Based on the hugely successful broadway play of the same name, which was in turn adapted from two short stories by Damon Runyon, Guys and Dolls stars Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Vivian Blaine and of course, Jean Simmons. Jean was not the first choice for the part of Sister Sarah Brown, the conscientious, conservative and headstrong leader of the troubled Save A Soul Mission in New York City. Nor was she even the second choice. The role was originally offered to Grace Kelly, who turned it down in favour of starring in To Catch A Thief. Samuel Goldwyn then approached Deborah Kerr, who also had to turn down the role.
But Jean was no half hearted replacement. When Goldywn realised how talented Jean was, he was relieved that he had been unable to procure either Grace or Deborah for the part. And while Brando was the biggest box office star at the time, it was because of Jean that Goldwyn stated that he felt the love story in the film surpassed that of the play. Joe Mankiewicz, the film’s director said that Jean was
“the dream … a fantastically talented and enormously underestimated girl. In terms of talent, Jean Simmons is so many heads and shoulders above most of her contemporaries, one wonders why she didn’t become the great star she could have been.”
Luck be A Lady
It all begins with a bet. Nathan Detroit (played by Frank Sinatra) is at risk of not being able to find a suitable venue, which means a place that won’t be raided by the cops, for The Oldest Established, Floating Crap Game in New York. When Sky Masterson (played by Marlon Brando) a hot shot gambler who can’t seem to turn down a bet blows into town, Nathan schemes to make a bet that Sky cannot win, so that Nathan can win a sizeable pile of lettuce and hold in his crap game in an antsy individual’s garage. At first, it seems that Sky cannot be tricked into a bet due to some sage advice from his father involving cider and ones ear. But Sky ends up with cider in his ear when Nathan does some fancy talking and gets Sky to unknowingly bet that he can take the nunlike Sister Sarah Brown out on a date to Havana, Cuba. It would be difficult enough taking her on a date down the road.
Sky approaches Sarah, and bets that he can fill her empty mission, which is on the brink of being shutdown for its lack of sinful foot traffic; if she goes on a date to Havana, Cuba with him. But Sky doesn’t make the best impression, and after insulting Sarah’s taste in men, and kissing her without her consent, he gets a slap across the face and a hard nope to his request for a date.
All seems hopeless for Sky, until Sarah is forced to agree to the date when her superior says that she will have to close the failing mission. Sky is delighted and Nathan is crestfallen. This state of affairs further exacerbates Nathan’s strained relations with his very long time fiancée, Adelaide (played by Vivian Blaine) who has a chronic, psycho-symptomatic cold due to Nathan’s refusal to marry her.
Sky and Sarah go to Havana, where, after drinking rather a lot of rum laced Dulce de leche, and a bar brawl, Sarah’s inhibitions fall away, symbolised by the constantly loosened second button on her jacket. She and Sky begin to fall in love, but this is abruptly halted when Sarah is convinced that Sky has betrayed her by allowing the crap game to take place in the Save A Soul Mission, whilst the other missionaries were on an all night march to spread the word of God.
Sky is desolate and resolves to prove to Sarah that he had no part in Nathan’s rather dubious dealings, by making sure that he honours his marker and gets those sinful souls he promised Sarah into the mission. Sarah refuses to listen to what Sky plans to do, but Sky is determined, and wins the seemingly never-ending crap game, which was being perpetuated by the cheating out of towner “Big Jule” and held in the sewers; after betting against all the other players’ souls. They all reluctantly agree to attend the midnight prayer meeting at the mission, as none of them want to shirk on their marker.
Because of Sky’s efforts to save the mission, Sarah realises her folly in mistrusting Sky, and they are reconciled. The film ends with a double marriage in Times Square: Sarah and Sky, and Nathan and Adelaide. Nathan sneezes during their vows, which seems to mark the beginning of a marital induced cold.
Sister Sarah Brown Isn’t Idle
I, for one, agree with Samuel Goldwyn: thank goodness neither Grace Kelly nor Deborah Kerr played the role of Sister Sarah Brown. Whilst I love broth Grace and Deborah’s work, I don’t feel that either of them could have embodied the role in the same way that Jean did. Firstly, despite portraying an extremely uptight and moralistic character, Jean doesn’t come across as mealy-mouthed. She feels very strongly about her beliefs and isn’t afraid to defend them against Sky or any of the other “sinners” in the story.
Secondly, this role shows Jean’s lovely singing voice. I remember when I first watched the film when I was about fifteen. I knew even then, thanks to the keen ear of my mother and her interest in classic film, that a lot of classic movie stars’ singing voices were dubbed. So I was delighted to learn that Jean had sung all of her own songs in the movie. And I think that that adds to her performance. When she sings If I Were A Bell, I can’t help grinning like an utter loon. She perfectly portrays how her character is undergoing a change. How love for someone who is unlike her in almost every way is making her look at herself and her world in a different way. Her capacity for physical comedy and her ability to look entirely natural whilst acting out a rather outlandish, but wonderful scene is showcased so well during that number.
And thirdly, as she does in This Could Be the Night, she shows through her portrayal of her character, how damaging assumptions about people can be. Sarah assumes, not without basis, that Sky is a liar and a cheat, whilst Sky assumes that she is just another virginal priss. They prove one another wrong through their actions throughout the movie. And while many will role their eyes and say that it’s predictable that Sky becomes a white knight and Sarah loosens her second button a bit, I think that the manner in which the characters are written and enacted by Jean and Brando, make it a very interesting and quirky love story. And it’s also quite a poignant one in some ways. The heartbreak that registers on Sarah’s face when she believes that Sky has broken her fragile trust, is more powerful than anything she can say to condemn him. Jean shows with her exquisite face that it’s all in the eyes. Sarah may have the eyes of a woman in love, but Jean has the eyes of an actress who is able to convey such incredible flashes of powerful emotion.
This film is a classic for a reason. It has everything: dazzling colour, a New York right off of a Broadway and a golden era studio sound stage, an incredibly talented cast, and some of the best dialogue and songs ever written for a musical. Jean was quite rightly nominated for both a BAFTA and a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Sister Sarah Brown. And while she may not have had the enormous cultural impact that Grace Kelly has had, this film shows that she really deserves to be given a second, long look by today’s movie audiences.
This is my first contribution for the 90 Years of Jean Simmons Blogathon hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema and Phyllis Loves Her Classic Movies. Please visit their blogs for further information and to read everyone’s contributions.