By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: Classic, Blu-ray. West Side Story (Four Stars)


 West Side Story: 50th Anniversary Edition) (Blu-ray/DVD Combo) (Three Discs) (Four Stars)

U.S.: Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins, 1961 (20th Century Fox/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
“The Jets are in gear./Our cylinders are clickin‘./ The sharks’ll steer clear./‘Cause every Puerto Rican‘s/ A lousy chicken!”
Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (West Side Story)
1. Here Come the Jets
Helicopter shots, over Manhattan: Bridges. Skyscrapers. The U. N. building. More buildings, Streets. A concrete playground surrounded by a wire mesh fence, with a pick-up basketball game in progress, and a sneering, finger-snapping gang watching the game, waiting for trouble. Riff, Action. Ice. A-rab. Baby John, Snowboy. Big Deal. Trouble comes.
This is the way the movie of West Side Story begins. We’re back in the sixties in those shots (and they’re among the most austere helicopter views ever) and it‘s 1961, the year of the movie‘s release, four years after the play‘s 1957 Broadway opening. We’re on the West Side of Manhattan, where two youth gangs, the Caucasian (partly Polish-American Catholic) Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, are about to clash. “These hot days is the mad blood stirring.“ Shakespeare wrote in “Romeo and Juliet” (“West Side Story’s” model) and the mad blood is about to stir here. Snap!
West Side Story, now coming out on Blu-ray from Fox and MGM, is, for me, the single greatest work of the American musical stage, and a great movie as well — though some people argue the point. (Let ‘em.) But no one can reasonably deny the play and movie‘s huge influence, nor that of the three New York City friends and stage giants — choreographer-director Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, and playwright Arthur Laurents — who were originally brought together by Robbins for his pet project. They were all inspired by Shakespeare, of course. But they were also inspired by contemporary life around them, the streets outside, the streets they lived and walked and drove through — and on which they might occasionally see gang members like the ones they imaginatively turned into the Jets and the Sharks.
When Robbins had originally conceived the idea of a contemporary Romeo and Juliet update, bringing it to Bernstein and Laurents in 1949, he had envisioned Jewish and Catholic families on the Lower East Side in conflict. The boy was Catholic, the girl was Jewish. That “Abie’s Irish Rose” notion went nowhere. (At that point, the project was called “East Side Story.”) But Robbins was stubborn, famously stubborn. He kept pushing. When Robbins and Bernstein and Laurents returned to the project in 1955, the year James Dean and Nick Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause was released, juvenile delinquents and street gangs were all the rage. The partners, bolstered by the addition of another giant-to-be, the 25-year-old wunderkind lyricist (and composer) Stephen Sondheim, changed the warring gangs to white kids and kids from the Puerto Rican families who were then pouring into the city and into that particular area. A Polish-American Catholic Romeo; a Puerto Rican Maria. There’s a place for them somewhere…
Eventually, it became the show we know now: “Romeo and Juliet” translated to the world of New York street toughs and gangs. And finally, it became the Robert WiseJerome Robbins movie, with Natalie Wood (dubbed by the relatively unsung Marni Nixon) as angel Juliet-Maria and Richard Beymer (dubbed by Jimmy Bryant) as Romeo-Tony — and Russ Tamblyn as the Jet’s gang boss and Tony’s best friend (womb to tomb, birth to earth) Riff, George Chakiris as Sharks leader and Maria’s protective brother Bernardo, Rita Moreno as Bernardo’s saucy lady Anita, Tucker Smith as Riff’s malevolent lieutenant Ice, Simon Oakland and William Bramley as the local cops, Lt. Schrank and Officer Krupke, and Ned Glass as Doc the wise old Jewish pharmacist (maybe all that was left of “East Side Story.”).
2. These Hot Days
It begins with Robbins’ ballet. “The Prologue.” That’s what he was best at: ballets. He was a genius choreographer-director and painstaking taskmaster, whose dances were intensely personal, growing out of the character and personality of the dancers (just as Astaire’s or Kelly’s dances did). The street ballet that opens West Side Story is his masterpiece, a long simmering feud/standoff and explosion of tension and warfare between the Jets and the Sharks (Bernardo, Pepe, Chino, El Indio, Rocco, Loco) not deadly yet, just hostile and flamboyant.
They taunt, sneer, chase, swagger, fight, even spit — and finally the climactic big rumble that erupts back on the basketball court is broken up by the local cops: needling Lt. Schrank (Oakland, who was also the psychiatrist in Psycho) and the immortal burly, bullying Sgt. (“Officer”) Krupke (Bramley.) Schrank boots out the Sharks, then pleads with the sarcastic, smart-ass Jets (who keep making fun of the cops to their faces) not to brawl any more, to “make nice with the P.R.’s”
Jet gang leader Riff (Tamblyn) — backed up by his vaguely preppy-looking and sinister lieutenant, Ice (Smith) — has another idea. They’ll secure their turf by challenging the Sharks, at the gym dance that night, to a later full-scale rumble (with “skin,” knives or zip guns). As insurance, Riff will bring along his best friend and Jets co-founder Tony (Beymer), who quit the gang to go straight and be a delivery boy, but whom Riff (he‘s the equivalent for Mercutio, of course) wants back in the Jets. Dreamy-eyed Tony, out of friendship, agrees to come with Riff.
“Here come the Jets (Yeah!) and we’re gonna beat, every last buggin’ gang on the whole buggin’ street. On the whole buggin’, ever-lovin’ street!” (I always heard that line as “fuggin’” which was Norman Mailer’s euphemism in “The Naked and the Dead” for the then-unacceptable ’fuckin’.”)
You know the rest, either from the many screen Romeo and Juliets (my favorite is Franco Zeffirelli‘s 1967 film) or from whenever you saw West Side Story itself. The two gangs and their girls meet in the gym and dance challenges at each other. Along with cool Bernardo and his tempestuous girlfriend Anita and angelic Maria (Wood, James Dean’s girl in Rebel Without a Cause). Tony and Maria see each other, fall in love. And we’re carried relentlessly along with them on waves of music and emotion all the way to the end, where Maria (a survivor this time) kneels on the concrete — after the violent deaths of Riff, Bernardo and Tony — and watches the two gangs, now chastened, join forces to carry off Tony‘s body. The night is all around them, and the wire mesh fence. And the music, tolling like a bell, is one of the saddest love songs ever written for Broadway.
“There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us…”

