Just the other night, I, my sister-in-law, and a longtime good friend of mine went to see the film West Side Story at the Regal Fenway cinema here in Boston, MA, which is a fathomevents.com presentation in partnership with TCM (Turner Classic Movies), on a national basis, at selected movie theatres, nationwide....
My longtime friend and I ate a good dinner at a fairly local Thai restaurant in Brookline's Coolidge Corner that we often go to, and then we met my sister-in-law at the movie theatre shortly before six-thirty.
After some previews/advertisements, and at seven o'clock, as was scheduled, and some pointers about West Side Story from Ben Mankiewicz, the film started. The film was wonderful, as always, the music was as punchy and in one's face as it should've been, and both the print and the whole soundtrack of the film were absolutely pristine, through and through.
West Side Story, like many other classic films, especially those that were made during that general period, cry to be viewed on a great, big wide movie theatre screen, in a real movie theatre, with the lights down low, and sharing the experience with other people, whether one knows them or not.
West Side Story, however, for a number of reasons, is a special example of a classic film that cries to be viewed on a great big, wide screen, in a real movie, because this movie is especially meant to be seen that way. Although it has been nearly 50 years since I first saw the film West Side Story on a great, big wide movie theatre screen, in a long-since defunct movie theatre north of Boston and the town where my siblings and I grew up, this great classic movie-musical has not lost its appeal for me, nor have I grown tired of seeing it every time it comes around, even on TV. West Side Story, however, is especially beautiful when it's viewed in a real movie theatre, on the big screen.
All the characters are extremely vital, and the dancing, the cinematography, the musical score, the cast, the costumes, and the very story behind West Side Story have all been combined into a powerfully dynamic little package that exudes a tremendously exuberant punch to it. So what if the dialogue between Tony and Maria, especially when they first meet during the Dance at the Gym, seems a bit quaint and a bit hokey? I can't really be bothered by that, especially because there's so much about West Side Story, as a movie-musical, to be caught up in.
Nor am I bothered by the fact that there was some dubbing of the singing voices that took place, especially that of Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer. Dubbing was quite common during that period, anyhow, and it was probably necessary, especially with Natalie Wood. While Natalie Wood didn't necessarily have a bad voice, she was unable to project it very well, which is why Marni Nixon dubbed her voice.
There were some things that took place during the filming of West Side Story, however, that made things kind of rough for both the crew and the cast alike. The crew and the cast alike were regularly harassed by street toughs who showered rocks, bottles, and whatever down on them from tenement rooftops. Subsequently, an actual street gang was hired out by the crew and cast during the filming of West Side Story for security and protection. Oh, the irony of that, since West Side Story is about two warring street gangs, as well as the development of a short-lived romance that went up in smoke due to the feuding and the hatred between the two gangs.
Parts of West Side Story, as a movie-musical, are exuberant, parts of it are funny, parts of it are rough and violent, and parts of it are sad. It's a fantastic example of how a story and the various emotions in it can be expressed so eloquently through dance. Jerome Robbins was fantastic, if not sadistic at times. He was a tough taskmaster who made people work until they dropped--sometimes literally. Eliot Feld, who played the part of the youngest Jets member, Baby-John, for example, collapsed during the filming of the "Cool" scene, and had to be rushed to the hospital, where he recuperated from a case of pneumonia.
It's true that Natalie Wood couldn't dance or since, and neither could Richard Beymer, but Natalie Wood was okay as Maria.
Rita Moreno and George Chakiris were both fabulous as the Shark gang leader, Bernardo, and his fiery girlfriend, Anita. So was Russ Tamblyn as the exuberant, cocky and insolent and somewhat arrogant Riff, who was Tony's old buddy, as were Eliot Feld as Baby-John, David Winters as Baby-John's buddy, A-Rab, and Tucker Smith, as the calm, cool, collected and handsome-looking Ice, who ultimately took command of the Jets after Riff's death during the Rumble at the hands of Bernardo. Simon Oakland was excellent as the bitter, bigoted, and cynical and rough-hewn Lt. Schrank, who made it clear that he didn't like either the European-American ethnic Jets any more than he liked the newly-arrived Puerto Rican Sharks.
