Monday, June 22, 2009

There's A Place For Us

When TigerBlog stumbled upon "West Side Story" on TV the other night, his first thoughts were usually the same when he sees the movie:

1) you could never make a movie like that today; any Hollywood producer would laugh you out of his office. Despite that, "West Side Story" won 10 Oscars and is ranked as the No. 2 musical of all time by the American Film Institute.

2) TigerBlog can't help but think back to the time his high school put on its own production of "West Side Story," in which BrotherBlog played "Doc" because he couldn't sing or dance. Also, TB's best friend then (and now) Corey Zucker played one of the Jets. This was in 1979, TB recalls, and it wasn't until at least 1990 that Corey stopped walking around whistling the tune from the prologue and snapping his fingers to it.

A few days before seeing "West Side Story," TigerBlog saw another favorite movie from awhile ago, the original version of "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three." That movie features the crusty railroad supervisor's great line: "what do they expect for 35 cents, to live forever?" Of course, the New York City subway today costs $2.00.

Anyway, "West Side Story" was released in October 1961; "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" was released 13 years later in the same month.

While the all-male student body at Princeton was looking around Central Jersey for a date to take to see the musical love story that had just been released, the Princeton football team, coached by Dick Colman, was reveling in its 9-3 win over Penn four days earlier. Princeton that year went 5-4 in football, including 5-2 in the Ivy League.

The Ivy League awarded 19 championships in the 1961-62 academic year, and Princeton teams – perhaps distracted by having everyone around humming "Tonight, Tonight" – won only two of them, in lacrosse and tennis. In fact, the best athlete at Princeton that year wasn't a varsity athlete at all but instead a member of the freshman baseball and basketball teams from Crystal City, Missouri named Bill Bradley.

To watch "West Side Story" is to be reminded of the time in which it was released, a time when the country could still be enthralled by an old-fashioned movie musical. It was a time of peace, of suburban expansion, a time when probably fewer than 10% of Princeton students could have picked out North and South Vietnam on a map. Princeton itself was still years away from co-education, and the Civil Rights movement and then the women's movement were just starting to reach their most dramatic moments. John Kennedy (then the President, in a world was more "Camelot" than "West Side Story" at the time) Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were all alive.

Fast forward 13 years, and much had changed. A look at the difference between the two movies, both set in New York, shows that. "West Side Story" depicts a New York City that is completely fictionalized, with empty streets and caricatures of locations. "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" shows realistic street and subway scenes. In "WSS," the gang members wear jackets and ties to a rumble; the costumes and hair in "Pelham" show how the early 1970s were a time of uncertainty, of mistrust of institutions, a time of individual expression.

Even Princeton looked completely different by 1974. Princeton now had women students and its earliest women athletes, a group that TigerBlog often refers to as "pioneers." The Ivy League awarded championships in 24 sports in 1974-75, 22 of which were for men's sports and two of which were for women's sports.

Princeton teams won four championships in 1974-75, including a women's basketball championship that became the first of many women's Ivy titles in school history. The other three championship teams were tennis again, as well as a three-way tie for the men's squash title a co-championship in men's fencing.

It's amazing to sit here now and think about the fact that the Ivy League would award 22 men's championships and two women's championships. Today, there are 33 Ivy League sports, 17 for men and 16 for women. Beyond just that, women's teams in the early days of the 1970s had inferior uniforms, facilities, athletic training, sports information and any other kind of support compared to men's teams.

TigerBlog has interviewed many of those early women athletes, many of whom are proud of their role in the evolution of equality in athletics here and some of whom are angry about what they endured. The idea that Princeton's administration would even undertake that kind of policy today is unthinkable.

Another movie that was on TV last week was "Yankee Doodle Dandy," a 1942 release with James Cagney as George M. Cohan. It's another TigerBlog favorite, but don't get TB started on Princeton athletics back then, though it's a fascinating subject as teams began to reflect the realities of World War II.

No, for today, we'll stick with a movie from 1961 and a movie from 1974. Oh, and TigerBlog has not seen the remake of "Pelham," with Denzel Washington, John Travolta and Tony Soprano, that has just been released, but it can't possibly be as good as the original. Not without Walter Matthau.


Anonymous said...

Tony Soprano or James Gandolfini?

Princeton OAC said...

TigerBlog called him "Tony Soprano" on purpose, sort of as a way of pointing out that he'll be known forever for his role on that show. As TigerBlog pointed out earlier, "The Sopranos" is up there with "Hill Street Blues" and "The Odd Couple" as the greatest shows of all time.