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Film Friday: «West Side Story» (1961)

To celebrate Natalie Wood's 78th birthday, which was on Wednesday, this week on "Film Friday" I bring one of the films that she is best remembered for.
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, West Side Story (1961) revolves around the tensions between the Jets, a self-styled "American" gang, and the Sharks, a group of young Puerto Ricans. The leader of the Jets, Riff (Russ Tamblyn), swears to drive the Sharks, led by Bernardo (George Chakiris), from the streets of the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Despite warnings from Lieutenant Schrank (Simon Oakland) and Office Krupke (William Bramley), Riff decides to challenge Bernardo to a rumble that night at a dance at the gym. For support, Riff turns to Tony (Richard Beymer), a young Polish-American boy and co-founder of the Jets who now works at a drugstore owned by Doc (Ned Glass). Tony, who has lost interest in promoting violence, reluctantly agrees to accompany Riff out of friendship.

At the dance, Tony falls instantly in love with Bernardo's younger sister Maria (Natalie Wood), newly arrived from Puerto Rico to marry his friend Chino (José DeVega). Later that night, he secretly visits Maria and they pledge their love for each other. Meanwhile, Jets and Sharks assemble at Doc's drugstore and agree to a showdown the following evening, with a fistfight between Bernardo and Ice (Tucker Smith). Tony tries to stop the rumble out of love for Maria, but his efforts inadvertently escalate the battle into a knife fight. Bernardo unexpectedly kills Riff, prompting an enraged Tony to kill Bernardo in turn. Realizing his mistake, Tony begs Maria for forgiveness, which she grants him. They decide that they have to leave the city and plan to meet at Doc's drugstore so they can elope. Maria persuades Bernardo's girlfriend Anita (Rita Moreno) to tell Tony that she will be late to meet him. When she reaches the drugstore, Anita is abused by the Jets and, in anger, tells them that Chino killed Maria in a jealous fury. Doc repeats Anita message to Tony, who then wanders the streets looking for Chino to kill him too. He sees Maria and they run toward each other, but Chino suddenly appears and shoots Tony. As Maria holds a dying Tony in her arms, members of both gangs gather around them. Drawn together by the tragedy, Jets and Sharks help carry Tony's body away.

Maria Nunez: All of you! You all killed him! And my brother, and Riff. Not with bullets and guns. With hate! Well, I can kill, too, because now I have hate! How many can I kill, Chino? How many and still have one bullet left for me?

In early 1949, coreographer Jerome Robbins proposed to composer Leonard Bernstein and young playwright Arthur Laurents that they collaborate on a contemporary musical adaptation of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. It was to be set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and focus on "a pair of star-crossed lovers, a Jewish boy and Irish or Italian Catholic girl, who would be brought to grief by conflicts and hatreds fueled by ethnic or clan differences." Although Laurents had not yet written a book for a musical, he had attracted attention with his first Broadway play, Home of the Brave, which dealt with the theme of anti-Semitism in the Army. Laurents penned a first draft he called "East Side Story," but had reservations about the feasibility of it, deeming the plot too similar to that of Abbie's Irish Rose, Anne Nichols' comedy about an Irish Catholic girl and a young Jewish man who marry despite the objections of their families. When Laurents opted to abandon the project, the three men went their separate ways and "East Side Story" was shelved.

One afternoon in August 1955, Laurents and Bernstein met by chance at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles. Laurents was writing the screenplay for remake of The Painted Veil (1934) which was never made while Bernstein was conducting at the Hollywood Bowl. As they talked, the subject of "East Side Story" inevitably came up. At that moment, the Los Angeles Times was carrying an article about teenage gang warfare in a Mexican neighborhood and it occured to Bernstein and Laurents that the "East Side Story" idea could have real immediacy if it were refocused and brought up to date. Instead of Irish or Italian Catholics versus Jews, as Robbins had initially proposed, Laurents recommended that the opposing gangs consist on whites versus Puerto Ricans and that the site of their polarization be Manhattan's Upper West Side, where clashes between the two groups were mushrooming by the mid-1950s. According to Laurents, he suggested Puerto Ricans in New York "because this was the time of the appearance of teenage gangs, and the problem of juvenile delinquency was very much in the news. It started to work."

Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood
With Robbins' approval, "East Side Story" eventually became West Side Story and the young lovers evolved into a Polish-American boy called Tony (a modern counterpart of Romeo) and a Puerto Rican girl named Maria (a present-day Juliet). Instead of the Montague clan, Tony is supported by the Jets, a street gang of native-born teenagers of mixed ethnic background. Maria's Capulet family is a rival Puerto Rican gang known as the Sharks. For the hot-blooded Mercutio of Shakespeare's play there is Riff, leader of the Jets, who is killed by the Tybalt-like Bernardo, Maria's protective brother and the "top man" of the Sharks. The character of Friar Laurence (Romeo's confidant) was turned into Doc, an elderly druggist and Tony's boss, while the Nurse (Juliet's trusting personal attendant) became Anita, Maria's best friend and Bernardo's sweetheart. Only the double suicide ending of Romeo and Juliet was altered for West Side Story: Tony is killed by Chino (an updated equivalent of Count Paris, Juliet's wealthy suitor), but Maria survives.

