(This was originally going to be a followup comment in a Facebook discussion with Roger Travis and Joan Pepin, but it started getting long and I don’t blog nearly enough these days, so I figured make it still longer and stick it here instead.)
A few weeks ago, I was rolling my eyes at Luck Be a Lady, calling it creepy; Roger asked me about that, and eventually it turned out that I was missing an important piece of information, namely that I’d been listening to a Sinatra performance from a collection of his songs, without realizing that it was originally from Guys and Dolls. And Roger’s claim, which sounded reasonable, is that the song is rather better (and in particular rather less creepy) in context; in addition, it also seemed plausible to me that Sinatra’s performance of the song was particularly condescending. Given that I’d somehow never watched Guys and Dolls, it seemed like time to fill in that gap.
So we watched it last night. (We watched the 1955 movie version; I’m quite willing to believe that it might have been partially butchered in the transfer to screen, but it’s what I had around.) And yes, Roger is totally correct: in context, I’m a lot more sympathetic to the song, sung as it is by somebody who really needs this roll of the dice to go well because of something that’s much bigger than the game. Though my Sinatra hypothesis also still seems good to me: I like how Marlon Brando sings it a lot more than how Frank Sinatra sings it (a phrase I don’t expect to type very often!), because Sinatra is confident and condescending, which actively works against the redeeming values that the context in the show provides.
But if we step back still further, away from the details of the context of that scene: this is a musical called “Guys and Dolls”. In other words: A) It puts a focus on gender right in the title; B) It looks at women through a term that places them as inanimate objects that are only given action and voice by others. And, in that context, Luck Be a Lady gets creepy again: it’s all about instructing women on the proper way to behave, with a good cop aspect of “you probably didn’t realize that what you were doing was bad” and an implicit bad cop threat of “let’s keep this party polite”. And that’s not at all out of keeping with the title’s claim that women are / should be dolls.
So, right now (and, again, based on a movie version that I have no reason to believe isn’t actively bad), I’m not a fan of Guys and Dolls. It’s a musical explicitly about gender relations; it does that by showing two couples that I don’t see as particularly well-drawn and that both have bad gender politics motivating their interactions. If I want to take a good view of how it presents gender relations, I’ll say that the psychology book bit is a nod to the idea that society boxes in women in a way that is unhealthy mentally to the extent that it makes them unhealthy physically as well; I think it’s at least as likely, though, that the psychology bit is instead more of a “women are crazy, right?” elbow to the side. Fugue for Tinhorns is a great song, the floating crap game has some virtues as a farce but isn’t quite central enough to turn into a really well-done farce, and I thought the mission testimony scene was pretty funny. On the one hand, I feel like I should watch the musical on stage to give it a fair shot, but, on the other hand, I have enough doubts about it that I’m not planning to go out of my way to do that.
Compare to Kiss Me Kate. (But please, not the 1953 movie version, it’s the reason why I’m wondering so much about the movie version of Guys and Dolls, I’m very glad I first saw it through a DVD of the 2001 London version.) It’s also a musical where gender politics are front and center, it’s also about two couples who have issues caused in part by societal gender constraints. But the scenes and songs do a much, much better job of presenting those couples as real people, not caricatures; and the musical is also constantly and actively interrogating those societal constraints instead of taking them as given. (And, of course, there are tons good songs, and I think the farce aspect is a little better done than in Guys and Dolls?)
Part of the discussion that Roger, Joan, and I were having was around enjoying art from that era (and earlier eras), given its misogyny. Guys and Dolls was from 1950 while Kiss Me Kate was from 1948, so obviously I’m capable of quite enjoying postwar musicals. But I also kind of suspect that societal currents at the time did make it harder to produce art that I would enjoy, and I don’t even think that’s just me. We watched Silk Stockings maybe a month ago; I liked it, but the way that the movie shoehorns the main characters into a caricature box in order to say something about communism and women really hurts it in my eyes. Still, I liked Silk Stockings more than Guys and Dolls: the main characters are written more like people, and I really do love both Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. (Though, actually, Marlon Brando is pretty good too!) It’s been a little longer since I’ve seen High Society, but again I have the same unease: it’s trying to say something about women and class, and falling down while doing so. (And, again, there are same saving graces compared to Guys and Dolls: it’s a more personal movie, so the humanity manages to break through out of the caricature. And Grace Kelly, Louis Armstrong, and Bing Crosby are all pretty great too.)
Whereas if we go back a little bit further, earlier Fred Astaire movies, say don’t feel like they’re making quite the same sort of statement as those movies from the 50s: I can’t say I like their gender politics either, but they generally use that gender politics in the service of a farce to which the commit wholeheartedly, and I can forgive that a lot more. And, well, I can forgive Fred and Ginger almost anything, given how spectacular dancers they are, and those movies always have a couple of wonderful songs.
I could be making too much of this: Singin’ in the Rain is also a 50s musical movie, and it delights me from start to finish. And, again, Kiss Me Kate also points at the good of the time, at least on stage. But it does feel to me like musicals (or at least movie musicals) might have been fighting a particularly bad uphill battle artistically in the postwar area because of the pervading ideological issues, especially around gender.
This post has not been revised since publication.