Thanks to the cable TV channel Turner Classic Movies (TCM), I frequently watch a wide range of movies produced from the late ‘30s to those in the 21st century.
Some of my favorites are movies from the 1950s. One highlight is the 1955 film Summertime, featuring Katharine Hepburn as a single woman who finds love while touring Venice on her own. Shot on location in Venice, it’s not your typical romantic movie, surpassing that genre with Hepburn’s brilliant performance and its glorious setting.
Among many other films from the ‘50s, I recently came across the 1955 Hollywood version of the 1950 Broadway blockbuster musical Guys and Dolls. I’d seen it before but not for decades, and the TCM introduction by host Ben Mankiewicz was intriguing. He noted that the film’s director, Joe Mankiewicz (Ben’s uncle), induced Marlon Brando to take the role of the leading man (Sky Masterson) despite Brando’s reluctance to assume a role in a musical.
Joe reportedly told Marlon that he’d never directed a musical before, but, hey, they’d worked well together one year earlier when Joe directed the film version of Julius Caesar, and neither of them had ever done Shakespeare in a film before. As we know, Julius Caesar was a success, and Joe convinced Marlon that they’d also succeed together in a musical.
Although I enthusiastically agree that they both performed at the top of their game in Julius Caesar, their later collaboration in a musical was less than totally successful.
Filled with catchy tunes composed by the great Frank Loesser, the movie is exuberant, probably as far as a movie musical can go. But one enormous weakness is Marlon’s lack of vocal ability. His part requires that he sing a host of major songs, but his voice just isn’t up to them.
(By the way, Frank Sinatra was reportedly angling for this role and not happy about being given the secondary part of Nathan Detroit.)
One of the most obvious examples of Marlon’s poor vocal ability is his rendition of “Luck Be a Lady,” a show-stopping musical number on Broadway.
When I watched Marlon’s pitiful attempt to master it, I was flooded with memories of first hearing this song performed—live—by singer Tony Martin at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.
I was a kid when my family and I arrived in Las Vegas en route from Chicago to Los Angeles. We’d left our life in Chicago behind, hoping to find a new life for all of us in LA. Our move was prompted by my father’s serious illness, which we optimistically believed was cured, and his hope to establish a new life for our family in sunny LA.
I was delighted by our departure. I knew I’d miss my friends in Chicago, who memorably gave me a surprise farewell party featuring a cake emblazoned with “California, Here Comes Sue” (my preferred nickname at the time). But I was excited about forging a new life on the West Coast, where I fervently hoped that Daddy would be healthy and able to forge a new career. Sadly, that wasn’t to be. (I plan to write about that period in my life another time.)
Many of you may be wondering, “Who was Tony Martin?”
Although Tony Martin has faded into our cultural background today, he was a prominent American singer and film actor during most of the 20th century. Born in San Francisco and raised in Oakland, Tony began his musical career with a local orchestra until he left for Hollywood in the mid-‘30s. He appeared on radio programs like Burns & Allen, then moved on to films, where he starred in a number of musicals and received equal billing with the Marx Brothers in their final film, The Big Store. After serving during WWII, he came back to the U.S., recorded memorable songs for Mercury and RCA records (including some million-sellers), and returned to Hollywood to star in film musicals in the ‘40s and ‘50s. He also began performing in Las Vegas and other venues and continued to perform live till he was over 90. (The NY Times reported that he performed at Feinstein’s on Park Avenue in NYC at the age of 95.)
Before dying at 98 in 2012, Tony was truly a fixture in Hollywood films, recorded music, TV appearances, and as a headliner in live concert performances for seven decades. In the public mind, he’s been eclipsed by another Tony—Tony Bennett–who became successful during the ‘50s recording hits like “Because of You” and “Rags to Riches.” His rendition of 1962’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” became his signature song and made him a hero in San Francisco (although it was Tony Martin who was actually born in SF). Tony Bennett, perpetuating his role as a celebrated singer of pop standards, jazz, and show tunes, has become something of a cultural touchstone. Despite his recent battle with Alzheimer’s, his popularity endures. I can’t deny that his prominent place in the American musical landscape has lasted far longer than Tony Martin’s.
Back to my story….
Our family was staying at an inexpensive motel on the Las Vegas Strip, but Daddy had grand plans for us. He succeeded in getting us front-row tickets for Tony Martin’s memorable performance at the Flamingo, a luxury hotel on the Strip.
The Flamingo Hotel itself is noteworthy. As the 1991 film “Bugsy” (starring Warren Beatty as Bugsy Siegel) and, more recently, the 2021 film “Lansky” (featuring Harvey Keitel as Meyer Lansky) make clear, Ben “Bugsy” Siegel and Meyer Lansky were major figures in organized crime who funded the construction of the Flamingo Hotel in the late forties. It was finally completed in 1947 around the time Bugsy was shot to death by his fellow mobsters, who believed him guilty of skimming money.
I knew nothing of this history until many years later. When I was a kid, all I knew was that I got to see and hear Tony Martin live at the Flamingo. I absolutely reveled in being part of the audience that night, watching Tony perform.
When Tony sang “Luck Be a Lady,” he lighted up the stage, and the audience responded enthusiastically. I recall being completely enthralled.
Marlon’s performance in Guys and Dolls wasn’t in the same league.
At the same time that Tony was executing this song far better than Marlon ever could, Tony’s wife, dancer Cyd Charisse, was making her own mark in Hollywood. Tony and Cyd married in 1948, and their six-decade marriage ended only with Cyd’s death in 2008.
Cyd was an astounding dancer in a raft of Hollywood films, paired with both Gene Kelly (in Brigadoon, for one) and Fred Astaire. Her dance number with Astaire in The Band Wagon (to the song “Dancing in the Dark”) has been immortalized in 1994’s That’s Entertainment III. And if you watch 1957’s Silk Stockings (a musical version of Garbo’s Ninotchka), your eyes are riveted on her fantastic dancing, which outdoes Astaire’s in every way. (By the way, Cyd’s comments in her autobiography on dancing with Kelly and Astaire are fascinating.)
Was Cyd in the audience that night, sharing her husband’s fabulous performance with the rest of us? I’ll never know. But it’s exciting to imagine that she was there, applauding with gusto, just as we did, to pay tribute to Tony’s outstanding rendition of “Luck Be a Lady.”
It goes without saying that Marlon Brando was a brilliant actor, one of the most remarkable actors of his generation. His performances in films like On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Godfather, and, for that matter, Julius Caesar, will remain in our cultural memory as long as films endure.
But notably, after playing Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, Marlon never attempted another singing role.