Film Review: Guys and Dolls

“To make a fortune I need a fortune.”

Guys and Dolls

I do love a good musical. There’s something infectiously joyful about a dozen people all launching into a coordinated song-and-dance routine, and the opening sequence of Guys and Dolls, a musical romp through a vibrant New York City, is perfect in that respect.

The story begins with the trials and tribulations of Nathan Detroit, a small-time gangster who needs money to secure a venue for his famous floating craps game. In a desperate bid to come up with the cash, he bets Sky Masterson, a well-known gambler, that he can’t get a specific woman to go to Havana with him for dinner. The woman is Sarah Brown, a teetotal member of the Save a Soul Mission – the last person who’d ever get on a plane with the likes of Sky Masterson.

What follows is pretty standard musical fare. It’s a little too long, and relies on no perceptible logic, and, being a product of the Fifties, is so blatantly and unashamedly sexist that there seems little point even in complaining about it. What it does have going for it is a certain vibrancy: a capturing of all the strange, criminal, joyful life of the city. It charts a clash in values that can be described in terms of belief: while Sarah Brown and her Save a Soul pals believe in a God, and a life, that is constant, steady and unchanging (“I’ll Know”), Sky Masterson and the illegal gamblers follow a way of life that is fickle and in flux, seizing the day whenever it comes (“Luck Be A Lady”). The film tries, with middling success, to reconcile old certainties with new realities, old morality with the vitality of the new, the simplicity of religion with the moral messiness of the city; the disparity is, as the title suggests, aligned along gender lines, which is not so much deliberately sexist as simply an obvious way to bring the film’s polar opposites together – through marriage.

It’s a reasonably good film if you’re looking to while away your evening, although I suspect it would be better onstage. There are a couple of great songs (“Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat”), and some lovely set pieces. I’ve seen better, but I’ve seen worse, too.

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