Not from the production of Guys and Dolls I attended last night.
Saw a pretty good high school production of Guys and Dolls last night.
Actually, it is better than pretty good, considering it is a small high school and they do not really have the potatoes to mount the show as it is intended. But I am not being biased and do not have to add any qualifications when I tell you our neighbor’s son, as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, gives one of the two best performances. Not only does he pull off Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat, and without much in the way of back-up from the ensemble---they just do not have enough singers and dancers to raise the roof the way that number should---but he wears his fat suit with assurance and grace, and he gives his Nicely a suitably New York by way of hollering himself hoarse cheering on a 5 to 9 at Aqueduct voice and a horseplayer’s expressions indicative of he is a guy who balances a healthy dose of skepticism with an unfortunate tendency to accept as gospel whatever some stranger tips him about the chances of a three-year old running in the seventh this afternoon. I believe he believes he has the horse right here.
Their Miss Adelaide is the other stand-out. She is very good on her own, and she and her Hot Box Girls are a real treat for eyes and ears alike.
But last night’s show gets me thinking. Guys and Dolls is one of my favorite musicals, even though I only ever see one professional performance. This is at the Stratford Festival, up in Canada, and it is wonderful. I see two college productions, neither terrific but neither awful, and I enjoy both of them. The music, the songs, the dialog, the jokes are all enough to make me overlook or forgive some miscasting, bad acting, singing and dancing of less than professional quality caliber, and low-rent production values. And this makes me wonder.
Why cannot I find anything to enjoy in the movie version?
Or to put it another way, why do I hate that movie?
All right, maybe it is not such a mystery as I think.
To start with, let us consider the citizens playing the four leads. Brando, Sinatra, Jean Simmons, and Vivian Blaine, seem out of their element. In fact, they do not seem to be in any element at all. They are just there, on the screen. Not only do neither set of lovers show any signs of chemical interaction leading to explosions of an amorous nature, they do not connect with any of the other actors around them. There is nothing going on between Brando and Sinatra. Sinatra, at least, moves around as though he knows he supposedly wanders New York City. He does not look as if he believes it or even sees it. But he gives it a try. Brando stands as flat-footed and lost-looking in Havana as he does on Broadway, occasionally twirling his fedora in his hand as if wondering who it belongs to and how he gets it back to him. Sky Masterson is supposed to be something of a dude and somebody who can make himself at home anywhere. But Brando has him looking about as comfortable in his sharply tailored suits as a teenage kid forced to play usher in his big sister’s wedding looks in his rented tux and as far as the being at home business goes he seems to be wishing he is safely at home in the island retreat he has not yet bought because he will not find it until he films Mutiny on the Bounty seven years in the future. Miss Sarah Brown is supposed to be a passionate young doll hiding within her Salvation Army Uniform but Jean Simmons, a lovely Judy and make no mistake on that score, shrinks inside that uniform to the effect she leaves nothing of herself for the camera to photograph except said uniform. Miss Adelaide’s character is pretty much defined by her back and forths with Nathan but Blaine and Sinatra do not find anything for each other to play off of.
By the way, you probably notice I no sooner start this post when I begin to lapse into an affected style of prose that eschews all contractions and is entirely in the present tense of voice. This is because I am thinking of the stories by that well-known citizen who goes by the name of Damon Runyonon which Broadway scribes Jo Swirling and Abe Burrows base their book for the Guys and Dolls musical that we currently discuss and which this Runyon character tells in such a style. I provide you with a demonstration of this said style later down. For the present, I now refrain from further indulgence in sad imitation.
As for the supporting characters, well, there’s really only one in the show, Nicely-Nicely. The other characters are interesting as faces in a colorful crowd and, at first glance, are meant to be seen only as part of that crowd. At first glance. In a way, the ensemble should be something like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. When you first glance at one of Rockwell’s group portraits you’re taken in, and amused, by the grouping. It’s only when you look closer that you realize the group is interesting, and beautiful in its cranky way, because of the individuals. When you look into the crowd on stage in Guys and Dolls you’re looking---or should be looking---into the faces of characters you recognize from Runyon’s stories. You should see your way into the stories of Sorrowful Jones, Apple Annie, Dave the Dude, and the Lemon-Drop Kid. (I don’t think the camera ever bothers to look for those faces in the movie.) But Nicely-Nicely Johnson is right there, on his own, in the foreground. And you would think Stubby Kaye would have been able to play Nicely-Nicely in his sleep. Instead, he looks like he’s about to go to sleep.