Directed and coregraphed by Robbins, West Side Story opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway in September 1957 and starred Carol Lawrence as Maria, Larry Kert as Tony, Ken Le Roy as Bernardo, Michael Callan and Riff and Chita Rivera as Anita. Critical reviews were extremely positive. John Chapman of the New York Daily News, for instance, called it "extraordinarily exciting [...] the manner of telling the story is a provocative and artful blend of music, dance and plot and the music and the dancing are superb." The acclaimed production, which earned Robbins a Tony Award for Best Coreography, closed in June 1959 after 732 performances. In December 1958, West Side Story opened at Her Majesty's Theatre in London, where it remained until June 1961 with a total of 1,039 shows. The cast included Marlys Walters as Maria, Don McKay as Tony, George Chakiris as Bernardo and Chita Rivera reprising her Broadway role as Anita.

Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise filming
West Side Story in New York
In November 1959, The Mirish Corporation and Seven Arts Productions hired producer-director Robert Wise to make a screen adaptation of West Side Story. A film lover since young age, Wise began his Hollywood career as a editor at RKO, where he worked on such pictures as Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). By the time he signed on to helm West Side Story, he was already a seasoned director with numerous films to his credit, including The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Executive Suite (1954) and I Want to Live! (1958). Wise's frequent collaborator Ernest Lehman was brought in to write the screenplay for West Side Story.

Because Wise wanted actors who looked believabled as teenagers, he did not consider the two Broadway leads, who were deemed to old by 1961. For the role of Tony, everyone from Marlon Brando to Elvis Presley was mentioned. Brando, who made his musical debut in Guys and Dolls (1955), was reported by The New York Times as being "very anxious" to do the picture, "however, he wants to play the young lead and is worried at 34 whether this will be plausible on screen." The question turned out to be moot. The producers decided early on not to seek major stars since the project was considered to have enough advance appeal to attract large audiences on its own. Dozens of actors were tested before the male lead was given to Richard Beymer, who had made his mark in George Stevens' film version of The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). Several of the dancers from the original stage production were brought to play members of the Jets and the Sharks, although Chita Rivera was bypassed in favor of Rita Moreno, a Puerto Rican actress known to movie audiences from The King and I (1956). George Chakiris, who played Riff in the London production, was cast as Bernardo. The role of Riff was assigned to gymnastic champ/dancer dancer Russ Tamblyn, even though Arthur Laurents thought the all-American actor "didn't belong" in the picture.

Natalie Wood was Lehman's choice for Maria, but when it was decided to go with unknowns, she was eliminated, and the long testing process began. Ina Balin was an early favorite, but her deep voice contrasted too much with the soprano requirements of the songs. Barbara Luna was the tentative choice after all the tests, but suddenly Lehman's suggestion was reconsidered. Former child star Wood was just coming off the success of her first adult role in Splendor in the Grass (1961) when she was offered the script for West Side Story and one for Parrish (1961), a melodrama being produced by her studio, Warner Brothers. She thought the latter script was "crap," but knew if she refused it, Jack Warner would make it impossible for her to go to United Artists for West Side Story. So she faked a case of tonsillitis and checked into the hospital to have them removed, effectively ending her obligation to star in Parrish. Her plan almost backfired when she contracted an infection that developed into pneumonia. She was in critical condition for three days, but recovered in time to report to work on West Side Story in April 1961.

 When West Side Story opened theatrically on October 18, 1961, it quickly became the number two box office hit of the year, behind only 101 Dalmatians (1961). Hollywood was wild about the film too and awarded it ten Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno), Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris), Best Color Cinematography, and Best Director. The latter category brought Wise and Robbins together again to accept the award though neither acknowledged the other in their acceptance speeches. As for Natalie Wood, she created quite a sensation at the Oscar ceremony by appearing with Warren Beatty (Their romance broke up the Natalie Wood-Robert Wagner marriage). Ironically, she was up for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Splendor in the Grass (1961), not West Side Story, but lost to Sophia Loren in Two Women (1960).

Broadway, the Golden Years: Jerome Robbins and the Great Coreographer-Directors, 1940 to the Present by Robert Emmett Long (2003) | Hollywood Musicals Nominated for Best Picture by Frederick G. Vogel () | The Films of Robert Wise by Richard C. McKenna () |


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