3.  Somewhere
Not there. Not yet. But maybe tonight. West Side Story, the movie, is both a still-youthful masterpiece, a great pop cultural landmark, and a frustrating movie that should have been even better than it was — and that could have been, maybe, perhaps, if the right person had said “Yes.”
Busby Berkeley thought West Side Story was the best movie ever made. He wasn’t alone. It’s on Spike Lee‘s all time top movie list too — and of course on many others, including the National Film Registry. Pauline Kael ridiculed it though, scoffig at the two gangs “of what I am tempted to call ballerinas.” There is a gay under text and component to the show, starting with a lot of the talent. But why complain about it (as Kael obviously was)? Is that unusual for a Broadway musical?
In my opinion, West Side Story, as a play, is still the best American musical show I know. It’s a geinely, devastatingly romantic American musical, as emotional as, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s Carousel, but far more universal. I don’t know of a last scene or a last sad song in any musical more chilling and heart-breaking than “Somewhere” in West Side Story.
 As for the movie, co-directed by Robbins and by Robert Wise (and beautifully designed by Boris Leven), it’s a classic that still plays great, still gets your motor running, still can make you laugh and cry. Robbins choreographed the whole show (as he had done on stage) and directed the Prologue, then was fired for running wildly over schedule and over budget on it. Wise, who was always supposed to do all of the dramatic scenes, took over everything. But Wise, who had tried to keep Orson Welles‘ vision of The Magnificent Ambersons even while making drastic revisions there, at RKO’s direction, also tries here (more successfully) to preserve Robbins‘ vision, even bringing his banished co-director in on the final editing. The musical numbers were all choreographed by Robbins, and guided by Robbins’ assistants after he left. And though some of the rumbles may look peculiar to the film‘s carpers, with Jets and Sharks diving on each other, rolling around and doing acrobatic flips — they all still have that exhilarating athleticism, that mesmerizing leap and punch and swing of Robbins at his best. That shared directorial credit, on which Wise insisted, shows what a quintessentially nice guy he was.
West Side Story was Robbins’ masterpiece. But it remains Wise’s best film too — in the sometimes underrated Wise filmography that includes the classic film noirs Odds Against Tomorrow, Born to Kill, The Set-Up, and I Want to Live!; the solid dramas Somebody Up There Likes Me, Two for the Seesaw and The Sand Pebbles, and the horror and science fiction gems The Body Snatcher, The Curse of the Cat People, The Haunting and The Day the Earth Stood Still — not to mention, of course, his uncredited scenes in The Magnificent Ambersons. (Wise diminished that film, but he didn’t ruin it.)
By any standards, that’s a fine list, and the only mystery about it is why his overall filmography somewhat collapses after 1965 and The Sound of Music. Looking at those titles though helps you understand why the great French cineaste and American film devotee Jean-Pierre Melville ranked Wise, along with William Wyler and John Huston, at the top of his list of  American directors.
Elvis Presley and Natalie Wood
4. Heartbreak Hotel
When I was a kid, I played the “West Side Story” soundtrack album over and over — connecting always with its unforgettable Leonard Bernstein music and its perfect, witty, moving Stephen Sondheim lyrics.
