I’m not much for Broadway. I can count the number of stage musicals I’ve seen on one hand.
Um. Give me a minute.
Okay. Here we go. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Phantom of the Opera. Damn Yankees (the only one I’ve actually seen on Broadway). I saw my high school’s production of Grease. Does that count? When it comes to movie musicals, I’ve done the major rounds. But I’d never seen the 1955 production of Guys and Dolls starring Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando.
Remove the notion that it’s a 150-minute lavish Hollywood musical, long imitated, twice revived. Instead, consider only that it’s a movie starring Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra in their prime. Sold, right?
In this Cinema Shame exercise to date, the movies I’ve watched have come attached with baggage and preconceived notions. The baggage hauled along with Guys and Dolls, however, was the music. Being very familiar with Frank Sinatra’s repertoire of jazz standards, I already knew his recorded versions of “Luck Be a Lady,” “If I Were a Bell,” and the theme from Guys and Dolls. But I wasn’t prepared to know almost all of the songs. This struck me as rather remarkable, the way the songs originally written for stage musicals have a way of permeating our popular culture. The jazz culture of the day displaced and regurgitated songs through crooners and performers, songs like “Luck Be a Lady,” until they’re rendered without distinct origin. I knew the Sinatra songs going in, courtesy of his regular attribution to Frank Loesser, Guys and Dolls composer and lyricist. But here’s the one that surprised me… and right out of the shoot, too…
When you’re as obsessed with Let It Ride as I am, this 2-minute ditty (that opens the film) takes on whole new levels of recognition.
Because that song (“Fugue for Tinhorns”) also opened Guys and Dolls, I shifted out of the “waiting for the stuff I knew” mode and into “What else don’t I know?” It’s a small shift in perspective that left me open to experience the film cold rather than dotting out boxes on my Guys and Dolls bingo card. And though the film felt familiar, I attributed that familiarity to the ways in which subsequent Hollywood musicals borrowed staging and choreography.
The moment at which I realized I honestly liked Guys and Dolls takes place in Cuba. Marlon Brando has whisked away his mark (Jean Simmons) to Cuba to win a $1000 bet. He’d slyly introduced her to a cocktail called Dulce de leche, suggesting to her that the rum is merely acting as a milk preservative. She’s a teetotaler, you see. Then under some brand of “musical logic” the two engage in a bar fight before slipping out the side door. Next we see the pair, the woozy Simmons has her head in the fountain and she begins to sing “If I Were a Bell,” a song I only knew through Sinatra.
Simmons was not a singer, nor was Brando, obviously, but they’re both allowed to use their real singing voices. No dubs. Hearing Simmons sing this song caused me to hear something entirely different. Sinatra sings it with such cocky swagger that the point of the song becomes obscured. As Simmons sings it in the movie, it’s about vulnerability, giving into spontaneous temptation. Her tinny singing voice and playful interpretation frame with music with the innocence of her character. Go ahead. Try to hear “innocence” when Sinatra sings the very same song.
Brando singing also came as a kind of inevitable surprise. Inevitable that I knew he’d eventually sing (and dance) but it still feels “out of nowhere” so to speak. I’d last seen Brando in the Lost Souls documentary about the disastrous Island of Dr. Moreau project. Coming to terms with both versions of Marlon Brando (even though we clearly know he exists as charming leading man and Hollywood-skeptical lunatic) took some doing. Anyway, here’s Brando singing the Sinatra standard “Luck Be a Lady.”
He’s good, right? I mean, not Sinatra-level crooning but still surprising.
I’m sitting here with a backlog of Cinema Shame to write up and I’m lost in thought and wondering where I was going with any of this. I’m sure the lost thoughts were ones of inimitable brilliance.
Also, that Dulce de leche cocktail that Brando offers Jean Simmons in Cuba? When Brando ordered the cocktail, my wife asked, “Isn’t that not alcoholic?”
“Oh, don’t be silly. Of course it’s alcoholic. It’s like rum and condensed milk and stuff.”
She raised an eyebrow. The “other things” perhaps causing her to doubt the validity of my assertion.
According to some quick Interweb searches, they made it up for the production of Guys and Dolls, like Ian Fleming and the Vesper. So as it turns out, Guys and Dolls has something in common with Casino Royale. And that kicks it up a notch in my book, like that rum in the condensed milk…. and other stuff.
Pssst. Here’s the recipe.