West Side Story

(USA 1961)


I’m generally not into musicals, but West Side Story is an exception. I saw it in high school, and I liked its retro cheese factor. Now that I’ve seen it as an adult, I love it—for quite a few reasons I didn’t appreciate back in high school.

Jet Song

The cast here is flawless. Russ Tamblyn as gang leader Riff—well, he’s a Jet all the way ‘til his last dying day. Richard Beymer brings a sweet and likable innocence to Tony. George Chakiris as Bernardo oozes mystery, menace, and machismo. Susan Oakes plays Anybodys with just the right amount of sexual ambiguity. Somehow, Natalie Wood as Maria, a Puerto Rican, works. And who doesn’t love Rita Moreno as Anita?


The story is clever: a modern, urban American adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Manhattan street gangs the Jets and the Sharks instead of Verona houses the Montagues and the Capulets—an S.E. Hinton novel with dancing. Very cool!

Dance at the Gym

Speaking of dancing, yes—gang members snapping their fingers and pulling ballet moves as if they’re in a Michael Jackson video is corny. But it works. Jerome Robbins does breathtaking choreography here. The shots are big, colorful, energetic, and visually stunning. My favorites are the exteriors at the beginning: I feel dizzy, I feel sunny, I feel fizzy and funny and fine. West Side Story is definitely a film for the big screen.


Needless to say, the songs are classic. I’ve known them forever—some before I knew West Side Story. Written with Leonard Bernstein, this was Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway debut (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Side_Story). His trademark wit shines through the lyrics and the rhythms. I’ll always think of my friend Frank, who sang songs from West Side Story as he did dishes when we were roommates in college.

The Rumble

Despite its silly corniness—a large part of its charm—West Side Story is dark. It raises a lot of issues still prevalent today: race, delinquency (though we call it “thuggery” today), hate toward “immigrants.” Despite the many light moments here, the dramatic scenes are dramatic; they make you forget, albeit momentarily, the light stuff. The gym dance, the rumble, and the scene where Anita goes to Doc’s store to give a message to Tony are all suspenseful and intense. The final scene in the basketball court is a real tearjerker.


A large part of West Side Story was filmed on a soundstage, but it still nails the look and feel a New York City that doesn’t exist anymore.

Did I miss anything here?


In 1997, the United States Library of Congress deemed West Side Story “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

(Music Box) A

Music Box Theatre 70mm Festival


Dead End

(USA 1937)

I never heard of the Dead End Kids until I saw this film. Long before West Side Story and The Outsiders, the Dead End Kids served as a Depression Era vehicle for social commentary on American urban life. Living in tenements along the East River as the moneyed started to convert Manhattan’s slums into upscale properties, the Dead End Kids demonstrated some of the pains of change and the kinds of decisions necessary to avoid going down a road to ruin (i.e., a life of crime). The ensemble held on in different incarnations well past its shelf life until the late 1950s, when the actors were in their mid-30s and had become more of a comedy act.

Adapted from Sidney Kingsley’s successful 1935 play, Dead End is the one that started it all. It goes through a day in the life of a street “gang” led by Tommy Gordon (Billy Halop). The kids are rough around the edges and have names like Dippy (Huntz Hall), Spit (Leo Gorcey), and T.B. (Gabriel Dell). They openly mock their rich neighbors across the street in the co-op that abuts the slum (the windowless door to the co-op clearly states “service entrance”), steal, fight, play cards, shine shoes, and spend a lot of time swiming in the river at the end of the block. A slick neighborhood expat gangster, “Baby Face” Martin (a young Humphrey Bogart), who apparently made it as a hit man elsewhere, returns with his thug, Hunk (Allen Jenkins). No one, not even his low-talking mother (Minor Watson), wants him around. Meanwhile, Tommy’s sister, Drina (Sylvia Sidney), a mother figure who’s off work striking for better wages, is trying her best to keep Tommy on the right path. She mentions a few times that the extra $3.50 a week (!) she’s fighting for would get them to a better place. She’s all into Dave (Joel McCrea), an unemployed architect with his eye on a rich girl (Wendy Barrie) who lives in the co-op.

Loaded with subplots, the story is okay even with its old school melodrama. Some of the performances—specifically Bogart, Sidney, McCrea, and Watson—are decent. The surreptitious way syphilis is slipped into the story is interesting. Otherwise, Dead End has issues. It may have been edgy in the ’30s, but in comtemporary eyes it reads as silly, even campy. The set is too tidy and ordered to be a real street. The kids’ exaggerated fake Archie Bunker accents get annoying after awhile—I expected to hear the word “murdalize” at many points (I didn’t). The story is moralistic in an unsophisticated way that even the ABC Afterschool Special never was. Still, Dead End depicts a world without a middle class and criticizes gentrification, points that ring familiar today. I didn’t hate Dead End, but it’s completely forgettable.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C-