Musicals are an interesting genre. Celluloid re-makes often retain the flamboyance of the original stage production where, invariably, the gestures were bigger and bolder, the singing more showy and the costumes more brash; after all, it’s theatre, darling. Joseph Mankiewicz’s Guys and Dolls (1955) is a curious collision of stage and screen. It plays out against a stylised New York, guaranteed by the stage-bound scenes (it was filmed almost entirely on the Goldwyn lot in Hollywood) and the playful surreal aesthetic conjured by the art director’s deliberate alteration of familiar neon signage and the non-naturalistic set colouring.
The film, and indeed the stage shows that preceded it, were based on Guys and Dolls a collection of short stories published by sports columnist and author Damon Runyon in 1932. Runyon wrote sentimentally tinged tales about New York gangsters, hustlers, actors and gamblers; stories that were half found on Broadway in the nineteen-twenties and thirties and half cooked up in his own head – perhaps that’s where the permeating half-reality really began.
Marlon Brando’s casting as Sky Masterson is not as surprising as it initially seems. Yes, he provided a big box-office draw, but he also bought a sense of authenticity and gravitas to the cast and, in many ways, was the perfect balance to Frank Sinatra’s Nathan Detroit. Reportedly, the two actors didn’t see eye to eye; Sinatra was put out because Brando was given the romantic lead and regarded him as an inferior musical performer (a charge not without foundation – as Hollis Alpert stated in the Saturday Review “Brando can’t really sing. But he has moments when he almost convinces you he that can…”). The male leads also disagreed on acting methods – Sinatra preferred to nail a scene in one take, Brando liked to discover subtle nuances with each take. He regularly used this against his co-star, doing an entire scene between them brilliantly, then blowing the last line and forcing a retake.
Just as the set veered from realism, so to do Irene Sharaff’s costumes (for which she received an Academy award nomination). The exaggerated colours and shapes are heightened by a period style mash-up that saw Sharaff borrow from the 50’s, cladding love interest Adelaide (Vivian Blaine) and the chorus girls in elbow-length satin gloves and red lipstick, complete with nipped in waists.
In contrast, Masterson and Detroit are archetypal 20’s gangsters, clad in sharp suits complete with shouty pinstripes and a pocket-chief, folded just-so. These Guy gangsters wear their success with ease and swagger; compare their attire to the sober and more conventional suits worn by Lieutenant Brannigan (Robert Keith).Gangster style as a genre is an interesting concept. It’s a stylistic cliché that has its roots in cinema – the brash mobster uniform was created and reinforced by costume designers in films including The Public Enemy (1931) and Little Caesar (1931) and then picked up by real-timers, who wanted to live up to the legend their on-screen idols had set – dressing the part was just one aspect of this.
In the opening scene of Guys and Dolls, Detroit (Sinatra) wears a pinstripe suit, complete with wide peak lapels and a white shirt with an extreme point collar and double cuffs, secured with cufflinks. This uniform is accessorised with braces, a polka dot bow tie and lace-up shoes. The look is slick, showy and pulled together; Detroit is suave and confident, he speaks quickly and relishes his go-to position, even if he is under pressure to organise a craps game for some demanding high rollers. In the same scene, Masterson (Brando) wears a light grey suit with a dark shirt and patterned tie, his trilby at a rakish angle. Masterson exudes natural confides, his languorous movements and elegant lounging confirm this; he is the relaxed gangster, revelling in Detroit’s pressure-to-perform status.
Brando’s second suit is an equally sober affair, dark navy single-button worn with braces and a pale gold-coloured tie and, to confirm his gangster status, an oversize wristwatch and a gold ring with a blue stone, worn on his little finger. His refusal to adapt the recognised gangster uniform underscore his outsider status – as he woos Sergeant Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) to Cuba he begins to distance himself from his roots.
In contrast, Detroit plays up to his role with delight. During the game, he favours a traditional pinstripe suit, worn with a relaxed-fit, pleat-front trousers. His double-breasted jacket is accessorised with a red carnation (it identifies he is part of the craps club) – although it’s interesting to note that he’s more conservatively dressed than some of his (Nicely Nicely Johnson, Big Jule).
Sharaff confirmed Masterson and Detroit’s conversion to respectability with their costumes in the final (wedding) scene – black single breasted suits and smart white shirts (sombre indeed, for a musical). The clothes themselves are unremarkable, but the change seems to sudden, too smooth – and the audience is left wondering just how long it will be until Detroit dusts off his pinstripes and trilby.
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Irene Sharaff’s costume sketch for Frank Sinatra