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Film / West Side Story (1961)

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"♫ Tonight, tonight, it all began tonight
I saw you and the world went away.
Tonight, tonight, there's only you tonight,
what you are, what you do, what you say... ♫"
Maria, "Tonight"

West Side Story is the 1961 film adaptation of the landmark 1957 musical romance West Side Story scored by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, which in turn was a Setting Update of Romeo and Juliet. The film, a largely faithful adaptation of the stage show (though with minor changes to suit the film format), was directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins.

Two gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, have a constant turf war in New York City's Upper West Side. At a dance after which the gangs are scheduled to rumble, Tony (Richard Beymer), best friend of Jets leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn), meets and falls in love with Maria (Natalie Wood), the sister of Sharks leader Bernardo (George Chakiris). Bernardo and his girlfriend Anita (Rita Moreno) protest this new relationship. Tony and Maria reaffirm their love, but when tragedy strikes during the rumble, their conflicting loyalties to their respective gangs are challenged.

The film won a whopping 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, a record beaten only by Ben-Hur, Titanic, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, all of which won 11 Oscars. A second film adaptation of the stage musical, directed by Steven Spielberg, was released in December 2021, close to sixty years after the 1961 film's premiere.

Tropes in the film version:

  • Adaptational Context Change:
    • The lyrics to "America" are almost completely rewritten from the musical to film adaptation. The original had been criticised for mocking Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans. The film focuses instead on the discrimination the Puerto Ricans had suffered in America. The song is also changed from an all-female number revolving around an argument between Anita and another girl to a male-and-female number with Anita vs. Bernardo; the latter was Sondheim's original intent, only rewritten because Jerome Robbins wanted an all-female dance number in the show.
    • In the film, "I Feel Pretty" and "Gee, Officer Krupke" happen much earlier than they do in the stage version. In the stage version, they're meant to act as a tension break after the deaths in the first act. In the film, there are now no light moments after the rumble with the songs happening earlier. In the former's case, this required changing the line "bright," rhyming with "tonight," to "gay," rhyming with "today." Similarly, "Cool" happens after the rumble instead of before it, in the scene where "Gee, Officer Krupke" was originally sung. This was all because producer and co-director Robert Wise wanted the film to have a single rising line of tension, with no lighthearted relief after the two gang leaders' deaths.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: Bernardo is more sympathetic here than in the stage version. He shows more affection to his sister Maria, calling her "a precious jewel" before the dance and being gentler even when scolding her for dancing with Tony (in the stage version Chino protests "Don't yell at her, 'Nardo," which here he doesn't do), and after he kills Riff, while the stage script describes him as "triumphant," here his reaction is a silent My God, What Have I Done? The altered version of "America" also makes him more sympathetic by expanding his role and giving the audience more of his point of view.
  • Artistic Title:
    • A set of abstract graphics, created by Saul Bass, eventually fade into a shot of the Lower Manhattan skyline, followed by a series of overhead aerial shots of NYC streets and buildings.
    • There's also a five-minute-long Creative Closing Credits sequence, also by Saul Bass, depicting the credits on wall graffiti and street signs.
  • Bleed 'Em and Weep: After Bernardo is killed during the Rumble, Tony is anguished over having to kill him, yelling "MARIA!" in an anguished tone.
  • Bowdlerize: Some lines were tweaked for the film version as the infamous Hays Code was still in effect, though slightly less so in 1961.
    • Anita's lines in "Tonight" are changed from "He'll walk in hot and tired, so what / No matter if he's tired, as long as he's hot" to "He'll walk in hot and tired, poor dear / No matter if he's tired, as long as he's here."
    • And in "Gee, Officer Krupke", the line "My father is a bastard / My ma's an SOB / My grandpa's always plastered / My grandma pushes tea" is changed to "My daddy beats my mommy / My mommy clobbers me / My grandpa is a Commie / My grandma pushes tea."
