(directors: Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins; screenwriter: Ernest Lehman/based on the play by Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins; cinematographer: Daniel L. Fapp; editor: Thomas G. Stanford; music: Leonard Bernstein; cast: Natalie Wood (Maria), Richard Beymer (Tony), Russ Tamblyn (Riff), Rita Moreno (Anita), George Chakiris (Bernardo), Tucker Smith (Ice), Tony Mordente (Action), David Winters (A-Rab), Eliot Feld (Baby John), Sue Oakes (Anybody), Simon Oakland (Lt. Schrank), William Bramley (Officer Krupke), Ned Glass (Doc); Runtime: 151; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Wise; United Artists; 1961)

“The music is great. The acting is so-so.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This Romeo and Juliet love story is updated to a Manhattan tenement setting and a gang rivalry between Puerto Ricans and whites, and is one of the most popular musicals ever. It’s more theatrical than cinema friendly, but you can’t argue with the electrifying Broadway tunes. It also won an Oscar for Best Picture plus nine other Oscars. Adapted by Ernest Lehman from the 1957 Broadway play by Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins. All the songs written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim for the original Broadway production of West Side Story were retained for the film version. Robbins was originally hired as director but got canned about three weeks into rehearsals. The studio suits figured costs were astronomically high as is and perfectionist Robbins was going about doubling that lavish budget. United Artists brought in reliable veteran Robert Wise to direct the non-musical scenes. But problems followed Robbins with Wise as he sought too many extra rehearsals, and he was soon sacked from the entire picture.

The great opening shot has the camera swing down out of the Manhattan skyline to discover the Jets, a gang of tough second-generation immigrant white kids, restlessly hanging around in a West Side playground park, their graceful bodies spontaneously bursting into dance. Their rivals are Puerto Rican immigrants who are newly arrived in the United States and belong to the gang called the Sharks. The time period is sometime during the late 1950s.

Unable to get along and fighting over the same turf, Jets leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn) challenges the Sharks to a big rumble. He decides to meet Sharks leader Bernardo (George Chakiris) for a war council at a gymnasium dance; Riff wants his old pal Tony (Richard Beymer), the co-founder of the Jets, to come along. But Tony has changed and has mentally moved on from the neighborhood rumbles because of his love for Bernardo’s pretty sister Maria (Natalie Wood), a love that mimics Romeo and Juliet in tragedy. Their love for each other is played out against the backdrop of the hatred between the gangs and the races. Rita Moreno is sparkling as Wood’s fiery faithful friend, who warns her about falling for a Polish boy.

To mollify the censors, the lyrics of “Gee, Officer Krupke” was toned down. Otherwise, the film more or less feels like the stage version.

The movie was less appreciated for its acting than for its great dancing, especially the ballet dance sequences and its animated original songs (dubbed for the most part). The four song sequences accomplished by Robbins before his departure were fantastic: the opening number that included “The Jet Song,” “America,” “Cool,” and “I Feel Pretty.” One can only guess how good this film would have been if he were allowed to complete it his way.

Bernstein triumphs with romantic ballads “Tonight” and “Somewhere,” songs that came instantly part of our pop culture. West Side Story should be commended for its fair take on the gangs and on calling attention to the prejudice of the time. Musicals until that time were not that strongly involved with the issues of the day. It seriously takes a stab at depicting the teens and their problems and yearnings. To express their different feelings instead of fighting, we hear passionate numbers from the gangs with lines like: “Skyscrapers bloom in America, Cadillacs zoom in America, Industry booms in America,” countered by “Twelve in a room in America.” The response to “Life is all right in America” is “If you’re all white in America.” The film’s good will adult message is uttered by the candy-store owner (Ned Glass), where the Jets hang out, when he berates them by lamenting, “You kids make this world lousy! When will you stop?”

The music is great. The acting is so-so.