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December 13, 2008

Delayed Happy Birthday, Rita Moreno

lola 1.jpg

I was hoping to do a more timely celebration of the birthday of the hottest 77 year old woman on earth. Due to error of not getting the right DVD on time, I will write a few words on the one film starring Rita Moreno that I saw the night of her birthday. I should say that it's what remains of what was a passable juvenile delinquent story that the bone-headed producer recut, inserting soft core nonsense in an effort to repackage a film whose time had come and gone.

Released in 1960, This Rebel Breed might be best described as a mash up of West Side Story and High School Confidential. What's missing is the colorful extravaganza, songs, dance and artistry of the former, and the unabashed nuttiness of the latter. What is left is melange of vaguely articulated thoughts about race and prejudice in a Los Angeles high school. The casting of Natalie Wood as a Puerto Rican in West Side Story has nothing on This Rebel Breed's Mark Damon, with very dark make-up, as a half African-American, half Chicano undercover cop. Damon and his white partner pretend to be high school students to infiltrate a couple of gangs, the Royals with the white kids, the Ebonies, being the black gang.

Rita Moreno is Lola, the bright daughter of a Mexican metal sculptor and his deceased white wife. Secretly, Lola is dating one of the members of the Royals. Damon attempts to ingratiate himself on Moreno, meanwhile being rejected by both the Ebonies, and the Chicano gang. What interest This Rebel Breed has is not in the story or the message which may or may not have been intended inversions on parts of West Side Story. What remains are early performances by actors who who be seen in better films: Richard Rust, Al Freeman, Jr, Hari Rhodes, and a scene stealing Diane Cannon as she was then billed. Like the aforementioned cast member, Moreno is better than the material she has to work with, which she carries with dignity.

lola 2.jpg

With an Oscar, a Tony, a Grammy and an Emmy, Rita Moreno should have been given more than supporting roles in films. Less accomplished performers have been given greater opportunities. Still, there are appearances in such films as The Ritz, I Like it Like That and The Lieutenant wore Skirts to savor.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 13, 2008 12:09 AM