    • And in the "Jet Song" the lines "When you're a Jet / And the spit hits the fan / You got brothers around / You're a family man" are changed to "When you're a Jet / Let them do what they can / You got brothers around / You're a family man." Particularly funny given that "spit" in the original was probably changed from...well, you know.
    • In the line, "Trusting with our hearts open! With our arms open!" - "You came with your legs open!", legs was replaced with "mouth."
    • Furthermore, Stephen Sondheim originally wanted to end the song "Gee, Officer Krupke, fuck you!" but it was changed to "Krup you!" (In his book of the lyrics, he comments that he thought the "Krup" change was for the better.)
    • In the show, Maria complains that Anita won't make her dress more revealing, insisting that "it's now to be used for dancing, not kneeling in front of an altar!", implying that it was once her church dress. Anita responds, "With those boys, you could start out dancing and end up kneeling", insinuating either "having" to get married because of sexual activity and pregnancy, or the sexual activity itself. In the movie, this is changed to "dress for praying" and "start out dancing and end up praying", making the implications less obvious.
    • Schrank's taunting of Action changes from "How's the action on your mother's mattress?" to "How's the action on your mother's side of the street?" Not much better but enough to go over the head of some younger viewers.
    • In "I Feel Pretty", the lines "I feel pretty and witty and bright! / And I pity / Any girl who isn't me tonight!" are changed to "I feel pretty and witty and gay! / And I pity / Any girl who isn't me today!", which kind of had the reverse effect in the long run. Presumably this change is partly to avoid implying what she and Tony will be doing that night, and partly because in the stage version Maria sings the song at night, while here she sings it in an earlier, daylight scene.
    • The exchange between Riff and Tony as "Womb to tomb, sperm to worm" is changed in the film to "Womb to tomb, birth to earth." In the Quintet, the "So I can count on you, boy?"/"All right" exchange is between Riff and Tony, and ends with a repeat of "Womb to tomb, sperm to worm," but in the film, the lines are given to Riff and Ice instead, and the last part is changed to "One two three, one two three!" which is a rather odd filler.
  • Brief Accent Imitation: In the film adaptation, action acts as a doctor with a German accent during "Gee, Officer Krupke".
  • Broken Aesop: "America" is in part about the difficulties faced by Puerto Rican immigrants in the United States, including lines like "Life is alright in America / If you're all white in America!" In the movie, all but twonote  of the actors playing the Puerto Ricans are white performers in brownface, with even the one actress who was ethnically right for the role being put in the same makeup. All the actors singing about how life is easier if you're white are themselves white.
  • Brownface:
    • They really broke out the shoe polish for this one. Most of the Sharks were played by non-Hispanic white actors. Maria was played by the American (of Russian descent) Natalie Wood, and Bernardo by the Greek-American George Chakiris. Even Rita Moreno (Anita), the only legit Puerto Rican in the cast, is slathered in brownface and forced to put on an over-the-top accent.
    • Natalie Wood didn't use makeup. According to the biography by her sister Lana Wood she "was always outside sunbathing so she'd be tan and look appropriately 'outdoorsy'."
  • Call-and-Response Song: "America". In the film, the women sing about America's positive qualities and the men sing about its xenophobia.
  • Camp: Every character type is exaggerated in the movie to match a theatrical style. For one, most gangs in an inner city wouldn't go around dancing to song numbers... That aside, the wide movements, showy expressions, and witty dialogue all combine to achieve this effect.
  • Canon Foreigner: Ice, Riff's lieutenant, was specifically invented for the film. In the original show it is Diesel who is chosen to fight Bernardo one-on-one and Action who becomes the new leader after Riff is killed.
  • Covered in Gunge: During one of the opening clashes between the Jets and Sharks, Action, A-rab, Baby John, and Snowboy chase a Shark into an alley where more Sharks pour paint on them.
  • Cycle of Vengeance: As best as can be determined from each side's self-serving account, the conflict began when the Jets attacked Bernardo the day he moved to the West Side (though the Jets would say Bernardo began it by moving there.) Bernardo created the Sharks to oppose them, but by the time the movie begins, both sides have become virtually indistinguishable, and each is concerned only with vengeance on the other for whatever the other's last act of vengeance on them was. In the "Tonight Quintet," each side sings the line "They began it." They also sing the exact same music on that line, suggesting that the genesis of each gang's hatred is basically identical.
