West Side Story (1961)

When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way. From your first cigarette, to your last dying day. Which, y’know, given what early smokin’ will do to a guy, may not be that far apart.

So, even-steven.
OTOH, all that dancincg is goof for the respiratory system.

This was the fifth, and last, movie in our “All The Greats” streak (12 Angry Men, Witness for the Prosecution, Guys and Dolls and Casablanca being the first four). And of the five, it’s the least accessible of the films. The staginess of Guys and Dolls gets a little bit harder to swallow in this famous rehash of Romeo and Juliet. At least, I think, for modern audiences. There was a distinct difference between Michael Kidd’s charmingly narrative dance bits and Jerome Robbins’ highly abstract, emotive dancing and while Robbins’ is inspired here, this style would lead inexorably to the awful randomity of movement of Hair (which would end our streak).

The Boy liked it, but not as much as Guys, and I think that’s part of the reason why. The Flower loved it, naturally. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it—it is often truly abstract in its form. It’s inspiration may well have been the Shakespeare play but it plays out as more the essence of that story. It sort of gives you the big picture, knowing you’ll fill in the details, sort of like an old cowboy picture. As such, to me it felt about as derivative of R&J as R&J was of Pyramus and Thisbe—not very.

Apart from the superficial, not much resemblance.
That balcony scene, tho’.

A few things struck me about this: A whole lot changed between 1955, where gangsters are basically lovable doofs, and 1960 where juvenile delinquency takes center stage. And society’s handling is—already!—by this point considered a cynical flop, as the marvelous song “Gee, Officer Krupke” has the JDs (as they call themselves) illustrates in cutting detail. (Lyricist Stephen Sondheim, disillusioned even back then, perhaps?) The song sends the whole establishment up as an employment program for barely-well-meaning do-nothings.

And this is before The Great Society.

Sure, there were plenty of potboilers prior to West Side Story featuring JD. It was a staple of the ’50s and even the ’40s, with the 1944 “classic” I Accuse My Parents, but those tended to be about how a “wild” kid would end up under the spell of the wrong element—typically gangsters of some sort. Here, the JDs are the wrong element—and they’re not so bad. It’s an interesting inversion from the earlier tropes, because you root for the gang members more than anyone putatively trying to help them.

And who cares about them?
Nobody’s gettin’ fooled by nobody, apparently, except the taxpayers.

Of course, another shining moment the Flower especially loved is the great mixed bag that is “America”. One could, at this late date, grow weary of this notion of immigrants coming to America and talking about how bad it is, but this song (again, Sondheim) does such an excellent job at depicting its words as points of view which are well earned (or at least understandable) by its singers.

I believe Michael Feinstein related that Leonard Bernstein was disappointed that he was remembered for this music. And part of me wonders if the movie might be more accessible had they used, say, Frank Loesser (of Guys and Dolls) for it. On the other hand, it’s such an iconic score, it’s hard to imagine “America” or “Maria” being any better, even if they’d been made more, I don’t know, hum-able.

Another random observation: There is only one Puerto Rican in the cast that I know of (the incomparable Rita Moreno). Try that today.

George Chakiris was with us that evening, looking great, and not at all 83. The only way I could tell he was old (and I think 83 is safe to call “old”) is that he had to have questions repeated to him by the hostess, and I’m pretty sure that’s because he was reading her lips. But I hope to be doing that well when (if) I get there. The funny thing about Chakiris here, is that he plays Bernardo, head of the PR gang in the movie—but in the play, he was Riff, head of the white gang. (Tell me we’re better off with racial bean counting than with the guy who’s best for the part getting the job.)

Dancers, man.
Yep, he still looks just like this.

Casa ‘strom favorite Gus Trikonis and his sister Gina have small roles in this film. Gus would go on to direct the MST3K fodder film Sidehackers (a.k.a “Five the Hard Way”) as well as a personal favorite, The Evil, and the semi-iconic Take This Job And Shove It, before settling down to a respectable TV directing career. (Trikonis was also Goldie Hawn’s first husband, prior to Bill Hudson, and perennial roommate Kurt Russell.)

What struck me most of all about this film was its sheer talent oozing from every scene, and its precision. Producer/director Robert Wise wisely (heh) let Robbins do what he needed to do (up to the point where Walter Mirisch, the money guy, fired him for excessive reshooting) and Chakiris alleged that they both worked cleanly in their different spheres without stepping on each others’ toes. They would win an Oscar for direction here, the only film Robbins would ever direct. Wise, who had directed The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Magnificent Ambersons, would go on to win Best Picture and Best Director for The Sound of Music.

If nothing else, Hair would be a reminder of how far the industry would fall over the next two decades.

Spray tan?
Now, you can go read about how horribly this was miscast, or just look at this sweet picture of Natalie Wood.

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