I saw no scheduled upcoming screenings for the film West Side Story, but I did come across an article stating that the 55th Anniversary of the film West Side Story, dated in late-ish October 2016, and realized one thing that I’ve thought for a long time: The film West Side Story has not lost its lustre after more than 55 years after it was released, and still shines, after all this time.
This brings me back to last September, when the film West Side Story came back, on two different days, as part of a ten-day 70mm classic film festival, at a movie theatre not far from where I presently live. I realize now that this was probably a 55th year Anniversary re-release of this great classic. The fact that it was shown in 70mm really brought out the brilliance of this film. Moreover, it still shines...all these years later.
Rita Moreno and George Chakiris really stood out as two very strong characters in playing the roles of the firebrand Anita, and the equally fiery but more sardonic Bernardo, the Shark gang leader, who was also Anita’s romantic interest/boyfriend.
Russ Tamblyn also stood out as the cocky, arrogant, exuberant and tough Jet gang leader, Riff, who’d taken over after his best buddy, Tony (the ex-Jet gang leader and founder) decided that he wanted out of the gang life, but didn’t know what he was looking for, and had taken a full time job at Doc’s Candy Store, most likely until he could find something, if one gets the drift. Russ Tamblyn could also really dance, and it was clear that he had tons of fun playing the role of Riff, as well.
Tony Mordente, who was also one of the assistant directors of the dancing in West Side Story, in the film, as well as the original Broadway stage production, stood out as the persistent instigator/troublemaker, Action, who constantly lived up to his name, and had to be kept in check on a number of occasions by Ice, a calmer, cooler and more collected Jet gang member who eventually took over the Jet gang leadership after Riff’s death during the Rumble, a role that was beautifully played by the late handsome-looking Tucker Smith, who died too young, and too soon, of a rare type of throat cancer, most probably brought about by his being HIV-Positive.
Susan Oaks, who played the role of the tomboy and Jets wannabe, Anybodys, was also quite wonderful, as was Eliot Feld as Baby-John, the youngest and most immature of the Jets, and so was David Winters as Baby-John’s buddy, A-Rab.
Simon Oakland was excellent as the cynical, bigoted and rough-hewn Lt. Schrank, and he, too, stood out quite well, as did Ned Glass as Doc, the Candy Store owner, and so did Sean Astin as “Glad Hand”, during the “Dance at the Gym” scene.
Bill Bramley was good as Officer Krupke, the equally cynical, but quieter cop who worked with Lt. Schrank.
Jose De Vegas, who died of AIDS, too young and too soon, was also excellent as the shy, more reserved Chino, who was also Bernardo’s best friend and right-hand man, who’d been engaged to marry Bernardo’s sister, Maria.
All of the above-mentioned characters were the strongest characters in the film West Side Story, and they all contributed to the fact that West Side Story, as a film, still shines after more than 55 years later.
The masterfully designed and created settings by the late Boris Leven also contributed to West Side Story’s lustre, due to their being uncannily representative of rough-and-run-down sections of a large American city, New York. Some of the scenes in West Side Story were filmed on location, others were filmed on a large sound stage, while other scenes from West Side Story were also filmed in downtown Los Angeles, as well. The on-location scene sites of this classic, and the sets were masterfully combined, to help make this classic movie-musical the lustrous film that it is today.
Let’s not forget the richly-colored costumes and cinematography, as well as the intensely brilliant Leonard Bernstein musical score that also contributed to the continued lustre of the film West Side Story, as well.
The fact that a number of the people who were in the cast for the film version of West Side Story had also played in the original Broadway stage productions of this musical as well, also contributed to West Side Story’s strength and lustre as a film, as well: George Chakiris had played Riff in the London Broadway stage production, Bill Bramley had also played Officer Krupke in the original Broadway stage production of West Side Story, and Carole D’Andrea had played Diesel’s girlfriend, Velma, in the stage version, as well.
Tony Mordente had played the role of A-Rab in the original Broadway stage version of West Side Story, while David Winters had played the role of Baby-john in the Broadway stage version of WSS, as well.
Natalie Wood was okay as Maria, but many people complain about her being “too white”, and her accent on film being too phony, forced, or just passable, at best, and about the fact that Natalie Wood’s singing voice was dubbed by the late Marni Nixon. The same thing is true about Richard Beymer’s role as Tony in the film version of West Side Story, as well, although to somewhat different degrees.
Many people think that Richard Beymer’s role as Tony was too thin and that he was too much of a “pretty-boy”, rather than an ex-gang member who wanted to reform himself, because he didn’t have enough of an “edge” to him. Due to the way in which the scripts for both the original Broadway stage production and the film version of West Side Story were written, and to directorial constraints put on Richard Beymer by Director Robert Wise, however, Beymer was not allowed to play a Tony with more of an “edge” to him, as he would have liked to do.
Not withstanding the fact that the “Beymer-bashing” really has gotten out of hand in some circles, however, there are certain things that I learned afew years ago, however, that made me more willing to give Richard Beymer the benefit of the doubt:
A) The directorial constraints placed upon Richard Beymer by the late Robert Wise.
B) Natalie Wood made absolutely no secret of her hostility and resentment towards Richard Beymer, and had actually attempted to get him kicked off of the set on several occasions. Several years later, however, Richard Beymer approached Natalie Wood in a California diner, was attracted to her, and they subsequently made up.
The two above-mentioned factors together had an affect on Richard Beymer’s role as Tony.
Here’s something else that many people probably aren’t aware of: Elvis Presley (yup—the famous 1950’s singer, Elvis Presley!) was the first person that Robert Wise had approached for the role of Tony in the film version of West Side Story. Due to an overbearing manager, however, Elvis Presley was compelled to turn down the role of West Side Story’s Tony, but was said to have regretted turning it down when the film version of West Side Story became a hit after being released in the movie theatres. That being said, however, although Elvis had the looks and the personality of a tough-but-tender ex-gang member and could sing, I seriously wonder how well Elvis Presley’s heavy Southern accent (He hailed from somewhere down in Tennessee.), would have gone over in New York’s Hollywood in those days. It might’ve been interesting, or Elvis Presley might’ve overshadowed the other characters in West Side Story, thus rendering it into just another Elvis Presley movie. Who knows?
The fact that there were so many strong cast members, as well as the very story behind West Side Story, of love and romance between a boy and a girl from two different gangs of different races, cultures and ethnicities (i. e. Tony and Maria), which was destroyed through jealousy, hatred and prejudice, and mixed loyalties, both tribal and outside, conflict with the law and the problems of gangs, rumbles and crime that frequently infested New York City’s upper West Side back then, violence that eventually led to the deaths of three people, and a small ray of hope, as a hint of possible group re-conciliation appears on the horizon.
As a result of all of the above-mentioned assets of the film West Side Story that were combined together: a strong cast overall, an intensely brilliant musical score, the richly-colored costumes and cinematography, the beautifully choreographed dancing and the various emotions that are beautifully told through dance, the great scenery/settings, and the very story behind West Side Story have all resulted in a Classic movie-musical that still shines more than 55 years after its initial release into the movie theatres.