By Marc S. Sanders

Reader, I’ve been having a hard week.  My beloved puppy dog, Falcon, has not been feeling well and my family and I are so worried for him.  It’s just been a long week having to deal with reality.  Nevertheless, when I watch a classic musical like Singin’ In The Rain, it’s impossible not to smile and catch on to the energy that drives the film from the talents of Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor.  This trio are not just sensational dancers and singers.  They’re adoring comedians that set a standard for facial expressions and endless entertainment variety. 

A simple, but informative story sets the spine of the picture.  Talking films like Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer are catching on in Hollywood movie houses and the silent pictures are quickly becoming archaic.  Established talents like Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (a scene stealing Jean Hagen) are being threatened with becoming extinct unless they can adapt to the use of their voices in the romantic cinematic roles they are known for.  Don will adjust.  Lina is another story.  Her alluring blond bombshell looks are recognized everywhere.  However, none of that will line up with her natural, squeaky, ear piercing vocals.  She’s a hopeless case for the best vocal coaches that money can buy.  Don and Lina are star attractions with contracts to guarantee them work, but Lina’s voice could put the movie studio out of business. 

Fortunately, Don just happens to land smack dab into the passenger seat of Kathy Selden’s (Reynolds) car.  Kathy has the voice, and soon Don and his trusty songwriting companion and pal, Cosmo Brown (O’Connor), will realize the acting talent to boot.  In the meantime, though, Kathy’s voice will dub in for Lina’s on screen.  There are great gags at Lina’s expense as she tries to work with a microphone for the first time.  This is Lucille Ball material of the finest, comedic polish.

In between all these story developments reside some of the greatest musical song and dance numbers to ever grace a screen.  Few, if any, films have matched the rubber faced hyperactive quick steps of Donald O’Connor during his rendition of “Make ‘em Laugh!” What he does with this cutaway scene looks like a superpower of marvelous agility.  Jim Carrey could never stand next to Donald O’Connor.

Gene Kelly’s accompaniment with O’Connor and their silly, tongue twisting “Moses Supposes” is magnificent to watch.  You could be on your death bed, looking at this scene, and I truly believe you’ll think nothing is so bad in life while you watch this moment.  The pair are masters with their physicality of jumping on and off desks and chairs, while they toss around a stuffy, glass eyed linguist caught in the middle of their shenanigans.  Every prop and set piece are given functionality, be it a lamp shade, office supplies or stacks of paper.  Then there are the lyrics.  How do you so fluently utter words like “Moses” and “supposes” and every other imaginable piece of vocabulary that phonetically sound like them to seem like it is as natural as saying grace? And they do it all while bouncing all over the place with two stepping in perfect sync.  It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.  These guys are functioning on one motor.

To add further compliment, I must emphasize that the camera pointed at these magnificent players hardly ever cuts away.  There are long sequences where the guys are literally walking up walls and back flipping over.  It’s all done in one shot.  There’s only frequent edits away for a close up or another angle.  Otherwise, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor are defying the impossible to show breathless choreography.  They seem to defy physics, and the props they use cooperate with every step, leap, run or jump taken.

The same goes for when Debbie Reynolds makes it a trio during another unforgettable number called “Good Morning.”  The furniture pieces are choregraphed to work with the three dancers.  All three race towards a sofa, step on to the seat cushions in unison and then walk onto the back of the sofa, allowing it to flawlessly tip over so they can continue their stride.  Just writing about this, I think about how amazing and wondrous this scene is.  Lightning in a bottle!

All of the material contained within Singin’ In The Rain is incredibly cheerful, full of color and humor and tremendously likable characters.  Yet, it does not ever teeter on being hokey or cheesy.  The musical doesn’t feel dated.  This film transcends generations like The Wizard Of Oz or Star Wars.  No matter the age, anyone should be able to like this movie. 

I love the irony of the number “Singin’ In The Rain” that lends to the title of the picture.  Just think about the word “rain.”  Often it is associated with gloominess and sorrow and mood.  However, the tempo of Singin’ In The Rain as a full length film invites happiness and glee no matter the situation.  Gene Kelly’s clownish activity with an umbrella, a large smile and a rain soaked street corner becomes one of the most delightful moments ever to grace a screen. He stomps, skips and splashes in the large puddles while taking a leap on to a streetlamp just to express all of Don Lockwood’s glorious bliss and adoration for his new love Kathy Selden.  A hat becomes its own character as gushing rain drains out of a storm pipe soaking Don’s head.  The brim of the hat seems to develop its own form of jubilation.

