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Why You Still Can’t See That 'Porgy and Bess' Movie Starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge

by Sergio
May 29, 2014 10:20 AM
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Porgy and Bess

Considering that I first wrote about this three years ago and, as I mentioned in my piece below about Maya Angeiou’s screenplay for Georgia Georgia, that her actual first film appearance was as an uncredited dancer in this film, I thought, why not revisit it?

And besides, a question that gets asked a lot is, why hasn't the 1959 film version of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess been shown or seen anywhere for, literally, decades?

Furthermore, the film, starring Sidney Poitier as Porgy, Dorothy Dandridge as Bess, and Sammy Davis Jr. as Sportin' Life (pictured above) directed by Otto Preminger, and produced by independent Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn, has never been available on video in any format at any time... Well, not exactly; but I’ll get to that in a second.

With the exception of a special screening every few years, somewhere in the world, such as in New York at the Ziegfield Theater back in 2007, in Seattle around 2008 (a reportedly a rare 70MM print from Europe), and in Switzerland a few years ago, the last time the film was actually seen by the public at large was when the ABC Network showed it as a Sunday Night Movie, during the late 60’s. It was also broadcast in the early 70’s on a local TV station KTLA in Los Angeles, which had access to the Goldwyn film library for a brief while.

And that’s about it. 

No, the film has never been shown on TV since then, and for anyone who claims that they’ve seen it on Turner Classic Movies or some other cable channel, your mind is playing tricks on you (I called TCM to check, and they confirmed that they have never broadcast the film).

Yes, there are some crummy pan and scan bootleg copies, and I have read of a supposedly good looking German DVD of the film in its correct aspect ratio, but in a severely trimmed 115 minute version from the longer original 138 minute cut, and without its overture, intermission and the exit music.

There is also a 35MM print in excellent shape, and a 4 track steno magnetic track at the UCLA archive library, but that is never loaned out for any screenings.

I know it’s all confusing, and, as a result, the film is considered one of the great "lost" movies - an important film that, somehow, has been unavailable to the public.

So why? 

Well, it's pretty simple. The basic fact is that, through a contractual agreement, the rights to the film reverted back to the Gershwin estate, from the Goldwyn company, in 1974, and the estate has kept the film underwraps since then, rarely allowing it to be seen anywhere except for very special occasions. 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 of the music.

But actually it's a bit more complicated than that. It turns out that there are actually two different Gershwin estates that, reportedly, have never 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 the 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. However, that too has gotten rather complicated since Warner Bros now owns the Goldwyn library, so they now rightfully could make the same claims that MGM used to.

If there is one bright spot, for those who are still hoping to see the film, the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress selected it in 2011 for preservation, saying that it was "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant," and an “overlooked masterpiece."

So maybe after the preservation work is done, there might finally be an opportunity for the public at large to see the film. 

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  • Ken | May 30, 2014 10:16 AMReply

    Thank you for this story. I had just always assumed that it was not shown because of all its racism.

    I think you should be aware that the film was shown "regularly" (my guess is about once a year) on a local station, WPIX channel 11, in the NYC area. I believe it was part of a "network" that showed the great Goldwyn films like this, "Pride of the Yankees" and "Hans Christian Andersen." I think it may have been called the SFM Network. You mention in the article rights changing hands in 1974. My guess is that is when WPIX stopped showing it as well.

  • Traci R. | May 29, 2014 8:58 PMReply

    LOL, I got it bootlegged on my MacBook.

  • Filmloverladyeo | May 29, 2014 7:16 PMReply

    Good. This film as well as the play should be lost forever.

    I will never forget my first time seeing this disparaging, racist trash as an adult. My mouth dropped open. I couldn't believe what I was watching. The three main male characters are a pimp, a drug dealer and a cripple (not that there is anything wrong with the physically challenged; but it was symbolic of how white society saw Black men - downtrodden and weak or criminal and violent) . The female character is a prostitute! Without the music, which is admittedly great, this would be a play/movie long forgotten or the object of a picket-line whenever and wherever it is played. The storyline of "Porgy and Bess" is a horrible relic from the days when Hollywood and most of white America were openly racist and sought to depict Black folks and Black culture in the most despicable and degrading manner.

    Personally, I say burn all copies of the film and shred all evidence of the play!

  • Alias | May 29, 2014 10:51 PM

    I wonder what Mr. Poitier thinks about this movie all these years later. It would be fascinating to hear him speak about it. ...Additionally, I bet Tony Goldwyn (aka President Fitzgerald Grant on "Scandal") could also provide some interesting insight into this since he's the grandson of Samuel Goldwyn. It would be nice of one of S&A's intrepid blogger/researcher/writers followed up on this story.

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