Peary doesn’t review this Oscar-winning musical — based on Arthur Laurents’ Shakespearean-inspired Broadway play, with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins — in his GFTFF, but he does name it the Best Picture of the Year in his Alternate Oscars, where he discusses both its merits and some of his personal memories upon first viewing it. He begins by noting “just how flawed it is”, but argues that “the flaws seem to vanish in a wave of nostalgia”, and given that “there were no great English-language pictures released in 1961”, he agrees with the Academy in its recognition of this film — co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins — as Best Picture if simply “to acknowledge the numerous moviegoers for whom it has special memories”. He argues that “of all the performers, Rita Moreno” (who won an Oscar) “is the film’s class act”, and that “her singing and dancing during ‘America’ is the musical highlight”.
Indeed, the music and dancing overall in this film are its indisputable high points. I’m an obsessive fan of Bernstein’s score, and could easily listen to it on its own without visuals or lyrics — but it’s fun to combine them altogether. Speaking of Sondheim’s lyrics, they hold nothing back in revealing racist attitudes and practices, particularly during ‘America’:
(Girls) Everything free in America
(Bernardo) For a small fee in America
(Anita) Buying on credit is so nice
(Bernardo) One look at us and they charge twice
(Girls) Life is all right in America
(Boys) If you’re all white in America
and in overtly bigoted dialogue by Office Krupke (William Bramley):
You Puerto Ricans get what you’ve been itching for: use of the playground, use of the gym, the streets, the candy store. So what if you do turn this whole town into a stinkin’ pig sty? … Yeah, sure, I know. It’s a free country, I ain’t got the right. But I got a badge. What do you got? Things are tough all over. Beat it.
Peary ends his review in Alternate Oscars by noting that “one forgets that in 1961 this film, which pleads for brotherhood, was daring to an uncomfortable degree”. He points out that “except for Tony, Maria, and the elderly Doc (Ned Glass), the characters are a pretty rotten group. They are all biased.” Actually, this aspect of the film — its no-holds-barred look at bigotry and violence — remains both startling and refreshing; its themes of racial intolerance and territorial supremacy remain as salient as ever, if not more so.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Wonderfully choreographed dances
- Vibrant Technicolor cinematography and sets
- Natalie Wood as Maria
- Rita Moreno as Anita
- Creative closing credits
- Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s score and lyrics
Yes, for its historical value and wonderful musical sequences. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)