West Side Story
Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise
The Galaxy Theater
November 9, 2011
I had not been able to take a Movie Road Trip since way back in late September when I saw the crapfest known as the remake of Straw Dogs. By the end of summer, the studio left overs usually don’t have much appeal which may have had something to do with my current drought. It didn’t seem worth the effort to go. But this week, (November 9) Honorable Number 3 Son and I decided yesterday was as good a time as any to take a little trip through the space/time continuum. We polished up our the stainless steel DeLorean and sped out to I-99. Once on the freeway, we set the flux capacitor for late 1961, revved the engine up, and after hitting 88 mph found ourselves instantly transported back in time where we were able to attend the New York Road Show Engagement of what I consider to be the greatest musical of all time. That would be West Side Story.
Wouldn’t it be fun if one could really jettison themselves backward and forwards in time? Of course, I imagine if you had a time machine, taking in a movie might be one of the last things you would want to do as you hurdled yourself from one century to the next. But in a way, films have always been our ticket to the past. With film revivals and one night digital showings of classic films you can often enjoy the experience of the theatrical presentation once again. And no matter how fancy your home theater equipment may bet, nothing surpasses that .
I’ve blown several opportunities to see some of these one time events over the years. Generally, time, money, and distance were not on my side. Time, because work kind of gets in the way. Money, because I’m as broke as everybody else in this country these days. Distance, because the nearest movie theater is thirty miles away. I would love to go to some of these film festivals in L.A., but most require more than a one day stay and others like the TCM Film Festival require a mortgage on your house as a down payment.
I wanted to see The Sound of Music on the big screen last year, but it just wasn’t feasible. When they had a Back to the Future revival, there were no local theaters participating so I missed out on that as well.
Many full moons ago when I was still living in Ohio, they had a Cinerama revival of How the West Was Won at The Neon Movies in Dayton, Ohio. I had even bought my reserve seat ticket in advance. Obviously the problem there wasn’t time, money or distance. It was just a crazy Looney Tunes ex-wife that did me in. It's a long story and you don’t really need to know.
So a few weeks back when I was checking out the movie scheduling on the Turner Classic Movies web site, there was an ad for a one time anniversary event showing of West Side Story. Not so coincidentally, the blu-ray remastered special edition was being released a week later.
I have seen this film many times over the years. I was probably around ten or eleven at the most the first time, and it was in a neighborhood theater in Erlanger, Kentucky long after it’s Road Show Engagement had run its course. I think we called the theater the “Gayety” but research tells me that by the time we saw West Side Story, that theater had long ago changed it’s name to the Village Cinema in either 1950 or 1960 depending on which of my sources is screwed up the most. I remember seeing Li'l Abner there as well. What a dreary experience that was!
It was the only time I had seen it in a theater, and I liked it well enough, but better than that, it certainly satisfied my curiosity as to what all those goofy songs my three older sisters waltzed around the house singing incessantly were about. They had seen the film months earlier in a first run engagement, and saw it again when I did at the Gayety. Their idea of course.
When my parents bought them the soundtrack the girls were ecstatic. And they must have played that LP until they finally wore it out and me right along with it to the point where I felt like throwing up every time my siblings would warble along with “I Feel Pretty.” You know kid brothers. At that age I thought they were overreaching a bit with that particular song.
It may have been the first stereo soundtrack LP we ever owned. We had a copy of Flower Drum Song, but I don’t think it was the original cast. Having found that album through Google did nothing to clear up that mystery. Still, you probably thought I made up that stuff about the vinyl being red, didn’t you? Hell, I played that record just because I liked the color better than your basic black.
It was later showings on television that enabled me to really appreciate the film, even panned and scanned and loaded with commercials. I have purchased the soundtrack myself on various occasions, bought the movie on VHS, and bought the special edition DVD when it was released. And now, I have the anniversary blu-ray box which was on order as I began writing this but arrived before I finished. That tells you how long it takes me to write some of these things.
There were to be no showings at any Bakersfield theaters (as usual). If there’s a bright center of the country when it comes to culture and film, Bakersfield is the city that it’s farthest from. As a matter of fact, it is my opinion that Bakersfield is the city that’s farthest from anything much worth while. And yes, towns like Wasco are a bigger drag to live in, but it has the excuse of it’s puny size.
The nearest theater hosting this event was the Galaxy Theater in Tulare, some 50 miles from where I live (about 70 from Bakersfield). I had been to this theater before, several times in fact, when it had first opened. But not recently and not in the past couple of years. I know it was a nice place back then, but like I said, it was new. However, the fact that it hosted events such as this one was a good sign.
I asked The Girlfriend if she wanted to go. You already know the answer to that. So I asked Honorable Son Number 3 if he wanted to give it a try. To my surprise he said yes. So I purchased our tickets in advance on the internet. Better to be safe than sorry.
In the weeks leading up to the event I did my best to get The Girlfriend to change her mind. But it was no go. If it had been The Notebook or Twilight or some other crap like that she’d had been right there. But she did take the day off so that we could use her vehicle which is much better than my hunk of Buick Regal junk. And in the end, she did go with us, but went to a different movie. She opted for a real cinematic achievement and work of art known as The Tower Heist.
The Galaxy is part of the Preferred Outlets of Tulare. It’s not particularly easy to navigate to. We had the GPS, but even the little woman living in that little box got confused and almost steered us in the wrong direction. We had started our trip by eating out at The Black Bear in Tulare, but that’s fodder for another article. If I ever get to it. Any more weeks like this one and I won’t.
The theater was pretty much as I remembered, although it seemed a lot larger than before. We were there early so we killed some time driving around the outlet mall and stopped at Baskin-Robbins for some overpriced ice cream which we were also overcharged for, adding insult to injury. And it wasn’t that good. But I’ll leave that for part of The Black Bear article when and if I ever get to it. And honestly, I really have to get a phone with a better camera in it for things like this. These photos are crap.
We entered the theater, gave the guy our paper to scan that he didn’t scan but he simply tore a notch in. The film would be shown on Screen 8 near the back of the theater. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking another sardine can. But you would be wrong.
We went into the Auditorium 8, and it was dark. It was dark because they were still showing Johnny Depp’s newest bomb, The Rum Diary. So we left and waited out in the hall way.
Eventually other patrons who were there to see West Side Story joined us. One of the workers told us it would be about another fifteen minutes or so. Finally Mr. Depp had wrapped and the one guy, an old bearded gentleman who had been sitting in there watching it left. Still, they roped off the entrance and then went into clean and set up for West Side Story. My question: How long could it possibly take to clean up after one person? I mean, even if he dropped a whole bucket of popcorn on the floor, it wouldn’t take that long to sweep up. But finally Honorable Number 3 son and I were ushered in along with another 20 or so people who were standing in line.
When I said the auditorium wasn’t a sardine can I did not mean it wasn’t small. It was in the sense that the capacity couldn’t have been much over a hundred. But there is a right way to do small and a wrong way. If you read my previous articles regarding the Reading Valley Plaza Cinema, than you would know those cigar boxes at that location are wrong in every way imaginable. This auditorium was designed properly. It was much wider than longer thus spreading the seats over a larger area and also enabling a much larger screen while still not using up huge amounts of square footage. In fact, the screen was probably as large as you would find in some of the main auditoriums I’ve been in. It gave the appearance of being large without actually being that way. Wish I could have taken a picture, but because of us being ushered in late, it wasn’t possible.
By the time the show started, I would estimate there were about 40 people in the auditorium give or take a few. Maybe more. Honorable son and I were in the first row of stadium seating and our row was full. So it could have been as many as 60.
The evening began with a segment taped at the Turner Classic Movies 2011 Film Festival. Robert Osborne was on hand along with George Chakiris , Marni Nixon, and Executive Producer Walter Mirisch. Chakiris played the part of Bernardo, Nixon did Natalie Wood’s vocals, and some of Rita Moreno’s.
Although this segment was interesting, most of the information was nothing new to those who already own the original DVD Special Edition. I did find that George Chakiris's recollections on the events surrounding the making of the film were quite a bit different from those of Nixon and Mirisch. As Mirisch tried to pass off the fact that firing Director and Choreographer Jerome Robbins was just one of those things that had to be done for the financial sake of the film, Chakiris didn’t seem to see it that way. Although he didn’t say so exactly, I’m sure he and many of the cast agree that without Robbins, there was no way that West Side Story would have been the great film that it is.
And they are right of course. I also didn’t much care for the attitudes of Nixon or Mirisch when discussing, almost jokingly, the fact that Natalie Wood's musical vocals were going to be dubbed after she had already performed the numbers on the film. Why is Natalie always the one they crap on, when it turns out just about all the musical vocals were dubbed in except a couple of Rita Moreno? And her vocals weren’t entirely pure either.
The preliminaries lasted about twenty minutes before the “film” began. I say film but these things are actually digitally downloaded to the theater and then projected on to the screen in High Definition. From the many internet articles I read, the presentation that you get in any particular theater is a crap shoot, often dependent on that particular chain’s quality control.
I never know who’s visiting this blog, whether they are young or old, whether they know little about classic films or nothing at all. Sometimes it seems a bit silly to offer up a synopsis of a classic films such as this, until I’m reminded that a large portion of today’s audience may be totally clueless when it comes to any film made before the year 2005.
If you know the story of Romeo and Juliet, than you’ll have a pretty good idea of the story behind West Side Story.
On the West Side of New York, the streets or turf as they are referred to, are controlled by gangs. How much turf each gang controls is dependent on one thing: whether or not they are tough enough to defend their territory against any challenges that come along One particular section of Manhattan is controlled by the Jets, formerly led by Tony (Richard Beymer) but now led by his best friend Riff (Russ Tamblyn). Tony has dropped out of the Jets and is attempting to go straight. He is now working at Doc’s Candy Store, a move which does not sit well with most of The Jets. But as Riff explains it, it’s a temporary condition. “Maybe Tony was corrupted by the youth board,’ explains one Jet.
The Jets are now facing another serious threat to their turf. A Puerto Rican gang known as The Sharks, led by Bernardo (George Chakiris) is invading the Jet’s territory. And as Riff sees it, the only way to get rid of them is to have one big rumble to decide who will rule the neighborhood. He intends to invite Bernardo to a war council to decide on a time, place, and choice of weapons which could be anything from fists , to knives, or zip guns.
Before that can happen Riff must convince Tony to rejoin the Jets. It’s not an easy task, even if Riff is like a brother to him. Tony has given up the battle of the streets for good. He has grown tired of it, and now views gang warfare as a one way dead end alley. The dead end being prison, or being sliced open.
Tony is looking for something better, something special and although he hasn’t found it yet he knows it’s out there. Riff convinces Tony to come to the dance that night where Riff will offer up his invitation for a war council. “Who knows,” he tells Tony, “maybe what you are looking for will be twitching at the dance.”
Maria (Natalie Wood) is also excited about the upcoming dance. It is the first real dance that her overprotective brother, Bernardo, will allow her to attend in America. Bernardo’s hope is to pair Maria up with Chino (Jose De Vega), who has become Bernardo’s Protégé and has also been enlisted to be Chino’s protector. But as Maria tells Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (Rita Moreno), “When I see Chino, nothing happens.” When you meet Chino, you’ll pretty much understand Maria’s viewpoint. He’s pretty much a weenie.
That evening, as the Jets, Sharks, and their girlfriends, vie for supremacy on the dance floor, Tony and Maria see each other for the first time. It is love at first sight, and they become totally oblivious to those around them as they quietly begin to dance.
“I felt…I knew something never before was going to happen, but this is so much more,” He tells her. As they kiss for the first time, Bernardo angrily interrupts them and pushes Tony away.
“Couldn’t you see he’s one of them,” Barnardo tells Maria.
"I saw only him,” she replies.
“They only want one thing from a Puerto Rican girl,” Bernardo replies angrily
After telling Chino and Anita to take Maria home, Bernardo attempts to go after Tony but is blocked by Riff and Ice (Tucker Smith). Riff and Bernardo agree to a war council at Doc’s Candy Store later that night. Tony wanders through the streets calling for Maria. On the rooftops of the apartments, the Sharks lampoon their life in the mainland and life in Puerto Rico, all in the same song.
Afterwards, despite Anita’s objections, they leave for their war council with The Jets.
Bernardo: Meet me on the roof later.
Anita: (mimicking Bernardo) Meet me on the roof later.
Bernardo: Well, will you or won’t you?
Anita: Will you or won’t you?
Bernardo (grabbing Anita and pulling her towards him) Well, will you?
Anita: You have your big important war council. The Council….or me?
Bernardo: First one, and then the other.
Anita (pulling away): No, I’m an American Girl now. I don’t wait.
Bernardo: Back home, women know their place.
Anita: Back home, little boys don’t have war councils.
Bernardo: But they do here. You want me to be an American don’t you?
Tony: I am not one of them, Maria.
Maria: But you are not one of us and I am not one of you.
Before he leaves, Maria invites Tony to come to the Bridal Shop that she works in the next day at closing time.
At Doc’s, The Jet’s wait impatiently for The Sharks to arrive for the war council. Unfortunately, Officer Krupke gets there first to read them the riot act. And after he leaves, The Jets lampoon him with the song Gee, Officer Krupke.
Doc arrives to close up the Candy Store. The Jets tell him why they are there so late and Doc let’s them know how disgusted he is with them. “I’ll dig you an early grave,” he tells them.
Bernardo and his gang finally show up to set up terms of the rumble with Riff and The Jets. After agreeing to rumble under the highway the following evening, they are about to choose weapons (rocks, belts, pipes, cans, bricks, bats, clubs chains) but are interrupted by Tony.
Bottles! Knives! Guns! What a coop full of chickens!
Action: Who are you calling chicken?
Bernardo: Every dog knows his own.
Tony: I’m calling you all chicken. Big, tough, buddy boys, gotta throw bricks. Afraid to get in close? Afraid to slug it out? Afraid to use plain skin?
Snowboy: Not even garbage?
Action (to Tony): That ain’t a rumble.
Riff: Who says?
Bernardo (to Riff): You said call weapons
Tony: A rumble can be clinched by a fair fight. If you’ve got the guts to risk that. Best man from each gang to slug it out.
Bernardo: I’d enjoy to risk that! Fair Fight!
Riff: The commanders say yes or no. (to Bernardo) Fair Fight.
With Tony having convinced Riff and Bernardo to tone down their own 1961 version of Fight Club to a mere fistfight between the best fighter of each gang, everything is right with the world. The rumble takes place the following evening between Ice and Bernardo, and ends in a draw. The two gangs seeing that further conflict is useless, decide to disband and share their turf. Bernardo sees that Tony and Maria really do love each other, introduces him to their mama and papa, thus enabling the couple to live together in love, ecstasy, and harmony for as long as they both shall live. And that’s exactly how it happened in Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet as well. Yeah, it’s just as I thought. You didn’t ever really read Romeo and Juliet did you? You just kind of heard about it.
Of course, nothing in that last paragraph happens. Despite having reduced the rumble to a one on one fist fight things begin to deteriorate. Bernardo is under the impression that Tony is the one he will be fighting, thus giving himself the opportunity to beat the crap out of him for having dared to smooch his precious sister. When he is informed that the Jet’s best fighter is not Tony, but Ice, he’s none too happy about it. But he did shake on it so he’ll do it.
The two gangs have no sooner finalized plans than Lt. Shrank comes strolling in to harass the Puerto Ricans. Lt. Shrank is not a nice guy. On the other hand, the two warring gangs do find common ground in their hatred and disgust with the guy, and when he pops in, they almost seem agreeable with each other.
Lt. Shrank (upon seeing the Jets and the Sharks making nice with each other):
Y'know, when headquarters hears about this, I may even get a promotion. Good deal all around, huh Bernardo? I get a promotion and you Puerto Ricans get what you been itchin’ for: use of the playground, use of the gym, candy store, the streets. So what if they do turn this whole city into a stinkin’ pig sty? (Bernardo lunges at Shrank but is blocked by Riff) Don’t stop him. He wants to get home, write a few letters to San Juan, tell ‘em how he’s got it made over here. I mean clear out you! Sure it’s a free country and I ain’t go the right. But I got the badge. What do you got? It’s tough all over. Beat it!
After the Shark’s leave, Shrank does his best to get Riff and the others to tell him where the rumble is going to be held, even promising Riff that he’ll help them get rid of the Puerto Ricans. But despite doing his best to intimidate them, Shrank gets nowhere.
The next day Tony arrives at the bridal shop to see Maria, but unfortunately Anita has not yet left. Still, she promises Maria she won’t tell Bernardo. “How can I see what goes on 12 feet above my head,” she tells them. After Anita leaves, Maria asks Tony if he is going to the rumble. When he tells her he is not, she convinces him he must go and stop the fight completely.
“Any fight is not good for us,” she tells him. Tony tells her that if it will make her happy he will go and stop the fight.
When Tony arrives at the rumble, he tries to convince Bernardo that there should not be a fight. Instead of listening, Bernardo taunts Tony calling him a coward and a chicken while shoving him, hoping to goad him into fighting since it is Tony that Bernardo wanted to fight all along. Riff, who is like Tony’s brother, steps into defend Tony by slugging Bernardo sending him sprawling across the pavement. When Bernardo recovers, he and Riff both yank out switchblades and the fight is on.
Since West Side Story is not based on A Midsummer Night's Dream, or The Merchant of Venice, you know going in that chances of all of this ending with a smiley face were pretty slim to begin with.. How close does it emulate Romeo and Juliet? All I’ll tell you is pretty close, but not exactly and if you want to find out, watch the movie. And why shouldn’t you?
In my opinion, it is the greatest musical ever filmed, certainly on my must see list (if I had one), and one of the ones you should see before you die. Singin' in the Rain? I love that film as well, but it doesn’t come close to approaching the depth and musical accomplishments of West Side Story. The Sound of Music? High on my list for entertainment as well, the blu-ray is phenomenal, but still not in the same league. What I’m saying is pop the damn pop corn, get the blu-ray or DVD out, sit your ass down in front of the big screen, and crank up that surround sound. You won’t be sorry.
And what a musical! Jerome Robbins choreography is simply put, the greatest ever filmed. Chakiris is right. Without Robbins dance sequences, West Side Story would be half a movie. Once you watch the opening sequence, when the Jets and Sharks try to one up each other in dance on the streets of New York, you’ll want to watch it over and over again. There had never been anything like it before, and nothing like it since. Yes, the opening of The Sound of Music is breathtaking, but that is attributed to the exquisite cinematography of the Swiss Alps. With West Side Story, you find out everything you need to know in music and dance before nearly one word of dialogue is even spoken. George Chakiris:
“Working with [Jerome] Robbins was the greatest experience I ever had, because it was Jerry who first showed me how a dancer could express himself in dancing rhythms and how an actor could intensify his dramatic performance with the graceful, expressive body movements of a dancer.”
It’s not just the dancing. Leonard Bernstein's dynamic musical score with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, will stay with you forever. Whether it’s the comical number “America’ sung and danced to by the Sharks and their girlfriends, the hautingly beautiful “Maria” sung by Tony as he searches for her though the streets of New York, or the edgy intense “Cool” once having watched, you’ll be singing along with them forever. Then there’s “Quintet” which takes place just before the rumble, and encapsulates all the events of the movie perfectly up to that point. I offer up that clip as well with the usual disclaimer, YouTube here today, YouTube gone tomorrow, and the caveat as above that the quality is rather piss poor and horridly panned and scanned. But this may be my favorite musical vocal of the whole film.
Much has been written about the casting of West Side Story, and you can find out even more from either the Special Edition DVD (out of print, you will pay a premium) or the new Special Edition Blu-ray box set. George Chakiris and Rita Moreno won Academy Awards in the best supporting actor/actress categories. They certainly earned them, although there are some who would begrudge Chakiris his because of other performances in his category that year.
You and I both know that while winning an Oscar is certainly an achievement, it should never be the absolute judgment on which film is better or which performance is more deserving than someone else’s. Still, despite neither Beymer or Wood being nominated the film garnered a record (at that time) ten wins. I think Chakiris deserved his. He defines Bernardo as more than just a gang member. He didn’t come to the mainland to declare war, he came for a better life, and instead was dealt a hand of discrimination and racism from which his anger and hatred grew:
“When I think of how I thought it would be for us here, we came like children, believing trustin…” he tells Anita. Chakiris captures ever little bit of complexity and turmoil that seethes inside Bernardo.
Anita, on the other hand, sees things differently. She is passionate about everything, but is realistic enough to know that the present is wrought with danger. She understands the passion between Tony and Maria, but as she says, “You’re out of your minds.” Moreno's characterization of Anita is so powerful, that her performance overshadows those around her, which is why the contributions of Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood are often overlooked.
Beymer’s Tony has been often criticized as being too much of a goody two shoes. Frankly I don’t see it. What I do see is a man tired of fighting all his life. He wants meaning and purpose in his life. He is no longer a Jet because he chooses not to be. And to make Tony as hard edge as his former gang members would have made him as unsympathetic as most of the Jets are portrayed here, with perhaps the exception of Riff. In a way, we see a little bit of Tony that has rubbed off on Riff.
He says he hates Bernardo and the Sharks, yet there are times when you can see that he respects him, such as when Lt. Shrank is brandishing his own personal racial prejudice as a weapon against the Sharks. And when Riff is forced into a one on one knife fight with Bernardo, the look on both men’s faces tells you it’s a fight neither really wanted. Have Tony act as if he’s still a member of the Jets, and the whole films falls apart. Beymer gets it exactly right.
Strangely the same too good to be true criticism is often made of Natalie Wood’s Maria. And that makes no sense at all. She’s come to America as the others, to find a new life. We see that she has been overprotected by her brother and the rest of her family, and thus it would only be natural for Maria to see everything in a positive light. She doesn’t understand the hatred between the Jet’s and the Sharks, but like Anita she knows that no good will come of it. But she blames both sides.
To Maria, her brother Bernardo and the sharks is just as wrong headed as Riff and the Jets. In every scene she is in, Natalie Wood is simply beautiful, and stunning. Yet, it is always she that bears the brunt of some of the unwarranted and petty criticisms of this film. Silly criticisms such as she didn’t sing her own vocals. Uh…hardly anybody in this film did. But she did sing them during the filming and Marni Nixon’s voice was dubbed in later. So it is 100 per cent Wood’s performance on the screen, not Ms. Nixon’s and the criticism is just plain stupid. If Moreno is the fire of West Side Story, Wood is the grace, beauty and charm in an unforgettable role.
The presentation at the Tulare was for the most part, terrific. However, what we saw is the same as on on the recently released blu-ray release and the film had the same flaw that a lot of consumers are bitching about. There is a big screw up in the opening title sequence, near the end when the film fades to black and then fades back in when it is not suppose to. Those who know the film as well as I do know what I’m talking about. The rest of you probably won’t care. But on the very large Tulare screen it was a rather glaring noticeable error and drew me out of the film but only momentarily. Other than that, it was simply super.
Whether the blu-ray will have the same effect on a smaller screen I don’t know. Word is that eventually there will be a replacement disc offered for those who are irritated by this unnecessary glitch. Here are my feelings: It’s a crap shoot. Whether a new disc will eventually be offered for retail sale is iffy. Everything else about the film looks great, unless you’re one of the extreme nitpicking technophiles who wring their hands over every single pixel. Sometimes after wading through their slog, I’m not sure there’s any release they will find exactly to their liking.
I recommend you get the film, and if a replacement disc is offered up, then send for it. The error in the title sequence has no bearing at all on the rest of the movie, and if the blu-ray is as stunning as the theater presentation, both visually and sound wise, then you’re in for a first class experience.
Make no mistake about it. West Side Story is an outstanding achievement and ranks high on my list of great films of all time. And you know is well as I do that a film that does that leaves me no choice but to bestow a grade in the rarified air of A+. My only regret? It’s that I’ll never get to experience the film again as I did one evening in November of the year 2011.
Edit 3/24/2013 Since writing this, the Collector’s edition is still available, but at half the price I paid for it. Whether the title error was fixed to people’s satisfaction is debatable. I still highly recommend it. You probably won’t see another edition for a while. You can also buy just the movie on Blu-ray at a continuing fluctuating price.