That was especially noticeable when, after telling the Jets that he was for them and that he'd even lend a hand if things got rough, and the Jets refused to disclose the whereabouts about the next night's Rumble, Lt. Schrank became quite insulting about the Jets' ethnic and familial backgrounds. (i. e. "You and that tin-horn immigrant scum ya come from! How's your old man's D. T's, A-Rab? How's the action on your mother's side of the street, Action?" I do not believe that Lt. Schrank was just teasing the Jets; he really did mean what he said. It was a good example, I think, of how Lt. Schrank revealed his true feelings overall.
After all is said and done, however West Side Story is a beautiful example of how love can and does develop, despite conflict from both sides, and the fact that there's so much irony in West Side Story also adds much to this classic movie-musical. The "America" scene is a great example of irony, as the Sharks and their girls argue about the immigrant experience of coming to a new land to set up roots and eke out a living, only to be excluded, attacked, and to have racial and ethnic slurs directed at them, and yet, at the same time, the girls were more likely to look for the good in their new homeland, despite the prejudice that they endured.
Another good example of irony, although there was a certain amount of truthful seriousness to it as well, was directly after the Rumble, when Bernardo stabbed Riff to death, and then Tony stabbed Bernardo in retaliation for Riff's death. The dialogue goes like this:
A-Rab: "He (Tony) was great-huh, Baby-John?"
Baby-John: "Oh, yeh. He really come through for the Jets."
Or, after the Jets had gathered and were getting ready to go to Doc's Candy Store, to protect Tony (who was being hunted down by Chino for having stabbed Bernardo) from being killed, and Ice kept Action and afew other Jets from getting further revenge on the Sharks when he said "Hold it! Tony came through for us! We've got to come through for Tony! We've gotta find him before Chino finds him!" There was a certain kind of irony in this instance, and yet a certain amount of truth; it was proof that Tony, no matter how hard he tried, was still skillful as a fighter and the old "street" Tony had been there all along, despite Tony's attempt to suppress that due to his love for Maria, the younger sister of Shark gang leader, Bernardo.
Some people will argue that West Side Story, while it's fiction, is and was closer to reality. There is a modicum of truth to that, I think. At the time, the now-gentrified Upper West Side of Manhattan was rather rough, run-down and gang-infested. Gangs did often fight over turf, but when race, culture, and or ethnicity was added to the conflict over turf, things did intensify, by a great deal. The favorite weapons in those times were namely switch-blade knives, chains and fisticuffs, but if West Side Story were to come out today, the conflict would more than likely involve the use of guns, resulting in more murders, and bloodshed. The deaths of Riff, Tony and Bernardo would invariably be bloodier, and Anita would've invariably been raped by the Jets, rather than being stopped by Doc's sudden arrival back in the Candy Store just as that was about to happen. Anita, who'd reluctantly volunteered to help protect Tony against Chino, who was gunning for him, by giving him that message now retaliated, in anger and humiliation after the Jets' insulting her and roughing her up, now retaliated with a different message: That Chino had found out about Tony and Maria and shot her dead. Doc told Tony what Anita had said, and a devastated Tony ran out into the streets, looking for Chino. Then, when Maria appears briefly, Chino appears and shoots Tony dead.
The fact that the ending of West Side Story has sort of a double-edged sword is what also makes it such a fascinating movie-musical; Several Jets and Sharks come together and carry Tony's body off after he's been shot and killed by Chino, which hints of a possibility of some sort of inter-group reconciliation, and that at least a temporary understanding in tragedy has been arrived at by both sides. Baby-John's gently draping of Maria's black mourning shawl over her head and shoulders is another indication. Yet, the hints of reconciliation between the Jets and Sharks came in the wake of Maria's stepping between the two gangs as they seemed about to clash once again, with the message "You all killed him! And my brother, and Riff! Not with bullets and guns! With hate! Well, I can kill too, because I have hate!" The Jets and Sharks, taken aback by Maria's anger, at least temporarily step back and see the consequences of their constant feuding.
It's a wonderful film, well worth seeing, especially in a movie theatre. I don't know what the upcoming re-make of the film West Side Story will be like, but, as I've posted on here before, I'm admittedly not too enthusiastic about the idea. Some classic films should definitely not be touched--and West Side Story is most definitely one of them.