What a great, almost unimprovable score that was! From the stirring, edgy, streetfight-strewn opening “Prologue”; to the rousing “Jet’s Song,” (“When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way/ From your first cigarette to your last dying day!”); to the odd, haunting bounce and skip of “Something’s Coming“ (“Maybe tonight, maybe tonight…”); to the lively Latin-beat and scorching satire of “America” (“Here you are free, and you have pride/ Long as you stay on your own side!”); to the yearning love ballad “Maria” (“All the beautiful sounds of the world in a single world…“); the lilting, intricately rhymed girl-waltz “I Feel Pretty” (“I feel stunning and entrancing/Feel like running and dancing for joy!”); the scathingly funny and audacious “Gee, Officer Krupke!” (“Officer Krupke, we’re down on our knees/‘Cause no one wants a fella with a social disease!“); the throbbing, romantic “Tonight” later reprised as the menacing ensemble song “Quintet ” (“Tonight, Tonight, won’t be just any night/Tonight there will be no morning star…“ “We,, they began it! They began it!); the jazzy, dancing instrumentals “Dance at the Gym” and “The Rumble,” the jivey, finger-snapping “Cool” (“Boy, boy, crazy boy, stay loose, boy…“); the half-cynical/half-romantic duet “A Boy Like That”/“I Have a Love” (“A boy like that, who killed your brother…”/“When love comes so strong/There is no right or wrong…”)” and finally that grand climax, the reprise of the great, heart-piercing ballad “Somewhere.” (“There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us…. )
The main problem with the movie West Side Story is that, though it’s a great musical show with great songs, and topnotch dancing and dancers (Moreno, Chakiris, Tamblyn), it doesn’t have great onscreen singers. Not only was Wood dubbed by Marni Nixon, and Beymer by Bryant, but Tamblyn was lip-synched by his fellow Jet Tucker Smith and Rita Moreno, sometimes, by Betty Wand.
That was common procedure in the ‘50s and ;60s: when Ms. Nixon also dubbed Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and Deborah Kerr in The King and I (on which the choreographer was Jerome Robbins). In any case, West Side Story demands triple threat performers on stage — actors who can dance and sing, singers who can act and dance, dancers who can sing and act — and it would be stronger if it had first-class singers, singing the songs on screen. There’s always something a little hollow about a dubbed singer’s performance. Imagine instead what Elvis Presley could have done with Tony’s songs. Imagine what Bobby Darin could have done with them. These are not idle daydreams. Elvis was a high choice, maybe the first, for Tony. He turned it down. Bobby Darin was a strong backup choice for Tony, and maybe could have done Riff as well. Darin turned the movie down too. They both probably regretted it.
And with one or two great rockers cast in leads, the producer could probably have gotten away with casting an unknown as Maria — or with finessing Natalie Wood’s songs, since she acts the spots off the part.  And she and Elvis had genuine chemistry. (Among this package‘s extras, by the way, we get to hear Natalie’s actual pre-recorded singing on some of the songs. She‘s not bad.)
That’s the main problem with the movie West Side Story. Its best musical performers (dancers Moreno, Tamblyn and Chakiris) are all in secondary roles. The right star for West Side Story’s lead Tony was probably the 1960 Presley, who was offered the part but was forced to turn it down by his exploitive, overrated, dumb-ass manager, “Col. Tom Parker.”
Leonard Bernstein was no snob about Elvis. He once said: “Elvis Presley is the greatest cultural force in the 20th Century” and he probably would have been overjoyed to see him as Tony. There’s no question Elvis, with his spine-tingling, high register (well, if you don’t count Roy Orbison) could have burned down the house with “Maria,” “Tonight,“ or “One Hand, One Heart.” And think of the King doing “Somewhere!” Good golly, Miss Molly!
“There’s a time for us…”
Anyway West Side Story is a great movie lessened a bit by casting and the loss of one of its two directors. I said “a bit,” not totally. Someday, if we’re lucky, they’ll be another great musical like this with a great role for the right singer-actor, and he won’t turn it down. In the meantime, even a flawed West Side Story can still knock you out. We’re lucky we have it as it is, lucky that Jerome Robbins kept pushing — even if it cost him his pet project and the best job he ever had. Snap! Somewhere…
Extras: Documentaries and Featurettes, with Interviews with Wise, Robbins, Sondheim, Moreno, Tamblyn, Beymer, and others; Song-Specific Commentary by Sondheim; Music Machine; Storyboards

