100 Movie Musicals #25: Guys and Dolls (1955)

Loopy, word-drunk phantasmagoria about one man’s attempt to host a floating craps game. Shenanigans and marriages ensue! An utter delight from soup to nuts.

you will roll blank dice and remember where the spots are?

We watched this the same night that we watched Carmen Jones, and the tonal and aesthetic shift between the two movies was wild. Guys and Dolls operates on a very different theory of what a musical can and should be than Jones’ awkward naturalism that always felt like it thought opera’s opulence and US musical theater’s hokiness was all a bit gauche: Dolls is all candy colored sets and suits, giant shoulders, impossible sewers, a Times Square that’s more than half airless casino. It’s deeply in love with the Runyon dialogue that its various criminals, burlesques, and gamblers all deploy—in love with language as a whole, really, in both formal and informal registers—in a way the really underlines how perfunctory and cliched the cringeworthy dialect was in Jones.

It’s magnificently structured, too, with a series of nested cons and dodges that require every other con and dodge to pay off for anything to resolve, and that set up allows the movie to hop between threads whenever things start to flag; we’re always moving from temporary resolution to the middle of some other crisis, and it gives this utterly no-stakes plot a surprising amount of tension. The ridiculous names (Arvide Abernathy? Big Julie? Nicely-Nicely?), broad personalities, and colorful costuming make it easy to hang on to, regardless of how complicated things get; you always know why people are doing what they’re doing, what the stakes are, and how they’re at odds with each other. Superhero movies and video games operate in a similar model, but few of them pull the trick off anywhere near as neatly as Guys and Dolls.

three silhouettes as instantly distinguishable as anything in Overwatch

There’s a bit of a running theme in all the musicals we’ve watched from this period, both on and off the list, where cops are at best ineffective and at worst outright villainously inept in a way you don’t see in modern films. The carceral logic of the wars on Drugs and Terror hasn’t seeped so thoroughly into every facet of the culture, maybe? For a decade that’s famous for its button-downed conformity, the mass culture is straining at the seams against it.

This is the most textually homoerotic movie we’ve had on this list, with all the dudes desperate to get away from the women they’re notionally in love with so they can get in more male bonding time. It’s similar to Bride of Frankenstein in that way — guys don’t want dolls, they want to run off to the margins of society and do crimes/mad science with their boys! Marlon Brando’s Skye Masterson lays it out early on to Frank Sinatra’s perennially marriage-averse Nathan Detroit: “For a relationship that can last us all our lives, no doll can take the place of aces back to back.” The title song is Nicely-Nicely trying to talk Nathan out of women as a concept! Guys and Dolls will get both its confirmed bachelors safely married off by the end, but that tension never really resolves; both Jean Simmons’ Sister Sarah Brown and Vivian Blaine’s Adelaide want their men to be anything other than what they are, and that tension is never really resolved.

it’s opulent, but it can’t last

For all that, though, the movie likes its heroines just fine, and there’s some real chemistry and affection between both couples, when the men aren’t in their heads about how women as a class spell the end of all fun. Skye and Sarah in particular have a sparky, combative flirtiness that makes the romance in this movie the first one on this list that hasn’t made me want to die. Skye at one point fussily corrects Sister Sarah’s bible quote, and it’s insufferable but also somehow charming because it’s just another salvo in the rhetorical game they’re mutually playing; he’s fighting on her turf in the same way she’ll be fighting on his turf later. Vivian Blaine is phenomenal as Adelaide, tremendously funny and touching, with a stage career in burlesque that is doing just fine and that is refreshingly never questioned by Nathan or any of the other men; for all the battle of the sexes framing tossed around, none of the men are threatened by the women having lives outside of the home. Adelaide is chasing Nathan to settle down and let her support him, not the other way around, and that’s so rare, both in the 50s and today, particularly for a woman doing sex work.

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