- On Acevedo-Muñoz’s West Side Story as Cinema: The Making and Impact of an American Masterpiece
Which titles deserve to be designated in the category of “Jewish film”? Those that are done in languages like Yiddish or Hebrew would easily make the cut, perhaps even if done by Hebrew-speaking Israeli Arab directors and scenarists. Documentaries of Jewish life would normally be included, but not those the Nazis produced depicting the Warsaw Ghetto or the concentration camp of Theresienstadt. To list The Führer Gives the Jews a City as a Jewish film would be grotesque. That also goes for movies made in the Third Reich, like Jud Süss (Veit Harlan, Germany, 1940), a deliberate rebuttal of the novel by Lion Feuchtwanger, a Jewish refugee from Nazism. The taxonomy should make room, however, for the works of all sorts of Gentile directors who portray Jewish characters, whether Norman Jewison (Fiddler on the Roof; USA, 1971) or Ted Kotchef (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz; Canada, 1974). Special consideration might be given to films that might have directly engaged the Jewish condition but didn’t. In The Life of Emile Zola (William Dieterle, USA, 1937), for example, the letter “J” on a dossier, next to the name of Alfred Dreyfus, is the only hint of the genesis of the frame-up that would rock France.
Perhaps the most intellectually intriguing subset would embrace films bereft [End Page 221] of any overt or explicit Jewish content. But if the major creative figures in such cinematic endeavors are Jews, a distinctive sensibility might nevertheless be detected; a singular ethnic stance might somehow be fathomed. Here the strongest instance is Casablanca (USA, 1942), directed by Michael Curtiz (né Kertész Kaminer Manó) and written by Philip and Julius Epstein and Howard Koch. The filmmakers informed the audience of the high price imposed on the United States for its policy of isolation, as a world war raged on three continents; and Michael Walsh’s crafty novel, As Time Goes By (1998), by imagining the backstory to the film, clinches the case by making saloon-keeper Richard (Rick) Blaine Jewish. Another opportunity for inclusion as a Jewish film is West Side Story (Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise, USA, 1961), the subject of this informative and engaging book, West Side Story as Cinema: The Making and Impact of an American Masterpiece.
When the musical West Side Story opened on stage in New York City in 1957, the generalization offered later in Spamalot was validated: “You just won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.” Jerome Robbins (né Rabinowitz) conceived, directed, and choreographed the show. Arthur Laurents, who first achieved success with a play exposing bigotry (Home of the Brave), wrote the book of West Side Story. Its lyrics are credited to Stephen Sondheim, but composer Leonard Bernstein was his collaborator. (In a striking but characteristic gesture, Bernstein gave the twenty-seven-year-old Sondheim sole credit so that he could advance his own remarkable career.) It was hardly unusual for Jews like Harold Prince to co-produce a Broadway show. But even the first actor to play Tony, Larry Kert, was Jewish. Perhaps their commitment to a musical that portrays the high cost of hattred was not coincidental. Perhaps such a message had special meaning for Jews who had managed to live through the most devastating demographic—and cultural and moral—loss in the modern history of their people.
Ernesto R. Acevedo-Muñoz, who teaches film studies at the University of Colorado, is not especially attentive to the changes recorded in translating the play to the film, which was released four years later. He focuses more on structural and technical features of the movie rather than the interpretive issues it raises. Robbins signed on as co-director with Robert Wise (who was not Jewish), and the challenge they met was formal. How could they reconcile the imperative of “realism” (ethnic conflict...