The Oscars do have a bit of a sweet spot in the 1960s… a little song, a little dance, a little of that Broadway showmanship. Simply put, 40% of the Best Pictures are musicals, and the general public seemed pretty down with that. To begin with…
The Joint Champion
This is another one I don’t think I need to say a lot about, plot-wise. It’s Romeo and Juliet, but about rival white and Puerto Rican gangs in 1950s New York instead of rival families in renaissance Italy. Sure there’s contemporary (for the time) dialogue and a bunch of songs and whatnot, instead of saying “This takes place in a version of modern LA where everyone happens to speak in iambic pentameter” like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, but beat-for-beat it’s Romeo and Juliet, and you probably knew that, why have I burned this many words here.
So thoughts on the musical in general… the songs hold up, much better than Gigi or South Pacific or Roman Scandals… look I have so many problems with “Keep Young and Beautiful” from Scandals but one of those problems is that it’s a god damned earworm and it still gets stuck in my head. Between “America” (which absolutely still slaps) and the general treatment of the Sharks, this show really highlights how badly the US treats Hispanics. Even Puerto Ricans, who are American citizens but get treated as second class because some white asshole on Fox News told a bunch of conservative rubes that Mexicans were after their jobs and conservative rubes aren’t good at nuance or objective reality. I especially like that when the Jets say the Sharks should go back where they came from, the ensuing exchange of slurs I shan’t repeat subtly indicated that the Jets have no ownership of America, all y’all white people came from somewhere. Maybe that’s my interpretation, but if “Egypt shouldn’t have had Hebrew slaves” was meant to be a subtweet at American slavery, then I could be on the money here, who knows.
My only issue is that outside of the 50s, the bowl of mayonnaise that is the Jets does not seem like that menacing a gang, especially dressed up for the neighbourhood sock hop (hosted by The Addams Family and The Adventures of Brisco County Jr’s John Astin!). Maybe it’s 2020 talking, but if I’m supposed to think that a gaggle of white youths are a dangerous gang, I expect to see at least one swastika tattoo. Or MAGA hat. Eh, tomayto, tomahto.
Thoughts on the movie version… I feel like the things this movie does with colour are what South Pacific was trying to do but failing utterly at accomplishing. Shifts in colour convey tone and atmosphere and character moments and never look like someone dyed a bunch of Vaseline yellow and smeared it on the camera.
Sure a lot of the cast are dancers more than singers but the songs are still fine at worst and the dances are impressive, so that worked out.
I’m not saying that Anybodys, a tomboy girl and would-be Jet, is a trans or nonbinary icon because a) that is not now nor will it ever be my place to say, and b) their self-identification is not recognized, but… if someone qualified to make that call were to declare that I’d say let’s hear them out.
That said some of the more prominent Puerto Ricans are played by white people browning up. Maria (the Juliet) is played by Natalie Wood, who’s of Russian descent and doesn’t even do her own singing, and Bernardo (the Tybalt) is played by a Greek guy from Ohio, that’s not great. At least Rita Moreno (Anita, the… nurse? Is she the nurse?) is actually Puerto Rican.
Also end credits are back! What up, end credits? Now we just need to stop having overtures, especially on movies that aren’t musicals.
And Rotten Tomatoes Says: At #48, it’s just under the halfway point (and immediately under Hamlet), but just barely the second highest ranked musical. Again, I feel RT may be too forgiving of An American in Paris.
What’s Good, Hays Code? I feel like maybe the Hays Code would have rathered the two fatal stabbings happen out of frame, but mostly they’d flag the interracial romance. Although… it doesn’t go well… maybe they’d say “Well as long as they were punished for it, it’s fine.” Again, I’m not saying their rules are good, the Hays Code was bad.
Other Events in Film
- Judgement at Nuremberg dug into how the German people came to support the atrocities of the Nazi regime, and hot damn look at the cast on this thing: Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, William Shatner, and Montgomery Clift. I mean it’s heavy story matter, so I get why more people thought West Side Story would be a good time, but still.
- That said, West Side Story’s chief rival for Best Picture and the box office crown turned out to be The Guns of Navarone, which clinched the Golden Globe for Best Drama despite losing director to Nuremberg.
- Disney made the top ten at the box office with 101 Dalmatians, a film with such a perfectly sinister villain no one could ever think they needed a full movie to dig into her backstory.
- Elvis starred in his biggest success, Blue Hawaii.
- Japan released Yojimbo, a samurai picture about a Ronin who pits two rival crimes bosses against each other, which would be adapted into A Fistful of Dollars and about 3 million other things. It was a popular set-up.
- You might say “Surely that’s all that was noteable about 1961 movies.” And I say what about Breakfast at Tiffany’s? You say “I think I remember the film. Yes I recall I think we both kinda liked it,” and I say actually I haven’t seen it. Not on the list. Onwards.
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