Be Sociable, Share!

One Response to “Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: Classic, Blu-ray. West Side Story (Four Stars)”

  1. Bill in Seattle says:

    and don’t forget…Robbins and Wise shared the best director Oscar…one of the movie’s 10 Academy Awards. that’s still a record for any movie musical. not a bad consolation for Robbins as someone who got fired. still, it would have been great to see what he would have done alone. a Robbins directed FIDDLER? FORUM? at least we have WEST SIDE STORY and his one sequence in KING AND I (Small House of Uncle Thomas) forever on film.

Leonard Klady's Friday Estimates
Friday Screens % Chg Cume
Title Gross Thtr % Chgn Cume
Venom 33 4250 NEW 33
A Star is Born 15.7 3686 NEW 15.7
Smallfoot 3.5 4131 -46% 31.3
Night School 3.5 3019 -63% 37.9
The House Wirh a Clock in its Walls 1.8 3463 -43% 49.5
A Simple Favor 1 2408 -50% 46.6
The Nun 0.75 2264 -52% 111.5
Hell Fest 0.6 2297 -70% 7.4
Crazy Rich Asians 0.6 1466 -51% 167.6
The Predator 0.25 1643 -77% 49.3
Also Debuting
The Hate U Give 0.17 36
Shine 85,600 609
Exes Baggage 75,900 62
NOTA 71,300 138
96 61,600 62
Andhadhun 55,000 54
Afsar 45,400 33
Project Gutenberg 36,000 17
Love Yatri 22,300 41
Hello, Mrs. Money 22,200 37
Studio 54 5,300 1
Loving Pablo 4,200 15
3-Day Estimates Weekend % Chg Cume
No Good Dead 24.4 (11,230) NEW 24.4
Dolphin Tale 2 16.6 (4,540) NEW 16.6
Guardians of the Galaxy 7.9 (2,550) -23% 305.8
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 4.8 (1,630) -26% 181.1
The Drop 4.4 (5,480) NEW 4.4
Let's Be Cops 4.3 (1,570) -22% 73
If I Stay 4.0 (1,320) -28% 44.9
The November Man 2.8 (1,030) -36% 22.5
The Giver 2.5 (1,120) -26% 41.2
The Hundred-Foot Journey 2.5 (1,270) -21% 49.4