I’ve read that Gene Kelly was a viciously strict co-director (with Stanley Donen) and choreographer on this film.  Debbie Reynolds has testified to long sessions of endless starts and stops.  It was tortuous at times.  If just a toe or a hand was out of place in any of the choreography, Kelly would not stand for it.  It had to be perfect.  I can’t imagine Kelly in a demanding or authoritative capacity.  He is just so cheerful and lovable on screen and so is the entire company of performers.  I guess the contrast with his character lends to how impressed I am with the final product.  However, to make a picture like Singin’ In The Rain this exact and eye popping requires astute examination.  The assembled rhythm of the three dancers and the chorus behind them at least matches some of the most refined military assembly marches I’ve ever seen. 

Watch Singin’ In The Rain for a glimpse into the evolution of Hollywood and cinema.  Watch it for a simple, yet funny story.  Watch it for the characters and set pieces.  Most of all, watch Singin’ In The Rain to discover how grand and wonderful life can be.  It’s likely that none of my readers can do what Kelly, Reynolds or O’Connor accomplish in this film, but I can guarantee that you’ll feel just as joyous as they do while they are putting the show on for you.

Singin’ In The Rain is why movies are so important for our emotional lexicon of escapism.  It lends to good health to watch Singin’ In The Rain.  It’s a film we all need.

Singin’ In The Rain is a reason to live.


By Marc S. Sanders

Okay!  Let’s get the comparison out of the way first.  Steven Spielberg’s interpretation of West Side Story far exceeds the original 1961 version from Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins that won the Best Picture Academy Award.  I strongly encourage you to see this new film in theatres before it’s gone.  If you miss it, be sure that when you watch it at home, you have the highest upgraded flatscreen with the most enhanced sound system imaginable.  West Side Story of 2021 is a gift of sight and sound.

What Spielberg accomplishes with an updated and outstanding script from Tony Kushner is a more fleshed out, grittier and honest account of territorial entitlement and heated prejudice when the west side of New York City was on the brink of catering to a wealthy white populace and the Puerto Rican community had become established as Americans, even if they were never considered equals.  )The best promise the Puerto Ricans have here for a life is to live as doormen and housekeepers.)  The music and lyrics are more meaningful than ever before.  The characters are given more depth.  The settings become characters themselves.

West Side Story is another example of solid evidence that Steven Spielberg is our greatest modern director.  He not only focuses on the positions his characters hold, allowing them to act with passion and humor and heartache and despair, but he also takes advantage of the props and settings allowed to him beyond limits.  To watch classic numbers come alive not just with the outstanding vocals and dancing, but to see everything in the frame serve a purpose is so gratifying. 

When the Jets strut and ballet down the city streets claiming their elite status in song, Spielberg makes sure these guys literally stop traffic.  Unlike the mundane placement of the winning song “Officer Krupke,” in the original film which only happens on a sidewalk, Spielberg place the boys in the police station where the props of papers and office supplies along with the furniture pieces serve to lampoon the city judge, the cops, the psychiatrists and even themselves.  Maria (20-year-old sensation, Rachel Zegler) owns her rendition of “I Feel Pretty” while the picture enhances the performance with a run through the dress department of Gimbell’s.  Clothes and accessories fly off the racks to send Maria’s enthusiasm of love and happiness into the heavens.  Kushner and Spielberg make a very wise modification to have “Cool” performed by the romantic lead Tony (Ansel Elgort) as a means to calm down his buddy, Riff – leader of the Jets (Mike Faist), before going into a head-to-head rumble with Maria’s brother, Bernardo, leader of the Puerto Rican gang known as the Sharks. Spielberg places these guys on a rickety old dock complete with wide gaps in the floor for the boys to leap over along with smooth planks to slide around on while tossing a gun around like it’s a football.  These characters teetering on manhood beautifully display their recklessness for danger and pride.

Rita Moreno is the significant attraction early on as she fills the Doc mentor role in the local drug store.  Wise & Robbins’ film never made Doc into much of a mentor.  Moreno fills that void.  She portrays a new character named Valentina, the widow of Doc, and the film’s tool of sensibility during these troubled times.  Kushner creates a fleshed-out character who explains that while she married a Gringo, she remains a Puerto Rican and there’s no room for bloodshed.  She has learned to live with others, and now Tony and Bernardo and Riff and the rest need to do so as well.  In another writer’s hands, this might come off preachy.  Not with Kushner’s dialogue though.  The background of Valentina is paved out early on and her elderly physicality can only do so much.  She can’t disarm the toughies, but she won’t stand for their stupidity either.  It’s Moreno’s presence that brings the chaos to a halt even if she knows it’ll never end the senseless war.  She is sure to get an Oscar nomination and like her win as Anita in the original film, she’s likely to win the award here as well.  (The only Hispanic woman to win an Oscar since 1961, and she’s likely to repeat that accomplishment again.)

