For this week’s flick we take two links from last week's North by Northwest – Ernest Lehmann was the screenwriter of both, and Ned Glass who played the suspicious ticket seller in Northwest, here plays the role of Doc, the kindly owner of Doc’s Drug Store. The film? West Side Story.
I’m a bit of a softy for musicals. The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, geez even Oliver! are good watching for me. But I think West Side Story is the best of those musicals adapted from the stage (Singin’ in the Rain in my opinion I think the best all-time musical).
The score is fabulous the influence of jazz makes for a truly urban 50s feeling. The story based on Romeo and Juliet is excellent. There’s little wonder it picked up 10 Oscars.
No Oscar for Lehmann though (of course not, all he did was write the damn thing). Anyone who has seen the stage version will know there are huge differences, and the film version is much improved for them.
For example, the classic song America in the stage version is sung by the Puerto Rican women, here the men led by Bernado get involved; the social criticism is heightened and his matching barbs with his girlfriend Anita are biting and witty. Also the song Officer Krupke is moved earlier in the film at a point less redolent with the tragedy that follows – and it is much better for the move given the joy of the song.
Now a musical, let alone one set in the Bronx about rival street gangs (the Jets and the Sharks) can be hard for some to stomach (and as the title of this thread shows, the language can also be a bit dated). But there is brilliance here, if you can let yourself accept the world in which it’s set – a world where gangs dance ballet and break into song while writing graffiti and fighting.
The songs by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim are fantastic. As Anger Management so nicely showed it’s almost impossible to hear “I Feel Pretty” without breaking into a smile; it’s so undeniably cheesy that it demands a big dopey grin - check out this Nike ad featuring Maria Sharapova as proof.
The only draw back are the two leads – Natalie Wood ain’t Puerto Rican and can’t sing (and the dubbing of her voice with that of Marni Nixon isn’t subtle), and Richard Beymer... well let’s just say he tried hard and leave it at that.
And yet despite this – something which would cripple any other film – West Side Story is top drawer stuff. Funny, touching, bitter, and heartbreaking. As Milhous van Houten so poignantly would put it: “it started out like Romeo and Juliet but instead it ended up in tragedy”; and yes a tragedy this is. The final scene is a triumph of acting by Wood.
It is also a great film of its time, reflecting like did Blackboard Jungle, and Rebel Without a Cause the angst of the first generation of teenagers (those damn baby boomers!). As one of the Jets says to Doc in response to his saying “When I was your age...”: “When ‘you’ was my age? When my old man was my age, when my brother was my age... You was never my age, none of ya!”
You dig it?
Bernardo: [singing] Everywhere grime in America / Organised crime in America / Terrible time in America
Anita: You forget I'm in America