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Rare Production Photos From 'Porgy & Bess' 1959 Film Set + Talk Of A Re-Release & Remake

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by Tambay A. Obenson
November 25, 2013 12:24 PM
4 Comments
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Otto Preminger's 1959 big screen adaptation of the Gershwin/DuBose Heyward opera Porgy and Bess is currently resting among the nation’s treasures in the world’s largest archive of film, TV and sound recordings.

The 1959 film is one of 25 films that was inducted for preservation in the 2011 National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, selected because they are deemend “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant.

The production and after-life of Preminger's Porgy And Bess, which starred Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge, was controversial, as you might expect (its recent Broadway revival starring Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in the title roles also wasn't without its share of controversy); The 1959 film was made during some very sensitive times in this country's history, and several black American actors reportedly turned down roles in the film because they were considered demeaning. Notably, Harry Belafonte who was offered the role of Porgy (before Poitier), turned it down, stating, “in this period of our social development, I doubt that it is healthy to expose certain images of the Negro. In a period of calm, perhaps this picture could be viewed historically.”  

I can't say that we're in a period of *calm* yet but, as Sergio noted in a mid-2011 post on the film, the film has rarely been screened in recent years, thanks to some rights issues.

The basic fact is that, through a contractual agreement, the rights to the film reverted back to the Gershwin estate from producer Goldwyn, and the estate has kept the film under tight wraps since then, not allowing it to be seen anywhere. Reportedly the estate was never happy with the film version, since a lot of the original music was cut out, and they were also very displeased with the orchestral arrangements [...] It turns out that there are actually two different Gershwin estates that, reportedly, haven't gotten along with each other, and both claim ownership of the film. Furthermore, there's also an issue involving MGM. Years ago, the studio bought ancillary rights to most of Goldwyn's films, claiming Porgy and Bess as well, and the studio has made claims that any DVD or cable licensing release, as well as the required restoration, has to be done by them.

Sergio also shared that he'd seen the film, and wasn't impressed with it, calling it "stiff, unimaginatively directed and tedious.

Announced earlier this year, a "re-envisioned" contemporary film version of Porgy And Bess is in development, with producers Mike Medavoy and Bobby Geisler at the helm, and the Gershwin family and estate of lyricist DuBose Heyward, directly involved, which they are hoping will be "a lot better" than the 1959 film starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge, directed by Otto Preminger.

No writer and director have been announced yet, with Marc George Gershwin, nephew of the Gershwin brothers, stating that “we’re confident that [producer Mike Medavoy] is going to able to find the right director and writer.

As for who might direct this reimagining, I should note that Spike Lee has long been trying to bring a film adaptation of Porgy And Bess to the big screen, but hasn't been successful, although he seems to have gotten close as recently as last year, when he revealed in an interview with The Playlist (while doing press for Red Hook Summer) that talks with the Gershwin estate fell apart at the very last minute after lots of "back and forth."

Although he did later say that he was still negotiating to bring Porgy And Bess to the screen.

"That's still in the works. As a film not a play [...] Yeah I want to make it, but I'm in long discussions with both estates [...] There have been musical elements in my films, but I've been wanting to do a straight up musical for many, many years," he said, adding that the rights issues were "very tricky."

The obvious question here is whether Spike's negotiations with the Gershwins overlap this year's new developments with producers Mike Medavoy and Bobby Geisler. Or if the Gershwins are no longer interested in negotiating with Spike on bringing the film to life, and have moved on to Medavoy and Geisler, who clearly have been granted rights, as development of the film begins. 

Might Spike be chosen to direct the film? 

The fact that he'd been trying to get the project off the ground for as long as 10 years is interesting, and I'd like to know what all the negotiating included, especially over such a long period of time. What was Spike asking the estates for, and/or why were the estates seemingly hesitant to grant him the rights he needed to get the film produced?

While we wait for either the original 1959 Preminger film, or for the recently-announced remake to come to a theater near you, or to be released on Blu-ray/DVD/VOD, Life magazine revealed some never-before-seen on-set images of Preminger's 1959 production, featuring the film's cast and crew in action. For those who've never seen any footage from the film (myself included), this may be as close as you'll get in the meantime.

Here are 5 of them. There are 22 in total. To see the remaining 17, click HERE.


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4 Comments

  • Josh | July 2, 2014 11:39 PMReply

    I would love to see Fantasia play the role of Bess. I think she would be perfect.

  • Roof Pounder | November 27, 2013 11:39 AMReply

    I have a bootleg of Porgy and Bess and its poor quality makes it almost unwatchable. I would definitely buy a decent copy if it were made available. That said, aside from a few strong highlights, I agree with Sergio's assessment that as a film, it lacks energy and a cinematic flair. After seeing the recent updated-for-modern-sensibilities Broadway revival, I think it would be great to have someone like Spike Lee or its Broadway director Diane Paulus make a new film version, but I realize it might be a tough sell.

  • T.M. | November 26, 2013 11:04 AMReply

    "Porgy and Bess" was a staple of our family viewing when I was growing up in NYC...WPIX Channel 11 would show it every year...Thoroughly enjoyed the film; it's a classic. There are sellers on Amazon who sell the bootleg, but I've heard the quality is REAL bad and the last 15 minutes of the film are missing...I hope the Gershwin estate comes to their senses and allows the film to be released...A whole generation is missing out on a fantastic film...

  • ankh entertainment | November 25, 2013 3:49 PMReply

    We have done some intense research on Hammerstein composed Porgy and Bess.
    We discovered that due to the fact of African American aka black composers were not allowed to
    put their names on their works. Therefore white composers stole quite a few pieces from famed African American Dean of Composer's, William Grant Still, who according to his latest book wrote
    and composed Porgy & Bess. Would love for this to he further researched and exposed to the public. Would love to hear the truth and find out why the lies were told initially. Anyone up for further research. His only living daughter to our knowledge is still around and manages his estate.

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