  • Deus Exit Machina: In the film, Ice leaves Doc's to go outside and see if any of the Sharks are around right before Anita comes in. Without him around to keep everyone's heads cool, the Jets taunt and assault her.
  • Digital Destruction: To put it bluntly, every 21st-century physical release of the film has at least one flaw. Most infamously, the single-disc 2003 DVD is in Pan and Scan, the Special Edition DVD plays "Tonight" out of sync, and the 50th Anniversary Blu-Ray has the screen turn black during a few seconds of the overture.
  • Finger-Snapping Street Gang: The Jets, are the Trope Maker and Trope Codifier. Walking down the street while snapping their fingers is their signature trait, and they do it repeatedly, most prominently during "Jet Song"—though at that point they're literally just walking down the street, not threatening anyone.
  • Foe-Tossing Charge: During the street fights in the opening, two Jets are lured in a dark alley and are ambushed by six Sharks charging them, leaving them with their asses on the ground.
  • Have a Gay Old Time:
    • "I feel pretty and witty and gay", for the time period of the film. This was near the end of the time when one could use "gay" in its original sense.
    • There's also the line in 'Cool' about "if you've got a rocket in your pocket", which meant Hot-Blooded in the 1960s, but not anymore.
  • The Hero Dies: Tony at the end is shot to death, and Maria laments how hatred killed him.
  • Latino Is Brown: The movie differentiates the Puerto Ricans from the white Americans by making all the Puerto Ricans dark skinned. Possibly averted with Natalie Wood as she sunbathed to be tan.
  • Limited Wardrobe: Even at the dance, Anybodys wears the same outfit throughout the movie: a yellow t-shirt with blue sleeves and a pair of jeans.
  • Lipstick-and-Load Montage: In the reprise of "Tonight" in The Movie, Anita beautifies herself while the gangs prepare for the rumble.
  • Love at First Sight: Just in case you didn't get it, the filmmakers made the rest of the dancers hazy, making sure that only Tony and Maria were in focus during their first meeting. They promptly fall in love.
  • Mood Whiplash: The movie has a little bit of mood whiplash after the rumble. It cuts from Riff and Bernardo lying dead, to Maria dancing wistfully on a rooftop. Since this dance only lasts a minute at most, until Chino appears to deliver some tragic news, the amount of mood whiplash still feels significantly smaller than it did in the play.
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • The gang war sees Bernardo killing Riff with a stab to the gut using a switchblade knife. In the film, Bernardo briefly registers horror at what he has just done.
    • Immediately following this, Tony, enraged, takes Riff's knife and kills Bernardo with it. This leads to a ton of guilt on both sides, as Tony not only has to tell Maria that her brother is dead, but that he killed him.
    • After Tony dies, Maria chews out everyone present for letting the violence get as far as it did. The Jets, the Sharks, and the adults around it all can only watch in Stunned Silence as Maria cries over Tony's body.
  • Mythology Gag: Tony and Maria's doomed romance taking place over essentially one weekend seems ridiculous unless you recall that "Romeo & Juliet", the source material, took place over roughly the same time frame (three days).
  • One-Book Author: Despite winning an Academy Award for his work, this was the only film that Jerome Robbins ever directed.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The movie is a largely intact adaptation of the stage show, but song placement is shuffled around, to excellent effect. "Gee, Officer Krupke" and "I Feel Pretty" were both moved to Act I, which is lighter and more fun in tone. "Cool", an edgy and angry song, was moved into the similarly tense and dark Act II, averting the show's Mood Whiplash.
  • Sinister Switchblade: As was typical of real street gangs at the time, switchblade knives are a standard weapon for both the Jets and the Sharks. Riff and Bernardo both use switchblades during their fight at the rumble.
  • Taglines: For the movie version, the original poster boasted, "The screen achieves one of the great entertainments in the history of motion pictures", while re-release trailers proclaimed, "Unlike other classics, West Side Story grows younger."


Video Example(s):


West Side Story- America

Life can be bright in America! If you're all white in America!

How well does it match the trope?

5 (14 votes)

Example of:

Main / LocationSong

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