Welcome to a weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film considered to be essential to the cinema’s golden age. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
Since the beginning, cinema has looked to the stage as a source of inspiration for new material. From comedy to tragedy, theatre offered a wide range of incredible stories for filmmakers to choose from. Unsurprisingly, a number of screenwriters, directors, and studios looked to one of the greatest playwrights of all time: William Shakespeare. In total, the Guinness Book of World Records lists him as the most filmed author ever in any language. Hundreds of years after his death, the Bard continues to influence modern storytellers around the world.
The first Shakespeare adaptation in film came very early in cinema history. In 1899, a very simple photographic record of a stage production of King John was produced. As sound was introduced in movies, it took several years for cinema to catch up to Shakespeare’s eloquent dialogue. The first straight adaptation of one of the Bard’s plays was As You Like It in 1937. The next one after that wasn’t released until 1944. Throughout the next two decades, directors such as Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier filmed their own variations on Shakespeare’s classic stories.
At the same time as cinema was embracing the Bard, Broadway was also looking to him for inspiration. In 1947, famed choreographer Jerome Robbins approached composer Leonard Bernstein and playwright Arthur Laurents about making a musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Robbins originally imagined the modern version revolving around the conflict between Irish Catholic and Jewish families living on New York’s Lower East Side. The project was shelved for five years, then revived yet again in 1955. Over dinner one night, Laurents and Bernstein were discussing the major coverage by the press of juvenile delinquent gang turf wars, a recent phenomenon in big cities. Laurents worked on several drafts of the book before centering the adaptation around New York’s Upper West Side neighborhood and the turf war between the Jets, a white gang, and the Sharks, from Puerto Rico. The stage musical opened in the fall of 1957 and enjoyed a successful run of almost two years on Broadway. Hollywood took notice of the production’s success and looked to capitalize with a movie version of the musical.
West Side Story set the standard for all movie musicals that came after it. The story successfully took Shakespeare’s traditional tragic love story and reworked it to address modern inner-city problems such as prejudice, conflict, power, and class struggle. Not only did West Side Story tackle these dark themes, the musical did so in exhilarating style, with Jerome Robbins’ innovative, volatile choreography on display as the star of the film. Robbins’ used his background in ballet to stage sequences that make the most difficult dance moves in the movie appear almost effortless, a true testament to his brilliance as a choreographer.
The film also stands out as the first major musical to address real conflict and social problems that are not resolved on screen. As opposed to the romances in Singin’ in the Rain or The King and I for example, West Side Story addresses the struggles of Tony and Maria’s love realistically. Violence can’t simply be solved in a song. People are hurt. Gang members die. West Side Story made a huge impact by showing that movie musicals can be more than just an entertaining escape from reality. Musicals challenge the status quo and tackle important issues using creative expression. In West Side Story, song and dance became a weapon revealing the harsh realities of the world. Decades later, the tragic story continued to inspire others in creating groundbreaking new work such as A Chorus Line, Rent, and Hamilton.
Director Robert Wise’s original choice to play Tony was musician Elvis Presley.
At the time of release, the film’s album became the biggest selling soundtrack of all-time.
The movie became the second highest grossing film of 1961, after 101 Dalmatians.
Both Natalie Wood (Maria) and Richard Beymer (Tony) had their singing voices dubbed over by uncredited actors after filming.
The film won 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, becoming the record holder for most wins for a movie musical.
West Side Story is available to stream until April 22 on WatchTCM.
What’s your favorite movie musical? What other classic films would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!
Images: United Artists
Michelle Buchman is the social media manager at Nerdist Industries. She’s also a huge cinephile. Feel free to follow and chat movies with her on Twitter, @michelledeidre.