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Why You Can't See "Porgy And Bess"

by Sergio
April 25, 2011 2:07 AM
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A question that I seem to get asked a lot (Scout's honor) 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, directed by Otto Preminger and produced by independent Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn, has never been available on video in any format at any time.

With the exception of a special screening a few years ago in New York at the Ziegfield Theater , when a 70mm roadshow print of the film was shown twice over two days, the last time the film was actually seen by the public was when ABC Network showed it on the its Sunday Night Movie program back during the early 70's. As a result, the film is considered one of the great "lost" movies, an important film that somehow, has been lost and 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 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 arragements 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, haven't gotten along with each other, and both claim owership 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 licensisng release, as well as the required restoration has to be done by them.

But just between you, me and these four walls, I've actually recently seen the film since that ABC broadcast that I vaugely remember back then. (And I can't tell you how because that would be telling). But if you've been dying to see the film, I can tell you that you are bound to be very disappointed.

It's a stiff, unimaginatively directed and tedious film. Aside from being also horribly studio bound and stagy, the movie has no spark or energy, and the performances are basically umimpressive. Poitier is clearly uncomfortable in the role of Porgy, and Dandridge (in her last major film role) comes off as rather uninvolving.

Not surprisingly it's Sammy Davis Jr, literally leaping and bounding throughout the film, who injects any real life and charisma to the movie.

So if you're one of those holding your breath to see the film, you can breathe out. It's not coming anytime soon.

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  • lisa | June 12, 2014 11:53 PMReply

    I actually purchased a dvd online a few years ago and its an excellent copy, and I really enjoyed the movie quite a bit.

  • Roof Pounder | October 21, 2013 9:01 PMReply

    As a major Porgy and Bess fan, I had wanted to see this lost film for decades. Finally, someone gave me what must be a 200th generation duplicated DVD of it. The image is murky, to say the least, but better than nothing. The criticisms of the movie are justified, but there is certainly enough excellence in it to warrant its being shown and released. The trivia geek in me was thrilled to learn that the singer who dubbed Porgy's voice for Sidney Poirtier was Bobby McFerrin's father, Robert McFerrin Sr. Also, many years ago, while visiting South Carolina, I went to the location that served as the inspiration for "Catfish Row." It's actually called "Cabbage Row." Flanking the gated entrance are two book stores. One is called "Porgy" and the other "Bess."

  • ignace | June 20, 2013 3:44 PMReply

    You seem kind of young and very ignorant of apartheid in the late 50's.
    Storyline is opera and even cocacaine dealers then are potrayed very well by Sammy Davis Junior.
    Beutifull opera.
    Why is it forbidden ?
    Greetz Ignace

  • Damon L. Fordham | August 18, 2012 2:09 AMReply

    I for one enjoyed the film, especially Sammy Davis Jr. doing his thing as "Sportin Life."

  • Film Maven | September 24, 2011 11:55 AMReply

    A few slight points to make about your article. First, the print shown at the Ziegfeld a few years ago was a 35mm mag stereo roadshow print with Overture and Exit Music and not a 70mm. I know first hand because the owner of the print is a close friend on the west coast and I helped him prepare for the trip to the east as well as helped him project it in his screening room. He has screened the film for me a few times; once for no less than May Britt and Mark Davis, Sammy Davis Jr.s former wife and his son and Brock Peters shortly before his passing. Secondly, the film played on local television stations after the ABC network run. WPIX TV in New York ran this and several other Goldwyn films for years including the Danny Kaye films and The Best Years Of Our Lives. WPIX also used the original ABC TV trailer to promote it's airings. Once they ran it with only one commercial interruption and that was during the intermission.

    As for your opinion (and that's all it is), I respectfully disagree with you. While not a perfect picture, it is very entertaining and enjoyable. Sammy Davis is wonderful but so is Pearl Bailey, Dorothy Dandridge and Brock Peters. As for Mr. P. he had a lot of issues with Preminger and still disowns the picture. Pity because it was a popular film.

    Plans are underway to clear up the red tape and allow it to be seen again. DVD and theatrical as well.

  • Oxu | April 29, 2011 6:08 AMReply

    Interesting that you should choose to post this now. Seems random, but actually, there have been steps in place to remake it. Be on the look out.

  • Sergio | April 25, 2011 8:24 AMReply

    I don't recall ever seen it on the network. However is it possible that TCM got permission from one of the estates to show the show a few times on the network. Similar deals have been made for other films.

    However P & B hasn't been on TCM for quite a while. With the Poitier tribute is certainly is possible that permission to show the film will be given again because of the special event

  • bob hawk | April 25, 2011 7:27 AMReply

    I remember seeing a gorgeous (70mm?) print of P&B that screened at the Berlinale in 1999. I don't know what the rationale was for its inclusion, or how they got permission (or the print) -- it was a "Special Screening" in the Competition section -- but it did happen. And as cumbersome and "soundstagey" as it sometimes is (Otto Preminger did have a heavy hand), it sure has its moments of power and beauty. Sammy Davis almost steals the show. But it's also a rare opportunity to experience the stunning presence of Dorothy Dandridge -- and Brock Peters is a knockout as Crown.

  • Nadell | April 25, 2011 4:44 AMReply

    No wonder. I tried purchasing "Porgy & Bess" at Barnes and Noble years ago and received some knock-off of the original film.
    The tyrant that Preminger became and the difficult rather hate relationship b/w he and Dorothy Dandridge, I'm pretty sure the film wasn't the best. Could you imagine the strenuous atmosphere?
    But I'd still want to see it. Ms. Dandridge is a timeless legend!

  • @thejennabond | April 25, 2011 2:02 AMReply

    I have seen it several times on TCM since the mid 90s. Perhaps its just that Ted Turner owns the rights. Lincoln Center Film Society is honoring Sidney Poitier next week so its likely to come on the scene in NYC soon.

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