Film of the Week | 31st May 2021
Indulge the Bank Holiday with one of the stagier late Hollywood musicals, all filmed on studio sets six years after On The Town had liberated the musical by filming on location. The colour is a glorious kaleidoscope of primary and pastel shades, and the bite and snap of the marvellous book isn’t lost by Joseph Mankiewicz, who steers this tail-finned, chromium-plated monster through the twin plots put together from Damon Runyon’s stories; but the people in the Cadillac’s seats are charming and completely convincing. Try as we might, we can never quite stop watching it: snappy and stylish Frank Sinatra (Nathan Detroit), Jean Simmons (Sarah Brown) floating above it all until she drops down to the lusting earth like everyone else, Marlon Brando (Sky Masterson) charming everyone on and off the screen and just about managing to sing, and superb performances from supporting actors. The love story between Sarah and Sky, expressed through classic songs like ‘If I Were a Bell’, is wonderfully touching.
It is one of the great musical scores, though half a dozen equally good songs are missing from the original Broadway production. Frank Loesser, who wrote the score while smoking himself into an early grave, was obsessive, a perfectionist, a hustling dynamo who might have popped out of a Damon Runyon story himself, sleeping only four hours a night so he could work longer hours: “I don’t write slowly. It’s just that I throw out fast.”
The choreography is by Michael Kidd, who used dance to advance stories and express character rather than simply as decorations, but as there was no Oscar for choreography his achievements have to some extent been obscured: the barn-raising in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the Central Park sequence with Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire ‘Dancing in the Dark’ in The Band Wagon, the dustbin-lid dance in It’s Always Fair Weather…. There are some great set-pieces in Guys and Dolls too, such as ‘Luck Be a Lady’, and ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat’, but the drunken dance in Havana is perhaps the most striking, incorporating all kinds of everyday gesture and step into the dance.
Damon Runyon created a world as convincing, but no more real, than Middle Earth – we buy into it, pretending that the lives of these grifters and crooks aren’t grimy and despicable, but a whirl of witticisms and verbal and situational ironies. The present-tense narrative voice helps, surviving here as the crackling dialogue of the characters. Often very funny, the world deals with tragedy and violence, and when read as a whole the oeuvre becomes a tour of Runyon’s urban Divine Comedy and Inferno.
The two stories from which the book is constructed are ‘Blood Pressure’ and ‘The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown’, plus borrowings from other tales. I have attached a Runyon story, ‘Sense of Humour’, to give you the idea. Many of the stories can be found here:
Brando had a taste for practical jokes. He deliberately messed up the cheesecake eating scene because he knew that Sinatra hated cheesecake, so they had to keep re-shooting it until Sinatra ate so much he had to stop. They came back next day and shot it in one take.
“Fugue for Tinhorns,” was originally written as a ballad, but reset as the gamblers’ anthem.
Best wishes, Bill.