Among the most beloved musicals of all time is 1961’s West Side Story. It is number fifty-one on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) list of the 100 greatest American films of all time. Somebody there obviously likes it, too. I do not. It is not a bad movie, or at least it is not as bad as the 2021 version. I guess. Either way, it is an excruciating film for me to sit through without wanting to bang my head against the wall. I did that a few times, truth be told. Not to get ahead of myself, but a few minutes into watching it I was already annoyed. They first focus on the Caucasian gang, the Jets. They proceed to dance around the neighborhood talking about the importance of their squad while they prance around their turf. All I could think was: who walks like this?! This is standard fare for this kind of production, but to risk repeating myself from other reviews, none of this makes sense. Just tell the story, please.
After giving us a God’s eye view of New York City, we get to the West Side Story. It is pretty simple. In the title location, there are the aforementioned Jets, and the rival Puerto Rican called the Sharks. They make their dislike for each other known through interpretive dance. I get that this is not supposed to be literal, but it is literally what you see. So, as is made abundantly clear, they cannot co-exist in the same neighborhood. Thus, the rival leaders, Riff (Russ Tamblyn) for the Jets and Bernardo (George Chakiris) of the Sharks, decide that they are going to continue to their squabbling at the parish dance. It is not said that this takes place at the church, but this Catholic knows what he is looking at. In order to have a little more support, Riff turns to his best friend and former co-founder of their cabal, Tony (Richard Beymer). He wants nothing to do with these squabbles, but a dream he has been having about something good for him in the near future convinces him otherwise. While the gangs get up to more dancing nonsense, Tony sees Maria (Natalie Wood), who happens to be Bernardo’s sister. Look, this is Romeo and Juliet in a modern society, so I hope I do not need to give you further context as to how Maria and Tony instantly feel about one another. Meanwhile, Bernardo and Riff agree to have a war council. This means they will meet at a pre-determined location, in this case Doc’s (Ned Glass) drug store where Tony works, in order to decide the location and weapons for their “rumble.” Ultimately, they opt for a one-on-one fist-fight, but are prepared to take things further if necessary, and it will take place the following night. This amounts to more dance fighting, but we will get to that in a moment. While they plot, Tony goes to find Maria so they can have the balcony scene of Shakespeare fame. They agree to meet again the following morning at the bridal store where Maria is employed with her best friend, Anita (Rita Moreno). As Bernardo’s girlfriend, she is privy to the fact that there is a coming brawl, and she lets this information slip to Maria. When Tony arrives and they begin imagining a future together, the stumbling block to Maria is the soon-to-be confrontation between the Jets and the Sharks. Maria does not want to see it happen, and she asks that Tony go in order to stop it. She evidently did not think this through, particularly when you consider the fact that Bernardo believes that Tony has ill intentions towards Maria. The result is what you would expect. Tony fails to calm the two sides, and soon Bernardo and Riff are facing off with drawn switch blades. Bernardo strikes first, killing Riff. In his devastation, Tony takes the knife handed to him by Riff as he dies and kills Bernardo. From there, an all-out brawl commences until the sound of police sirens breaks up the kerfuffle. Like I said, Maria did not think this one through, and it is a disaster. To her credit, she handles Bernardo’s death pretty well. While the participants scatter trying to evade the cops, Tony immediately goes to Maria and tells her what has happened. She is hurt, but she begs Tony to stay with her and hold her. How romantic, and trusting of a guy that she has known for less than twenty-four hours! At length, they come to the conclusion that they need to leave the city and set up somewhere else. To do so, Tony goes to Doc and ask for a loan. The plan is to meet there, but Maria sends Anita to tell Tony that (for some unknown reason) she is delayed. Upon arriving at Doc’s, Anita finds the Jets, and they are not happy to see her. In fact, they apparently try to rape her until Doc enters the room and orders the gang to leave. Anita is disgusted with their behavior. Instead of telling them the message from Maria, she says that Chino (Jose De Vega), Maria’s one-time suitor, killed her out of jealousy. It is Doc that brings Tony the news. He then takes to the street shouting for Chino. To his surprise, it is a very much alive Maria that answers him. Unfortunately, Chino had been listening, too. As Maria and Tony run to embrace, Chino shoots Tony, who dies in Maria’s arms. There is a final soliloquy from a grief-stricken Maria before Tony’s body is carried away by both gangs. The film then comes to a merciful end.
The point of West Side Story is to highlight the awful nature of racism and violence. I cannot take watching the movie, but it does make this point well. What it is missing is the Catholic Faith. I talked a little bit about this with 2021 iteration. It is even more absent from this one. I mentioned before about the dance taking place at the local church. This is not said in the movie, instead referring to it as being in the gym. I went to Catholic school until the fourth grade, then again for graduate school, and have worked in a number of parishes. Never have I seen a gym with the kind of steepled, stained-glass windows you see in the background of these scenes. So, a church it is. The only other connection to Catholicism is when you see Maria praying before a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Personally, I love that this is in the film, though I can see my protestant brothers and sisters looking at it and thinking there goes those dang Catholics again, praying to Mary. I have explained how this is incorrect before, so I will leave this point alone. What disappoints me about this film is that the Church is not more a part of what you see in this neighborhood. It also would have been more Shakespearean to have a priest character attempting to mediate between the gangs. Would this have taken away from their precious song and dance numbers? I do not see that it would. As such, not only is this a silly musical, but it is also historically inaccurate.
Speaking of inaccuracy, West Side Story also has a few “brown face” performances. Natalie Wood, may she rest in peace, was not Puerto Rican, or any kind of Hispanic heritage. Neither is George Chakiris, though I guess Greek is close enough to those who made this film. I find this ironic given the overall message of the film. Then again, if you are a fan of musicals, there is probably nothing I could say to talk you out of seeing this one.