West Side Story

You can dismiss “West Side Story” as a racist musical that serves up all the negative stereotypes of Puerto Ricans, and demeans women too. Forget the inspired choreography by Jerome Robbins, the jangly-nerved moves crackling with angry adolescent energy. Ignore Rita Moreno’s dancing. Stop your ears so you’re not moved by Leonard Bernstein’s score.

Or you can enjoy the movie on its own terms, and in its proper context.

Think about it:  the play had been in the works for almost a decade before its 1957 premiere. During this period, the civil rights movement was gathering steam. You’ve got the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision outlawing segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The signing of the Civil Rights Act guaranteeing the right to vote to all Americans in September, 1957. These were significant milestones, but had the immediate effect of exacerbating racial tensions, provoking violence against African Americans and against other minorities as well.

The fifties was also a period of trying to understand troubled youths. It comes across in films like “The Wild One,” with Marlon Brando as the leader of a motorcycle gang, and “Rebel Without a Cause” with James Dean (indeed, the playwright Arthur Laurents wanted James Dean for the lead, but he had died by the time the production was being cast). Turf wars were common between rival gangs; the New York tabloids were full of stories about shootings and stabbings by juvenile delinquents.

Puerto Rican migration to the United States took off after World War II, with the majority settling in New York City. Viewed as “foreigners” and “colored” by whites, Puerto Ricans faced discrimination in finding jobs and housing. Add these ingredients together and you understand the motivations of Bernstein, Robbins, and Laurents.

We have Bernstein’s copy of “Romeo and Juliet” — the source of “West Side Story’s” story — with the composer’s annotation at the top of the first page: “An out and out plea for racial tolerance.” We have journalist Martha Gelhorn’s letter to Bernstein (or “Lenny Pot” as she calls him):  “With the visual picture there, and the murderous city outside, and in America, where ‘West Side Story’ becomes a sociological document turned into art, they made me cry like a sieve, from heart-broken pity.”

Audiences were shaken by the musical, with its bleak ending. The hijinks of Gee, Officer Krupke and the lively, bitter humor of America can’t compensate for the sadness of this modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers. And nothing in musical theater comes close to the haunting beauty of Somewhere.


Singin’ in the Rain

Tell me you can watch Gene Kelly perform the title number of this film and not feel happy.  I don’t know anybody who isn’t instantly cheered up by “Singin’ in the Rain.”  It’s gotten me through many a dark night of the soul.

They pulled out all the stops for this one.  Harold Rosson was the cinematographer.  He shot “The Wizard of Oz” and the unforgettable burning of Atlanta sequence in “Gone With the Wind,” and was the most-sought-after cinematographer in Hollywood.  No wonder the film is such a pleasure to watch!

It’s also fun figuring out who’s being satirized in the silent movie bits.  There’s a femme fatale character said to be modeled on Gloria Swanson, and a flapper type (played by Rita Moreno) who brings to mind the “it” girl, Clara Bow.  In one scene, Kelly speaks the lines that John Gilbert spoke in a squeaky voice in his first talkie—effectively ending his career.

Granted, the story is negligible.  Even the romance is negligible.  Sure, it’s nice that Gene Kelly winds up with Debbie Reynolds.  Sure, Donald O’Connor is a swell guy.  And that vain idiot who plays the silent film star deserves to be out of the motion picture business, once and for all.  But if Kelly didn’t dance and O’Connor didn’t sing while making funny faces, with Reynolds piping in to make a delightful threesome, there’d be no movie.

“Singin’ in the Rain” (the song) has acquired a range of associations since Kelly’s tour-de-force performance.  Any number of actors have invoked it, including Cary Grant (in “North by Northewest), Peter Sellers (in “Revenge of the Pink Panther”), Robert Redford (in “Legal Eagles”) and even The Simpsons, with Malcolm McDowell’s rendition in “A Clockwork Orange” being the most notorious.  Cheered them up too, every last one of them.