Musicals don’t come any better than West Side Story, a brilliant re-imagining of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that freed the genre from the opulent event pictures that had dominated it in the 1950s. Robert Wise kept a steady hand on the tiller during a deeply troubled production — co-director Jerome Robbins suffered a breakdown midway through, though his stunning choreography remains intact — and for once, the tsunami of Oscars it collected was richly deserved. It opened today in 1961.
Disney’s animated classic The Jungle Book has suddenly found some stiff competition with the marvelous live-action version released earlier this year, and I confess that the older take earns more on nostalgia than quality of its own. But that doesn’t tarnish is status as one of Disney’s more enduring features — with fantastic voice work and some terrific songs to boot — and it remains the last movie that Walt Disney himself oversaw before his death. It opened today in 1967.
I’m closing these columns with a horror movie whenever possible this month to celebrate Halloween. We’ve got a doozy for today: Re-Animator, Brian Yuzna’s take on the H.P. Lovecraft short story. It was never considered one of the author’s best — even Lovecraft himself derided it as a pulp rip-off of Frankenstein — but in Yuzna’s hands, it became a dementedly unapologetic horror-comedy that gorehounds ate up with a spoon. Much of the credit goes to character actor Jeffrey Combs as the unhinged scientist in the middle of it all. If you liked his work in things like Star Trek and The Frighteners, you owe it to yourself to watch him tear it up here. Re-Animator opened today in 1985.