to these realizations is a slow, plodding one punctuated by some typical Hollywood musical numbers. Sinatra is his usual smooth self in “The Oldest Establishment,” while Blaine is the typical blond showgirl in stage-set stripteases like “Take Back Your Mink.” (It may have been 1955, but that just meant sex had to be a little more coy.) Simmons is adorable as the pristine Sarah, whose virtue makes her place herself above all others.
But then there’s Brando, one of the biggest film stars to come out of the movie (if you don’t count Sheldon Leonard, who went on to produce some of the biggest television hits of the 1960s). Fresh off his Off the Waterfront and Streetcar Named Desire appearances that made him a star, his dramatic acting suffered a severe genre change in a musical that’s anything if not overblown and colorful. Unfortunately, as much as he pulls of the New York gangster attitude, it’s almost impossible to see his talent as a hardcore actor translate to something as bubbly as Guys and Dolls.
Mankiewicz’s film isn’t fantastic by any stretch, but it satiates the 1950s hunger for showy musicals captured on film. Although the casting in some cases is questionable, it also provides a platform that shows some stars at their best (Sinatra and Blaine) and others like Brando at their best try.