Another fleshed out character that I really appreciated is that of Chino (Josh Andres Rivera), the nerdy student and best friend to Bernardo.  He’s studying accounting and calculator repair, but Chino wants to join the Sharks and fight for their cause. Bernardo, the tough guy boxer, wants none of that for his friend.  He wants Chino to date Maria.  There’s multi dimension to Chino now that I never saw before, and it is so very necessary.  The character puts a heartbreaking seal on the end of the film or play, whichever you are watching.  With Spielberg’s film, we get more of Chino’s motivation.  We now can understand why it is Chino that really delivers the final punch of the show.

Ariana DeBose plays Anita, Bernardo’s wife, and she’s spectacular as well.  I could watch her lead “America” through the colorful, daylight city streets over and over again.  In her yellow dress, with red lace underneath, and her magnificent energy, she’s a powerhouse of magnetism.  She leads a company of dancers with such a drive.  Again, Spielberg uses the environment of these characters to build them up and Anita dueling with Bernardo during this song in broad daylight (as opposed to just an evening rooftop from the original) is sensational.  Clotheslines and soft fabrics of pink, yellow and blue even sway to the pounding drum of the number from Leonard Bernstein, along with Stephen Sondheim’s original lyrics.

Having seen this film twice, I now recall when I watched it the first time how inappropriate it really was to have Natalie Wood cast as Maria in Robert Wise’s film.  Beyond the fact that she was never an accomplished singer or dancer, she is certainly not the correct ethnicity.  Her skin complexion was actually bronzed for the role and she lip synched her dialogue and singing.  Obviously, she was a marquee name at the time and the bills had to be paid while profits were collected.  Still, what an insult to point of the piece.  West Side Story’s conflicts hinge on racial and ethnic divides.  With Spielberg’s film, he went so far as to not even include subtitles for the Spanish dialogue.  I don’t speak Spanish, and yet while I can not translate, I could understand the emotions and motivations among the Puerto Rican populace.  Why should subtitles be provided?  Why should whites play Hispanics?  It’s a disgrace to consider, especially in a film that relies on ethnic identity.  Often, the Puerto Ricans are reminded by the cops or among themselves to speak in English.  Yet they continue on with the primary language.  Bravo.  Just because the soon to be famed Lincoln Center will be erected on these grounds doesn’t erase a heritage.  You can not whitewash a culture within a melting pot, and you cannot change a mentality that really doesn’t need to be altered.  Puerto Rico is America and Puerto Rico, within the confines of this film’s New York is here to stay.  Spielberg, the Jewish, typically non-musical director, ensures an equal playing field among the divided cast.

The chemistry among the cast has to be celebrated.  The Jets and Sharks work in pitch perfect precision with one another.  You only need to watch the high school dance to recognize that.  Moreover, look at the balletic fight scenes among the Jets in blue and the Sharks in red.  Elgort and the physically much shorter Zegler work beautifully as a couple forbidden to love, much less talk with one another.  Spielberg makes up the odd height differential by placing Tony on a ladder below Maria, who stands assuredly on a balcony or simply by seating Tony while Maria stands, thereby allowing their duets to work nicely in sync as they beautifully gaze upon one another.

2021’s version of West Side Story is an absolute masterpiece.  It is one of Steven Spielberg’s best films.  It’s entertaining, funny, celebratory and authentically heartbreaking. It’s the film I never, ever realized was needed to be conceived again.  West Side Story was the very first stage musical – Broadway musical – I ever saw and it always remained my favorite.  Yet, until I finally saw what Steven Spielberg could do with West Side Story, I actually never realized I hadn’t seen all of West Side Story.


By Marc S. Sanders

The musical answer to Romeo & Juliet will always remain as one of my favorites.

West Side Story crackles with energy as soon as the 6 minute overture begins and segues into overhead shots of New York City accompanied by its frequent whistle calls. Then it zooms in for something new, fresh, and eye popping; precise choreography from Jerome Robbins to represent street fighting by means of heart racing ballet. You simply can’t take your eyes off the screen.

Young love and pride carry Robbins’ film with partnered direction from Robert Wise. It’s sadly amazing that the prejudices that shape the story are arguably more evident and profound nearly 60 years later. Tony & Maria must never be together. Change the names today, and the logic behind the societal law will often mirror the reasoning found in the film.

Am I focusing too much on that message though? There’s so much to cherish in West Side Story. A film that boasts numbers like “America,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Tonight,” “Stay Cool Boy,” “When You’re A Jet,” “Maria,” and my favorite “Officer Krupke.” It does not get much better than this.

The dancing lunges at the camera. The dialogue may be dated, yeah, but the cast is so genuine to the setting (even if Natalie Wood is lip syncing her songs).

Steven Spielberg has remade the film, to be released in December, 2021. I’ll go see it, sure. Yet I don’t believe it’ll compare to the original 1961 winner for Best Picture as well as the other 9 Oscars it was recognized for.

Go back and catch up with West Side Story. It should be seen by anyone who ever wanted to watch a great film.