Then, the directing looks lazy. Like I said, the camera never goes looking for anything interesting. It’s as if the director never heard that you can use the camera to tell your story, he thinks what it’s meant to do is capture the store, and if he lets his lens take everything in it will inevitably take in what it needs to take in. Which is odd, because the director was Joseph L. Mankiewicz whom, based on All About Eve, I think of as a smart director, but Guys and Dolls was his only musical so maybe he just didn’t trust himself. But there may have been another problem.
Guys and Dolls was filmed during that era when movies had stopped trusting themselves and the film industry was running scared from television. Studios and producers thought they had to make movies look different from what people could watch at home and different usually meant BIGGER. Guys and Dolls was shot in Cinemascope which required the camera (cameras?) to sit far back and gape at wide-open vistas. Mankiewicz doesn’t come close to filling all that wide-open space he has to fill.
But with all that, I should still be able to enjoy what I enjoyed in those two college productions, the songs, the music, the dialog, and the jokes. And maybe I would. If I could hear them.
The sound is bad, flat, without resonance, without layering, lifeless. Like television used to be, in fact.
Now here’s the thing. I’ve never seen Guys and Dolls on the big screen, only on television. Which means that I’ve only seen it cut down and cut up for the small screen. And that makes me wonder if the problem isn’t the movie itself but that there have been no good prints of it circulating. (Another thing I dislike about the movie is that its color palette is washed out, which may be a clue, Lance, since color movies from that era aren’t known for their drabness.) So…
Does anybody know if there’s a good DVD version or is there anyone who has seen a good print shown on a big screen?
In short, is there anyone who can tell me if I’m all wrong about the movie and I need to see it again, because I would like to…and like it.
This Nicely-Nicely Jones is a character who is maybe five feet eight inches tall, and about five feet nine inches wide, and when he is in good shape he will weigh upward of two hundred and eighty-three pounds. He is a horse player by trade, and eating is really just a hobby, but he is undoubtedly a wonderful eater even when he is not hungry.
Well, as soon as Horsey and I return to New York, we hasten to Mindy’s restaurant on Broadway and relate the bet Horsey makes in Boston, and right away so many citizens, including Mindy himself, wish to take a piece of the proposition that it is oversubscribed by a large sum in no time.
Then Mindy remarks that he does not see Nicely-Nicely Jones for a month of Sundays, and then everybody present remembers that they do not see Nicely-Nicely around lately, either, and this leads to a discussion o fwhere Nicely-Nicely can be, although up to this moment if nobody sees Nicely-Nicely but once in the next ten years it will be considered sufficient.
Well, Willie the Worrier, who is a bookmaker by trade, is among those present, and he remembers that the last time he looks for Nicely-Nicely hoping to collect a marker of some years’ standing, Nicely-Nicely is living at the rest Hotel in West Forty-ninth Street, and nothing will do Horsey but I must go with him over to the Rest to make inquiry for Nicely-Nicely, and there we learn that he leaves a forwarding address away up on Morningside Heights in care of somebody by the name of Slocum.
So Horsey call a short, and away we go to this address, which turns out to be a five-story walk-up apartment, and a card downstairs shows that Slocum lives on the top floor. It takes Horsey and me ten minutes to walk up the five flights as we are by no means accustomed to exercise of this nature, and when we finally reach a door marked Slocum, we are plumb tuckered out, and have to sit down on the top step and rest a while.
Then I ring the bell at this door marked Slocum, and who appears but a tall young Judy with black hair who is without doubt beautiful, but who is so skinny we have to look twice to see her, and when I ask her if she can give me any information about a party named Nicely-Nicely Jones, she says to me like this:
“I guess you mean Quentin,” she says. “Yes,” she says, “Quentin is here. Come in, gentlemen.”
So we step into an apartment, and as we do a think, sickly looking character gets up out of a chair by the window, and in a weak voice says good evening. It is a good evening, at that, so Horsey and I say good evening right back at him, very polite, and then we stand there waiting for Nicely-Nicely to appear, when the beautiful skinny young Judy says:
“Well,” she says, “this is Mr. Quentin Jones.”
“Then Horsey and I take another swivel at the thin character, and we can see that it is nobody but Nicely-Nicely, at that, but the way he changes since we last observe him is practically shocking to us both, because he is undoubtedly all shrunk up. In fact, he looks as if he is about hafl what he is in his prime, and his face is pale and thin, and his eyes are away back in his head, and while we both shake hands with him it is some time before either of us is able to speak.
---from "A Piece of Pie" by Damon Runyon.