Before watching the movie:
I always had the impression this was a story about mafiosos and their molls, but the closest I ever came to any glimpse of the actual contents of the musical was… highly adulterated, and I’m pretty sure bears no relationship to the actual musical.
The summaries I’m seeing now seem to revolve around illegal gambling, which probably means organized crime, but it doesn’t really seem to be the focus. Obviously the real focus is probably “That Frank Sinatra is having a swell time singing”, more than likely with a dash of “and that nun is going to break her vows for him.”
After watching the movie:
Nathan Detroit has been running craps games in a different place in New York every night to stay ahead of the police crackdown on illegal gambling, but he’s run out of places. There’s only one location willing to let him use the space, but only if Nathan puts a thousand dollars in the owner’s hand by the night after tomorrow, a thousand dollars which Nathan Detroit is not in current possession of. In order to get that money, Nathan bets high-rolling gambler Sky Masterson, who chides Nathan on his long-time dysfunctional devotion to his anti-gambling girlfriend Adelaide, that he can’t take just any young woman, a young woman of Nathan’s choosing, to dinner in Cuba by tomorrow night, trying to prove the point that dolls aren’t interchangeable. Supposedly making the bet a sure thing, Nathan chooses Sister Sarah Brown of the Save A Soul Mission, a girl so straitlaced there’s no way she’d spend time alone with Sky. Sky in turn goes to Sarah with a business proposition as a “repentant” gambler: if she goes to dinner with him tomorrow night… in Cuba, by the way… he’ll deliver to her prayer meeting the night after tomorrow no less than twelve of his sinner associates. When the mission’s national leader arrives to announce that the Broadway branch of the mission will be closed due to extremely low attendance, Sarah feels compelled to take Sky’s offer as a last chance to keep the mission open to save the souls of Broadway. As the romance of a Havana night club casts a spell on the two of them (and the Bacardi-spiked “milkshakes” he orders break down Sarah’s walls), Nathan finds that not only has he lost the bet and so might not be able to run his crap game, eagerly awaited by not only the gamblers of Broadway but vacationing Chicago mobster Big Jule who would be very displeased if he didn’t get to shoot dice while in town, but he also has to go along with the ruse for the police that the gamblers have gathered to celebrate his engagement to Adelaide, in front of Adelaide. While Sky and Sarah begin to realize that they have bigger consequences than they expected to deal with from this trip than they thought, Nathan has to plan his elopement with Adelaide and the certain end of his gambling life.
While not nearly as much about the fun and fancy free life of gangsters and their women as I thought, the element does sneak in as one way the fire Nathan has been playing with is getting him burnt. Mostly thought, it’s a story of small to medium crime. I think gambling falls under vice, and especially the way Nathan runs it, nobody gets hurt except for maybe a gambling addict bankrupting themselves. As two-faced as Nathan is though, I doubt he and his co-conspirators would let that happen if they knew about it and didn’t have someone with less scruples pointing a gun at them. For most of the story, Nathan’s biggest worry is having to marry Adelaide and stop gambling, and really after fourteen years of going steady it was about eight to twelve years past high time to get married.
What struck me greatly is how often the gamblers will speak in an unusual, stilted manner of phrasing, as though they are choosing their words with great care in case an officer of the law may be listening and develop an unfair impression of the subject of their discussion. I could not say why they are scripted in this way, though I think it may have been the most relaxed between Sky and Sarah in Havana, so maybe it really was something to do with the environment in New York. The stilted dialogue did get in the way of studying how a young Marlon Brando brings more naturalistic acting to the screen than had been seen before, but it was still nice to see him when he was actually making an effort.
I really expected Nathan Detroit’s story to be the most interesting, but really he only does two things: provide the catalyst for Sky and Sarah’s unusual love story, and play games with the heart of the woman he claims to love. Without Adelaide in the scene, I can be amused by the way the noose slowly tightens around his neck and how he wriggles out of it when it seems like there’s absolutely no escape, but it seems like those escapes always cost Adelaide the most.
I haven’t even discussed the music in the movie, which is, like most musicals, often overstaying of its welcome. Maybe as many as half of the songs are completely superfluous, but the best ones are the ones I already know through pop culture osmosis. The climactic Luck Be A Lady solo is fantastic, selling the drama of how everything is coming down to one fair die roll better than most musical numbers even in well-paced musicals, but you have to get through over two hours of movie to get to it, including two lounge acts, the first of which doesn’t seem to do anything more than establish that Adelaide is a cabaret singer.
I did enjoy the movie for the most part, though I would’ve enjoyed it more if it had tighter pacing, which is a problem most Broadway adaptations have. It very vaguely reminds me of Roman Holiday somehow, in the element of the young lady whisked away from her normal obligations for a night on the town she never expected to fall in love during. I think I’d rather watch Roman Holiday, but with some of the best songs tossed in along the way. Though altogether, less of its time (the 30s or the 50s) than I would’ve thought in a show positioned about the nature of relationships between Guys and their Dolls.