Frank Sinatra plays Nathan Detroit, a gambler who is running out of venues to host his card games. His girlfriend wants him to put an end to all his nonsense and go legit and a police lieutenant is putting the pressure on him too. He has found a new venue but he needs $1000 to pay it’s owner. So he comes up with an idea. He sets up a bet with another gambler called Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando). The bet is that if Sky would have to pay Nathan $1000 if he fails to take a girl of his choosing to a dinner in Havana. When Nathan picks Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons), the odds doesn’t seem to be in Sky’s favor because she works as a Sister for the Salvation Army. An over-confident Sky accepts his challenge and proceeds to persuade Sarah with a smart proposition.
Does Marlon Brando belong in a bright, glitzy Hollywood musical? This is the first question that popped into my mind before making a decision to watch this film. I could see the director’s name, Joseph.L. Mankiewicz, on the Dvd cover and that inspired some confidence because he happened to be one of my favorite Hollywood directors. And, there was Frank Sinatra, and I was not a big fan of his. And I am not a big fan of musicals either, with the exception of Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris. But, the first two names were enough to compel me to watch it. Anyway, the film turned out to be a pleasant surprise and has now joined my list of favorite Hollywood musicals. Brando proved to everyone that he could not only act but sing effortlessly as well. Brando is just coming off the success of On the Waterfront which came out the year before and everyone saw him as this intense, method actor who can only be imagined as doing serious roles and not some candyfloss romantic musical. It was really a brave decision on the part of Samuel Goldwyn to cast him in a musical.
Brando’s dancing skills in the film is quite impressive too. The producers initially wanted to go with Gene Kelly who had by then become the go-to guy for starring in musicals. Even Mankiewicz was an odd choice for directing a film like this. The man is known for making serious dramas, not musicals. Only five years before this, he made the excellent, Oscar-winning All About Eve, a satire on showbiz. He had previously worked with Brando on the 1953 film, Julius Caesar, in which Brando played Marc Anthony. Apparently, Goldwyn had a different idea altogether. Mankiewicz did not appreciate the original Broadway version that much and wanted to flesh out the characters for the film version more. Yeah it’s a musical alright, but he wanted realistic characters. The result is one of the most cheerful colorful and entertaining musicals ever made. The musical sequences are a joy to watch. They are expertly choreographed and some of them quite hilarious mixing well-timed slapstick humor with energetic dance movements. And Jean Simmons has a lovely voice. The rat-a-tat dialogues reminded me of the films of Howard Hawks. I think it’s a perfect Christmas film.
This is one of my favorite sequences from the film: