West Side Story--The Classic That Never Grows Old:
Loosely based on the renowned Shakespeare tragicomedy, Romeo & Juliet, "West Side Story" was a famous late-1950's Broadway stage musical about a love and romance that takes root and grows amid conflict between two warring street gangs (i. e. the White ethnic American Jets and the newly-arrived Puerto Rican Sharks) on the West Side of 1950's-1960's Manhattan (NYC).
After a two-year run in NYC's Winter Garden, followed by a national tour to other large metropolitan cities here in the United States, Walter Mirisch bought the rights to the movie version of West Side Story, and the film version, a spectacular motion picture came out four years after its initial rendez-vous at Winter Garden, and went on to win ten Academy Awards, including the Best Picture, for the year of 1961.
The Jets, led by Riff, who has taken over as their leader since Tony's departure, are conscientious about staking out their territory and are determined to drive the Sharks (led by Bernardo) off of the block. The tension and hostilities between the two gangs, which have been steadily increasing, culminate in an afternoon melee on a school playground, which is broken up by Lt. Schrank, and Ofcr. Krupke, both seasoned, hard-bitten veterans of the NYPD. After a brief lecture to both gangs, the Sharks disappear and so do Schrank and Krupke, but the Jets just stay where they are.
After a debate, Riff decides to challenge the Shark gang leader, Bernardo, to a rumble, and he goes to Doc's Candy Store, where Riff's old buddy, Tony, who's also an ex-Jets leader and founder, works a steady, full time job. After being turned by Tony in his request that he be his lieutenant in the rumble against the Sharks, Riff manages to persuade Tony to attend a dance that's being held that night at a local gym. Reluctantly, Tony, who has been looking for something more than gang life and the streets, agrees to meet Riff and the Jets at the dance, after ten.
Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita, and Maria, the attractive 17 year old sister of Bernardo, who has been brought to the continental United States to marry Chino, who is Bernardo's close friend and right hand man, both work as seamstresses in a bridal shop. They, too, are getting ready for the dance, and Anita is altering an old white communion dress for Maria to wear to the dance that night. Despite a small dispute about having the neck lowered, Anita finishes her work. Maria tries on the dress, loves it, and is thrilled about going to the dance that night, to begin her life as a "young lady of America". Bernardo and Chino finally come to call.
At the dance, the prominent social worker, "Glad hand", tries, unsuccessfully to get the Jets and the Sharks engaged in a "get-together" dance. Instead, the respective gangs separate and go in opposite directions, and the dance becomes a competition between the two gangs. Meanwhile, Tony, who has come in late, is momentarily embraced by his old friend, Riff, and his girlfriend, Graziella, and then spots Maria, the attractive sister of Bernardo, from across the room. They meet, fall in love and begin to dance together, but are pulled up short by an enraged Bernardo, who orders Maria home despite protests that it was only her first dance. A fight seems eminent at the dance between Tony and Bernardo, but Riff intervenes and gets Bernardo and the Sharks to meet him and the Jets at midnight, at Doc's Candy Store, for a pre-rumble war council, to which Bernado readily agrees.
Meanwhile, after a lecture from Bernardo for having danced with the wrong guy, Maria goes to bed, and then he, the Sharks and the rest of their girls have a party on their tenement rooftop, where they engage in an argument about the virtues and vices of the American experience.
The Jets and their girls, including Anybodys, the tomboy and Jets wannabe, meet outside Doc's Candy Store, and are visited by Ofcr. Krupke, who warns the Jets against troublemaking, and then leaves. The Jets lampoon Krupke, and then go inside the Candy Store to sit and wait for Bernardo and his Sharks. Riff warns Graziella and Velma (who's Ice's girlfriend) to leave when the Sharks come in, but balk at first. Riff pats Graziella on her behind, she and Velma exit without another word, but Anybodys, who's hiding, is spotted by Riff, who warns her to go. Anybodys, however, shoves the just-arriving Sharks like a big tough guy, much to their amusement, before exiting the Candy Store.
Doc tries to convince the boys to talk it out instead of rumbling, but to no avail. After a small dispute which culminates in the exchange of racial and ethnic slurs from both gangs, the war council proceeds. Riff challenges Bernardo, who accepts the challenge immediately, then both leaders decide to rumble the next evening, after dark, and underneath the West Side Highway. Riff and Bernardo then shake hands to seal the deal. Just as weapons are being called, in comes Tony, who suggests that they make it a "fair" fight, where the two best men, from each gang, slug it out with fists. Bernardo agrees, despite his disappointment when Ice is picked for his partner, rather than Tony.
Lt. Schrank then comes into the Candy Store and lifts a cigar from the counter. He accesses the situation and pretends to approve of the fact that the Jets and Sharks are all sitting together, supposedly hoping for a promotion (whatever that means). After roughly banishing the Sharks from the Candy Store, however, Schrank begins to hone in on the Jets. He asks them questions about where the rumble will be, but the Jets refuse to answer him. Schrank then presses on "Look, fellas. I'm for you! I want this beat cleaned up and you can do it for me. I'll even lend a hand if it gets rough!" Still, the Jets refuse to respond to Lt. Schrank. Angered by the Jets' refusal to answer him, Schrank begins insulting the Sharks for their familial and ethnic backgrounds, indicating that he doesn't like the Jets much better than he likes the Sharks. Lt. Schrank then angrily storms out of the Candy Store threatening the Jets "I'll find out where you're gonna rumble! But before to finish each other off before I get there! 'Cause if ya don't, I will!".
Meanwhile, Tony, who's been cleaning up the store, tries to console Doc and tell him that everything will be okay, and that he's in love. Doc is not reassured, however.
The next evening is the big night, which will markedly different results and mean different things to different people. Anita and Bernardo have made plans for a big evening out. Tony and Maria plan to meet at the Bridal Shop, as they'd planned to the night before, and the Jets and Sharks are destined for their showdown under the Highway.
Tony comes into the Bridal shop at closing time, just as Anita's getting ready to go home. As a pledge of their love, Tony and Maria stage a mock wedding at the Bridal Shop, using the various mannequins. After asking Tony whether or not he's going to the rumble that night and receiving "no" for an answer, Maria begs Tony to go and stop the rumble, to which Tony reluctantly acquiesces, knowing that the results will ge disastrous. Meanwhile, the Sharks and Jets meet at their respective places, prepare with equipment, and then start towards the highway. After arriving at the underpart of the highway, and after encouragement from their respective gangs, Bernardo and Ice begin to fight with fists.
Just as the fight is getting underway, Tony arrives, gets between Ice and Bernardo and tries to get them to stop fighting, so he can shake hands with Bernardo. Enraged that Tony is interested in his sister, Bernardo pushes Tony away, insults him and roughs him up for his trouble. Riff intervenes and tries to stop Bernardo, who only persists with his baiting and pushing Tony around. The second time around, warning about persistence doesn't work, and Riff finally loses his patience, hauls off and slugs Bernardo. The two gang leaders begin to fight with switchblades, Riff is stabbed to death by Bernardo, and Tony jumps in and stabs Bernardo to death, as vengeance. The Jets and Sharks immediately join in frenzied battle for a moment, and then flee the police, leaving the bodies of Riff and Bernardo behind them. Tony, grieved and bewildered over his killing of Bernardo, calls Maria's name again and again, only to to dragged away from the danger by Anybodys, who's been lurking in the shadows the whole time.
The Jets are now hiding out in a garage under the leadership if Ice, who's taken over the gang's leadership since Riff's death. Tense and nervous after the killings, the Jets are advised by Ice to keep cool. Arab and Baby-John, who're the best of buddies, come last, and A-Rab comforts Baby-John, the youngest Jets member, who has been moved to tears by the carnage. Graziella, who grieves over the death of Riff, is comforted by some other Jets, as well. Action, the hot-tempered troublemaker of the gang, notices Baby-john's tear-stained face and is about to descend on him, when A-Rab rushes to his defense. A-Rab and Action get into a small scuffle, a rock is thrown by an exasperated tenant who's been wakened from sleep by the noise, and Ice herds the Jets and their girls into the garage after Action challenges the exasperated tenant. The Jets and their girls dance and get "cool".
Tony is hiding out in Maria's bedroom, and Anita, who's already told the rest of her family of Bernardo's death is aware of that. After awhile, just before Maria opens her bedroom door for Anita to come in, Anita figures it all out and is angry with Maria for allowing Tony to fall in love with her, and also tells her that Chino is gunning for Tony in revenge for Bernardo's death. Maria wins, however, and begs Anita to go to Doc's store to relay the message to Tony about Chino. Tony has escaped out of Maria's bedroom window into the street, where he's found by Anybodys, and sent over to Doc's Candy Store to hide in the cellar.
The Jets and their girls pretend to search for Tony, and they all run over into Doc's drugstore. Graziella and Velma have gone home, but Action and the other Jets are there, as is Anybodys. Anita comes in and tries to tell the Jets that she wants to help protect Tony from Chino, but the Jets, suspicious of her motives, and who are also prejudiced against her cultural and ethnic background, begin to insult Anita and rough her up. They are pulled up short by an enraged and appalled Doc, who advises Anita to go hom. Angrily, Anita retaliates by giving them a different message; that Chino has learned about Tony and Maria and shot her dead, and then slams out of the Candy Store.
He then goes down to the cellar to tell Tony what Anita has said. Tony, unaware of what's just happened, is anticipating Maria's arrival, but is met by Doc, instead, who relays Tony the message. Devastated by the message, Tony runs out into the street, calling for Chino to "come get him, too". Ultimately, Tony meets his death, by a gunshot from Chino, after he meets Maria and falls into her arms briefly. After the Jets and Sharks meet, and are about to clash once more, Maria, who's fallen over the body of Tony, takes the gun from Chino and brandishes it back and forth, announcing "You all killed him! and my brother and Riff, too! Not with bullets and guns! With hate! Well, I can kill too, because I have hate!" Maria cannot fire, and she sobs hysterically and warns Lt. Schrank not to touch Tony.
As Chino is taken to a waiting police car, several Jets and Sharks converge to carry Tony's body off, and there seems to be a slight hint of possible reconciliation at the end, between the Jets, the Sharks and their girls.
Riff and Ice are fabulously played by Russ Tamblyn and Tucker Smith, who are well suited for those parts, and Tony Mordente is excellent as the hot-tempered instigator-troublemaker, Action. Eliot Feld is great as the youngest Jet Member, Baby John, and David Winters is great as A-Rab.
George Chakiris and Rita Moreno are fabulous as Bernardo and Anita, who are boyfriend and girlfriend in the Shark gang, and Jose De Vegas plays Chino beautifully. Graziella and Velma are cheerily played by Gina Trinkonis and Carole D'Andrea, and Natalie Wood does OK as Maria. Richard Beymer is a bit weak as Tony, but even he comes off as more vital and lively when WSS is viewed on the great big, wide movie theatre screen with the lights down low.
Simon Oakland plays the bitter, bigoted and cantankerous Lt. Schrank quite nicely, and Bill Bramley plays Ofcr Krupke really well. Ned Glass does well as Doc, and John Astin does equally well as "Glad hand" the social worker at the gym.
West Side Story takes on a magical, almost three-dimensional quality when it's shown on a great big, wide screen, in a real movie theatre, with the lights down low. The brilliant Bernstein musical score, the richly-colored costumes designed by Irene Schraff, and the great cinematography and photography by Daniel Fapp, as well as the very story behind this great movie/musical classic, all combine together to make this dynamite movie what it is.
The scenery seems more expanded, and the various characters in WSS, from the romancing Tony and Maria to the warring Jets and Sharks, all seem to move much more freely, and in a much wider, more open space, on a great big, wide movie screen, in a real movie theatre, with the lights down low.
West Side Story, to me, is a classic that never grows old. While I can't exactly put a finger on why I love this 50-year-old classic so much, it's a great movie, and it's a hard, hard film for me to resist; I'm a devout fan of this film who not only attends virtually every screening of WSS that comes to our area (the one exception being ten years ago last mid-March, when a memorial for my dad who'd passed over to the Other World that January conflicted with an afternoon screening of West Side Story, so I did not attend that day's screening. So, I've made up for it, not only by seeing this great classic every time it's come to our area, but I've even made road trips to neighboring states to see screenings of this great film. I've also seen at least a half dozen very good stage productions of WSS (not the original Broadway stage production), and, to anyone, whether they be a devout fan of West Side Story who continues to enjoy it again and again in the movie theatres, or who's only seen it on TV or video, or has never seen it at all, I say; the next time the film West Side Story comes to a real movie theatre in your area...jump at the opportunity to see it in the movie theatre. It's a thrilling, enriching experience and feast for the eyes and ears that you'll never, ever forget.
Last edited by mplo; 06-07-2011 at 01:11 PM..