Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson, smooth gambler
New York, Spring 1955
Film: Guys and Dolls
Release Date: November 3, 1955
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Costume Designer: Irene Sharaff
I always found it interesting to watch a method—ahem, that’s Method—actor like Marlon Brando navigating the artificially staged Broadway of Guys and Dolls, the gangland-adjacent musical by Frank Loesser, which had been based on a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows… which had itself been based on several stories by Damon Runyon.
One of the top-grossing movies of its time, Guys and Dolls has maintained its reputation as one of the great movie musicals of all time, despite the two top-billed of its four leads not being professional singers; of the third and fourth-billed leads, Frank Sinatra need no introduction and Vivian Blaine memorably reprised her role from the original play.
Sinatra reportedly resented the non-singer Brando being cast in the lead role of slick gambler Sky Masterson so much that he refused to engage with Brando during production, referring to him as “Mumbles” and only communicating via intermediaries by the end of filming. (In turn, Mumbles intentionally flubbed repeated takes of a scene where Sinatra had to eat cheesecake, knowing his co-star detested the rich dessert.)
Ol’ Blue Eyes may have had a point about his superior singing voice, not that Brando would disagree, having likened his own singing voice to “the mating call of a yak”, but you’d be hard-pressed to disregard the power of Brando’s presence, then at the height of his early fame fresh off of iconic performances in A Streetcar Named Desire, The Wild One, and On the Waterfront… the latter being yet another role coveted by Sinatra.
Brando also shares a charming chemistry with Jean Simmons as the pretty yet prim Sergeant Sarah Brown of the Save-a-Soul Mission. Like Brando, Simmons wasn’t a professional singer before the production but managed to impress many with her vocals. (Not to be confused with Gene Simmons, who indeed is famously known for being a musician.)
It’s their romantic tension that drives the primary plot, including a delightful jaunt to Havana where the movie reaches—in my opinion—its high point as first-time drunk Sister Sarah instigates a barfight. Of course, there would likely be no romance to begin with if not for the terms of a $1,000 bet made with fellow gambler Nathan Detroit (Sinatra), who desperately needs the stack to pay for a garage to host his high-stakes crap game.
What’d He Wear?
In a sartorially snappy world where every guy is a gambler, there’s little room for the traditional worsted suit, white shirt, and straight dark tie (aside from said guy’s wedding day, of course.) A marvelous Girls Do Film post exploring the costumes of Guys and Dolls sets the scene: “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)… 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.”
Sky Masterson generally cycles through two different suits in Guys and Dolls, a sharp navy suit for nights spent anywhere between New York City crap games and Havana nightclubs and a lighter stone-gray gabardine suit that he wears by day, always with a fedora to match.
The stone-gray suit has a single-breasted jacket with peak lapels, a configuration that prominently emerged among tonier dressers during the roaring ’20s. Due to the cyclical nature of menswear, peak lapels on a single-breasted jacket would have been less commonly seen by the ’50s; combined with the breadth of these sharp lapels, this detail would have more subtly communicated Sky’s status than some of the bolder prints and colors favored by his brothers-in-craps.
Sky’s jacket has a welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, and four-button cuffs. The wide, padded shoulders reflect the fashions of the era while also building Sky’s silhouette to suggest a power that, combined with understated charm, translates into confidence. Detailed with short double side vents, the full-skirted jacket’s short length (for the decade) is emphasized even more by the single front button, placed relatively low but still nearly aligned with the trouser waistband.
The double reverse-pleated trousers have side pockets, which he often places his hands in by hiking the jacket behind them.
Sky appears to have had his pocket square made from the same metallic dark gray silk as his shirt. Though Sky is hardly a traditional dresser, the evolution from classic white pocket squares was already in effect by mid-century and—less than a decade after Guys and Dolls was released—sartorial ostiary Sir Hardy Amies wrote that “the use of colored silk handkerchiefs has increased as colored shirts have become more popular,” even going so far as to dictate that “if [shirts or collars] are colored, the handkerchief should be colored.”
Granted, Sir Hardy doesn’t address the practice of specifically matching one’s non-white shirts to display kerchiefs of the same fabric, but Sky’s appearance is still considerably less gauche than many of his cohorts and a vast improvement over the mated ties-and-pocket square combinations often found among the racks of discount clothiers and drugstores.
The shirt has a razor-sharp point collar, plain “French placket” front, breast pocket, and double (French) cuffs.
Sky tops his look with a pearl-gray felt Royal Stetson, styled with an appropriately wide, self-edged brim and a dark gray grosgrain ribbon. (The “Royal Stetson” branding can be clearly seen on the inner lining as Sky gestures, hat in hand, inside the Save-Our-Souls Mission precinct.)
Under his buttoned jacket, Sky holds up his trousers with a set of tonally coordinated suspenders (braces), constructed from a light stone fabric with silver-toned hardware. We briefly get glimpses of these braces when Sky unbuttons the jacket of his navy suit during the climactic craps game, but a promotional photo used for the December 3, 1955 cover of the British Picture Post magazine illustrates that he also wore them with his “daytime” gray suit.
The next time Sky wears this light stone-colored suit, he has swapped out his shirt for the darker indigo-blue shirt of the same cut and style, likely the same that he wore with his dark navy suit when escorting Sister Sarah to Havana and participating in the famous crap game. His indigo pocket square reinforces the theory that Sky has his shirts and pocket squares cut from the same cloth.
With both shirts, Sky wears the same ivory silk straight tie with its unique pattern that consists of a field of “falling” mini arrowheads, broken up every few inches by a horizontal helix-like shape before the field repeats again.
Sky wears black shoes and socks, though the matte finish of his lace-ups suggest suede uppers rather than a smooth calf leather.
Like many men of the era, Sky wears a pinky ring, in this case a substantial gold ring with a large smooth oval sapphire blue stone shining from the face.
Sky also dresses his left wrist with a gold watch, a subtle but unique timepiece with a recessed black round dial against the squared gold case, secured on a black leather strap.
Curiously, a few alternating shots swap it out for a more traditional round-cased gold watch with a plain white dial, likely Brando’s own. (Might it be the similar-looking Vacheron Constantin that Zsa Zsa Gabor gifted him the previous summer to celebrate his Oscar win for On the Waterfront? See this watch and others at Revolution.)
How to Get the Look
While many of his craps-shooting cronies dress beyond caricature in their boldly colored shirts and socks, oversized suits, and pastel hosiery, Sky bridges the worlds of contemporary ’50s tailoring and old-school gambler flash with his sleek stone-shaded “day” suit, unorthodox colored silk shirt and pocket square, and coordinated fedora.
- Stone-gray gabardine suit:
- Single-breasted, single-button jacket with wide peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and double side vents
- Double reverse-pleated trousers with side pockets and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Dark gray silk shirt with point collar, plain front, breast pocket, and double/French cuffs
- Ivory patterned silk straight tie
- Stone fabric suspenders/braces with silver adjusters
- Black suede lace-up shoes
- Black socks
- Pearl-gray felt Royal Stetson fedora with dark gray grosgrain band
- Gold pinky ring with blue oval stone
- Gold square-cased wristwatch with round black recessed dial and black leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to show you a brand new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken. Then this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the jack of spades jump out of this brand new deck of cards and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not accept this bet, because as sure as you stand there, you’re going to wind up with an ear full of cider.