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Even decades later, the music, choreography and effect of 'West Side Story' are hard to resist

By Philip K. Scheuer

EDITOR’S NOTE: On Oct. 18, 1961, “West Side Story” hit movie theaters. To commemorate the anniversary of that event, here is the original Los Angeles Times review of the film.

“West Side Story” will be the American picture to watch at Oscar time, for it restores something of the glory that was Hollywood — and Academy voters are a chauvinistic bunch. And glory is the word, even though all of the story takes place amid the bricks and pavements of a New York slum — shot partly “on-location,” but mostly in a slum city virtually re-created at Goldwyn studio by Boris Leven.
...

In a Sunday Calendar preview Oct. 29 of “West Side Story” I observed that its effect was like being hit by a ton of those same bricks. Its impact as a stage play was as disturbing as it was shattering, and now everything has been magnified countless times in Panavision 70 and Technicolor on the spreading screen at the Chinese Theater, where the production had its benefit premiere Wednesday night.

Is the impact correspondingly greater? The first impression one gets is that it is all too self-conscious to be real — as, in an astonishing series of views of its skyline from a helicopter, Daniel Fapp’s camera makes all of Manhattan serve as its opening set before zooming down on the school playground where the Jets and Sharks, the “heroes” of our tale, are just beginning to strut their sinister stuff.

As one who had seen the play, I experienced, again, all my original amazement at the intricacy and artfulness of Jerome Robbins’ gravity-defying choreography — but this was still “theater.” Just where I became personally involved is hard to say, but it was probably during the Dance at the Gym, at which Tony and Maria, the Romeo and Juliet of the tragedy, first meet. Robbins and co-director Robert Wise make this an enchanted and enchanting moment indeed as the pair have eyes only for one another; the other dancers misted out.

I daresay most spectators will also find the pull of this film irresistible. The — hardest — problem faced by its adapters must have been one of intangibles — how to make an essentially ballet-opera form believable as realistic cinema — and they have all but licked it. “West Side Story” never quite shakes off an aura of pretentiousness but its portentousness is stronger and that is all to the good. For this is ominous drama, and its climaxing rumble (led up to in the brilliant counterpoint of “Tonight”), the later council of the panicked Jets in garage (“Cool”) and the final gun-play in the darkened playground are harsh and frightening commentaries on the whole tragedy of juvenile delinquency.

The Leonard Bernstein score is harsh too, though it has its lyrical passages in “Maria,” “I Feel Pretty” and other songs (arias?) as sung, at least ostensibly, by Natalie Wood as Maria, Richard Beymer as Tony, Rita Moreno as Anita and the rest. Both Miss Wood and Miss Moreno are permitted to work up fine fervors in their acting, and they come through. Beymer is too pretty-boy to persuade us that he could have been co-founder of the Jets; his mooning over Maria is more believable.

The faces that linger longest in the memory, however, are the members of the two gangs — mocking, thoughtlessly cruel, almost too alien to be pitiable. Standouts are George Chakiris, saturnine leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks; Russ Tamblyn, Jets’ chief; Tucker Smith as Ice, Tony Mordente (Action) and Jose De Vega (Chino). Their “Gee, Officer Krupke!” while murderously funny, will make your blood run cold; their “Cool,” even colder.

The few adults around include Simon Oakland and William Bramley, coppers, and Ned Glass as Doc.

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
mapol
Oct. 23rd, 2016 11:50 am (UTC)
Thanks for your input, Philip.
Your review of the classic film version of West Side Story is riveting...and interesting.

While it's agreed that Richard Beymer is a weaker link in this film, I recently (afew years ago) learned some things about Richard Beymer that made me more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt:

A) Richard Beymer would've liked to have played the role of Tony with more of an "edge" to him, but he had some directorial constraints put on him by Robert Wise, who wanted Tony to be a completely softened, and therefore reformed gang member. Richard Beymer was said to be so upset about the role he was compelled to play as Tony that he skipped the Premiere of the film West Side Story when it first came out.

B) Natalie Wood had a great deal of hostility and resentment towards Richard Beymer, which she not only made absolutely no secret of, but she actually tried to get Richard Beymer kicked off of the set on several occasions (although, when they met several years later, by chance, in a California diner, Richard Beymer approached Natalie Wood, was attracted to her, and they subsequently made up.).

C) Having said all of the above, I firmly believe that had the above events not occurred, Richard Beymer would've played a stronger role as Tony in the film version of West Side Story , despite the way in which the scripts for both the original Broadway stage production and film had been written.

mapol
Oct. 23rd, 2016 12:19 pm (UTC)
West Side Story is one of the few musicals that succeeded on screen and on stage.
West Side Story, as a stage production and a film, is rather stunning (although I admit to being more critical of the revised, more up-to-date Broadway stage revival). Although i'm not generally a huge fan of musicals on film, West Side Story is a rare and stunning exception, due to the very story behind it, the music, the cast, the beautifully-choreographed dancing by the late Jerome Robbins, and the photography and uncanny cinematography.

The overture, where different colors come up on the screen, and the title, in which the various-sized lines turn into the buildings on Manhattan's 1940's-1960's West Side, as well as the aerial views of NYC's West Side, which gradually zeroes in on the finger-snapping Jets is a good opening, and a good omen for the overall great movie that comes, if one gets the drift. It really set a fabulous tone for a fabulous movie!

Although I didn't get to see the movie version of West Side Story until seven years after its initial release into the movie theatres, and during the heyday of its popularity, freshness and newness, I finally did get to see it, during a national re-release of it, at around Christmastime of 1968, as a high school Senior, and I fell in love with the film instantly.

Since I was still a high school teenager when I saw West Side Story on screen for the very first time, I identified with the Jets, the Sharks and their girls regarding kids being kids and so on, but, when I got a little older and developed a deeper appreciation for it, I began to also appreciate the film West Side Story for the true-blue work of art that it really is, as well as everything else about it.

West Side Story, as a film, is a very strong one, and the fact that it was preserved as a larger-than-lifesized piece of theatre is what gave this dynamite movie-musical its strength, along with everything else about it. Richard Beymer was offset by the rest of the cast, and even he comes off as being much more vital and alive when the film West Side Story is shown on a great big, wide movie screen, in a darkened movie theatre.
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