The musical Guys and Dolls was a hit on Broadway in 1950 and a big-budget movie in 1955. I’ve never been big fan of musicals, but I’d recently read some of Damon Runyon’s short stories, the source of the play, and was curious to see Marlon Brando in a musical. So when the movie showed up in a revival series at a local theater, I thought it was worth a visit.
Now you might suspect that the very title of the musical is a problem. It would be easy to dismiss Guys and Dolls as a relic of the 1950s, the decade most despised by feminists, even though Runyon’s stories take place during Prohibition. It’s not difficult to imagine a stage production or screening today being picketed by social justice warriors. God knows we’ve seen the fur fly over pettier issues than the names of plays or movies.
At any rate, I wouldn’t advise referring to any woman, no matter how attractive, as a “doll” these days unless your significant other is a female android. Come to think of it, wouldn’t Guys and Dolls be a great name for a chain of robot brothels?
Whether “doll” is worse than “broad” or “dame” is debatable. Maybe OK at a guys-only poker night, but I wouldn’t try it in mixed company (by that, I mean soy boys as well as women) unless you’re in an argumentative mood.
Nevertheless, Guys and Dolls is occasionally revived on stage and so far there has been no movement to change the name to “Guys and Womyn.” Actually, I think the alliterative Dudes and Dolls, would be appropriate, as Damon Runyon had a character called Dave the Dude in one of his stories, “Madame La Gimp,” which was later made into the 1933 film Lady for a Day, and the remake, Pocketful of Miracle, in 1961.
But the title itself is not nearly as controversial as the title song which appears over the credits as well as in a scene wherein Frank Sinatra, playing a guy who makes a living out of organizing floating crap games, is proclaiming his love for Adelaide, his fiancée of 14 years! By the time you get to the end, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the song is a hymn to gynocentrism:
Look what’s playing at the Roxy.
I’ll tell you what’s playing at the Roxy.
It’s a picture about a Minnesota man so in love with a Mississippi girl that
he sacrifices everything and moves all the way to Biloxi.
That’s what’s playing at the Roxy.
What’s in the Daily News?
I’ll tell you what’s in the Daily News.
Story about a guy who bought his wife a small ruby with what otherwise
would have been his union dues.
That’s what’s in the Daily News.
What’s happening all over?
I’ll tell you what’s happening all over.
A guy sitting home by a television set who used to be something of a rover.
That’s what’s happening all over.
Yes, sir, when you see a guy reach for stars in the sky,
You can bet that he’s doing it for some doll.
When you spot a John waiting out in the rain,
Chances are he’s insane, as only a John can be for a Jane.
When you meet a gent paying all kinds of rent
For a flat that could flatten the Taj Mahal,
Call it sad, call it funny, but it’s better than even money,
That the guy’s only doing it for some doll.
When you see a Joe saving half of his dough,
You can bet they’ll be minting it for some doll.
When a bum buys wine like a bum can’t afford,
It’s a cinch that the bum is under the thumb of some little broad.
When you meet a mug lately out of the jug,
And he’s still lifting platinum folderol [stealing jewelry]
Call it hell, call it heaven, it’s a probable twelve to seven
That’s a guy’s only doing it for some doll.
When you see a sport and his cash has run short,
You can bet he’s been blowing it on some doll,
When a guy wears tails with the front gleaming white,
Who the heck do you think he’s tickling pink on Saturday night?
When some lazy slob gets a good steady job
And he smells from Vitalis and Barbasol,
Call it dumb, call it clever, ah, but you can’t give odds forever,
That’s the guy’s only doing it for some doll, some doll, some doll,
The guy’s only doing it for some doll.
The above lyrics were written by Frank Loesser, who was a heavy hitter among songwriters. He was born in 1910, so he was pretty well set in his ways by the time second-wave feminism reared its ugly Medusa head. The concepts of gynocentrism and tradcon would have been unknown to him. He died at age 59 in 1969 a week after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, which might have tempered any romantic illusions he had about that nocturnal sphere.
Guys and Dolls includes another song “Luck, Be a Lady Tonight” which would also raise eyebrows in feminist circles. Basically, the term lady luck equates fickle fortune with fickle females:
Luck, let a gentleman see
How nice a dame you can be.
I know the way you’ve treated other guys you’ve been with.
Luck, be a lady with me.
A lady doesn’t leave her escort.
It isn’t fair, and it’s not nice.
A lady doesn’t wander all over the room
And blow on some other guy’s dice.
Today that last line sounds like an obvious double entendre. I don’t know what it sounded like in the 50s. Even worse, Loesser wrote the lyrics for “Standing on the Corner” from the 1956 musical The Most Happy Fella. You know that one…
Standing on a corner watching all the girls go by…
Brother, you don’t know a nicer occupation…
Brother, if you’ve got a rich imagination
Give it a whirl, give it a try.
Objectification, anyone? When I was a kid, this tune was a popular standard. I don’t think any male crooner would want to tackle it today. You’d be more likely to hear it at a lesbian bar.
Today the real knee-slapper in the song is the line “Brother you can’t go to jail for what you’re thinking.” Not yet anyway. But they’re working on it!
Loesser has attracted some posthumous criticism for “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a 1944 duet about yuletide seduction. The girl wants to leave the man’s apartment, he wants her to stay. You probably won’t hear this one at your child’s Christmas – pardon me, holiday – pageant.
Seduction is a word we don’t hear much any more, possibly because it cuts both ways: men can seduce women and vice versa. Either sex can be a victim or a victimizer. Nevertheless, in some feminist circles “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was interpreted as the official date rape Christmas carol! Nevertheless, it remains a Christmas standard and contemporary singers still record it.
Frank Loesser would surely be shocked if he could be resurrected. Remember, when he was writing songs, heterosexuality was rampant. Sex appeal (another term we don’t hear much any more) was a good thing. It is indeed ironic that today show tunes are considered a homosexual thing. 1950s audiences surely would be shocked.
The script for Guys and Dolls was not written by Loesser but by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling. By the end of the movie, their script has longtime bachelors Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra) and Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) brought to heel in a double wedding. One doll is a chorus girl, the other is a prudish, straitlaced, officer in a Salvation Army style organization. Admittedly, she loosens up a bit by the end of the movie.
Curiously, in real life Sinatra was married four times, and Brando three times. Neither had any trouble attracting women; both had plenty of non-marital liaisons. So why in the world would they even get married?
They only did it for some doll. More than once, so I should say dolls.
Some guys never learn.