Friday, December 13, 2013

Guys and Dolls

Guys and Dolls
seen on TV @ TCM

I totally wanted to write this post about Guys and Dolls in the style of the movie dialogue, which is to say, the style of Damon Runyon, whose characters were the inspiration for the musical, but I quickly realized it wouldn't be as easy as I thought it might. Also, it's one thing to read that style, another thing to hear it spoken, especially when spoken by such great actors as Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. It would be quite a challenge, I must admit, but the fact of the matter is I wanted to get this post up as soon as possible, so there you are. Maybe another time.

But I do wanna talk about Damon Runyon, and I don't need to write like him to do that. He was a writer, obviously; a journalist, to be more precise, during the first half of the 20th century. Sports was his forte, and he wrote primarily about baseball and boxing - in fact, he was known for writing about the odd and peculiar goings-on in baseball games, which no one had done before. In his life he was friends with people like former gunslinger-turned-sportswriter Bat Masterson, Mexican general Pancho Villa, and pilot Eddie Rickenbacker, among many others.

Guys and Dolls was an adaptation of some of Runyon's short stories, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling & Abe Burrows, made after Runyon's death in 1946. Runyon's stories were also adapted for radio and television. The Damon Runyon Theater was syndicated on the radio throughout 1949 with reruns into the early 50s, while the television version ran on CBS from 1955-56. Other films based on Runyon stories include Frank Capra's Lady For a Day (remade as Pocketful of Miracles); Little Miss Marker, Shirley Temple's breakthrough role; The Lemon Drop Kid, which included the Christmas song "Silver Bells"; and A Slight Case of Murder, with Edward G. Robinson.

What was it about Runyon's writing that was so special? Well, I suppose one reason is that it's so distinctive. Imagine if Shakespeare lived in 1920s New York or Chicago and you'll get the beginnings of the idea. Runyon specialized in writing about gangsters, gamblers, hustlers and other working class, crooked, shady types, but by using the pompous, bombastic language that he did, mixed in with street slang, they gained a larger-than-life, almost mythic status, I think. They're at a slight remove from reality, because no one talks like Nathan Detroit or Sky Masterson, but you can still relate to them as characters.

A comparable example (though I wouldn't put him on the same level as Runyon) might be Kevin Smith. Go back and look at Clerks again and listen to the excessively wordy dialogue he gives to his characters and you'll see what I mean. Smith is obviously much more crass than Runyon, but that same contrast between somewhat lofty dialogue spoken by urbane, diamond-in-the-rough types, is still there. (What, you don't think Jay and Silent Bob are diamonds in the rough?)

The sports world honored Runyon long after his death from throat cancer. He is in both the Baseball Hall of Fame and the International Boxing Hall of Fame. A horse race at Aqueduct Race Track is called the Damon Runyon Stakes. Yankee Stadium hosts a Damon Runyon 5K run and walk to benefit cancer research. He was even partially responsible for developing roller derby into a sport. Quite a career.


  1. So few people deserve to have their name honoured with "esque". Few things tickle me as much as something Runyonesque.

  2. I didn't realize how much of what we think of as 'tough-guy' vernacular was attributable to him. Not many writers have as big an impact on the language as that.


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