Post-Cold War View on “West Side Story”

By Steven Baum

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Throughout October, Amherst Cinema will be screening three classic films from the 1950s: “Rebel Without a Cause,” “West Side Story,” and “Jailhouse Rock.” The films are being shown as part of an exhibition entitled, “The 1950s: Cold War Culture and the Birth of The Cool.” The reason behind the exhibition of these films is an experimental course being offered at Hampshire College this semester, which bears the same title as the exhibition. The course uses film, music, art, and other expressive mediums to explore and understand American culture in the 1950s. 

“The 1950s: Cold War Culture and the Birth of The Cool” is a course that offers a non-traditional look at mid-twentieth century America. The Amherst Cinema website explains how through lectures, film screenings, and small discussion groups, students enrolled in this class examine the social and cultural histories of the 1950s. The activities shed light on landmark developments of the era, including the atom bomb, McCarthyism, postwar Marxism, suburbanization, civil rights, immigration and ethnic assimilation, existentialism and other transformations of the postwar period.

The course is lead by a trio of professors who studied with concentrations in different areas: Michele Hardesty, an assistant professor of U.S. Literature, Karen Koehler, an assistant professor of Architectural History and Rebecca Miller, an associate professor of Music. The various academic disciplines, combined with the wide-array of mediums covered in the class, lead to an intricate and multi-angled look at the 1950s and how those years have come to shape and define modern life in America.

In conjunction with the course offerings, on October 22, Amherst Cinema will be showing “West Side Story,” which will feature an introduction and a discussion session led by Rebecca Miller following the film. Miller’s academic area of interest focuses on music as a culture and music in culture. In her introduction to the film, Miller will speak about the film score, written by Leonard Bernstein, as well as certain aspects of the film relating to the culture of the 1950s, including the representation of specific ethnic groups, the depictions of youths and authority figures, and how the music and choreography used in the film add to the dramatic story and amplify the plot-line.

The film is a musical adaptation of the classic story of Romeo and Juliette. The production was based on the book written by Ernest Lehman and directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. In the film, the feuding families from Shakespeare’s story are replaced by two rival New York City gangs – the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang led by Bernardo (George Chakiris), and the Jets, a white gang headed by Riff (Russ Tamblyn). While the war between the two gangs escalates, Tony, a former leader of the Jets, played by Richard Beymer and Maria, Bernardo’s sister, played by Natalie Wood meet each other and fall in love.

Following this classic plotline, the story is a masterpiece of wonderful songs, dancing and topnotch acting. The film swept the 1962 Academy Awards garnering 10 total Oscars including Best Picture and Best Musical Score among other awards for supporting acting, direction, cinematography, editing, sound, costume and art direction. All in all, it’s a must-see classic that continues to delight film-goers today.

“West Side Story” will be showing at Amherst Cinema on October 22 at 7 p.m. “Jailhouse Rock,” the third and final film of the series, will be shown on Thursday, October 29 at 7 p.m.

Steven Baum can be reached at [email protected]