Musical Monday: Porgy and Bess (1959)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
Porgy and Bess (1959) – Musical #601

Studio: Samuel Goldwyn Studios

Director: Otto Preminger, Rouben Mamoulian (uncredited)

Starring: Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters, Diahann Carroll, Clarence Muse, Claude Atkins

Set in 1912 Charleston, SC, in a black fishing community, Crown (Brock) kills a man and when he flees, his girlfriend Bess (Dandridge) is left behind. Scorned by most of the community because of her past with drug abuse, Porgy (Poitier), who is a crippled beggar, takes Bess in. Bess and Porgy fall in love and she tries to turn her life around, but is tempted by Crown and drug dealer Sportin’ Life (Davis Jr).

• The film is based on a 1935 George Gershwin operatic Broadway play of the same title, which was based off the 1925 novel “Porgy” by DuBose Heyward.
• This film is the last film produced by Samuel Goldwyn. Goldwyn first tried to make the film in 1957 when he got the film rights, according to Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon by Aram Goudsouzian
• Harry Belafonte turned down the role of Porgy, as he felt it was demeaning, and encouraged Dorothy Dandridge to do the same, according to his book My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race, and Defiance by Harry Belafonte.
• Sidney Poitier declined the role of Porgy, because he didn’t like the stereotypes. ‘There is one too many crap games,’ he told the New York Amsterdam News. Goldwyn spun the story that Poitier was acting arrogant. He finally relented because he realized how powerful Goldwyn was and could ruin his career, according to Goudsouzian’s book.
• “Porgy and Bess” has not received an American commercial video release or been shown on television in more than 30 years due to copyright issues. The Gershwin estate currently owns the film.
• Sammy Davis Jr. campaigned and won the role, though Goldwyn wanted Cab Calloway, according to Goudsouzian’s book.
• Due to contractual reasons, Sammy Davis Jr’s voice couldn’t be used on the record, so Cab Calloway is on the film soundtrack.
• The only leads that did their own singing were Brock Peters, Sammy Davis Jr. and Pearl Bailey. The actors dubbed included:
– Dorothy Dandridge was dubbed by Adele Addison
– Loulie Jean Norman dubbed Diahann Carroll
– Robert McFerrin dubbed Sidney Poitier
– Inez Matthews dubbed Ruth Attaway
• Filmed in 70mm Todd-AO.
• Frank Capra, King Vidor and Elia Kazan all declined Goldwyn to work on the film, according to Goudsouzian’s book. Ruben Mamoulian took the project, and he directed the original plays “Porgy” and the first stage musical “Porgy and Bess.” Mamoulian was replaced by Otto Preminger as director.
• Before filming began, sound stage eight at Goldwyn Studios burned down, destroying the already built set for the film. Some suspected arson, though the cause of the fire was never discovered, according to Goudsouzian’s book.
• Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll met on the set of “Porgy and Bess” which began their nine-year affair, according to The Legs Are the Last to Go by Diahann Carroll

Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge in “Porgy and Bess”

Notable Songs:
• “Summertime” performed by Diahann Carroll, dubbed by Loulie Jean Norman
• “It Ain’t Necessarily So” performed by Sammy Davis, Jr. and the Ken Darby Singers
• “God and Me” performed by Brock Peters
• ‘Oh Lord, I’m On My Way” performed by Sidney Poitier dubbed by Robert McFerrin
• “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” performed by Sidney Poitier dubbed by Robert McFerrin and Dorothy Dandridge dubbed by Adele Addison
• “Oh I Can’t Sit Down” performed by Pearl Bailey
• “I Loves You Porgy” performed by Dorothy Dandridge dubbed by Adele Addison and Sidney Poitier dubbed by Robert McFerrin

My review:
“Porgy and Bess” (1959) that you may not have seen. That’s because it is tied up with copyright red tape.

So how did I see this musical film that has long eluded movie fans? I bought someone’s bootleg copy DVR off eBay for $11 so that I could finally see this movie.

And for a movie so long tucked away that you waited to see for years, you want to feel more excited about the film but I feel like I’m still processing how I felt about it. I didn’t love it and I didn’t hate it, but I also recognize issues with the film.

Set in the early 1900s, the leads all have some sort of problems: Bess, played by Dorothy Dandridge, has a drug problem and so does her abusive boyfriend Crown, played by Brock Peters. Porgy, played by Sidney Poitier, is crippled and a beggar. Sporting Life, played by Sammy Davis Jr., is a drug dealer. Many of the other community members are God-fearing individuals. Clara, played by Diahann Carroll, is probably one of the purest people in the community but dies in a hurricane when she runs into the storm realizing her husband has died. Maria, played by Pearl Bailey, almost looks after everyone and tries to protect Bess from Sporting Life.

While some of the characters have good merits, many of the characters have negative stereotypes such as drug use, prostitution, living unmarried, abusive behavior, drinking and gambling. Because of this, many black actors turned down lead roles in the film and were encouraged by their peers to turn them down. Poitier only took the role because he felt Goldwyn would ruin his career and many other actors signed on after Poitier joined the cast.

Though this film is filled with stereotypes, producer Samuel Goldwyn felt the film triumphed over prejudices and he donated $1,000 to the NAACP, according to the book Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon by Aram Goudsouzian. I don’t think many people would agree with him.

Because “Porgy and Bess” was an operetta, the songs describe how the characters feel about each other, what they are about to do, or convince other characters to do. Because of the high notes, I had a difficult time understanding what Poiter and Dandridge’s dubbers were saying, so I did feel like I was missing something until I read the lyrics.

Despite some of the leads being dubbed, it was a highlight to hear Pearl Bailey, Sammy Davis Jr. and Brock Peters perform. Wow, can Brock Peters sing! Peters was a bad guy in the film but he was my favorite to watch just because he had such a deep and powerful voice. Bailey and Davis were great to watch in this, but I felt like they were both wasted because they didn’t have much screentime.

Sammy Davis, Jr. in “Porgy and Bess”

Poitier and Dandridge also do well in this film, but I’m almost hesitant to praise them knowing that personally, they weren’t happy making the film. Poitier was called an “Uncle Tom” for taking the role. Dandridge formerly had an affair with director Otto Preminger. This romance was over, and Preminger treated Dandridge poorly on set, according to Harry Belafonte’s memoir.

The movie does have wonderful music, including the song “Summertime.” However, George Gershwin’s music is part of why you won’t see this movie easily today.

So let’s get back to why no one has ever seen this film. In 1974, Goldwyn’s company lost the rights they purchased in 1957. The rights went back to the Gershwin estate, which has never released the film. Turner Classic Movies has never even shown the film. If you are eager to see it, do like me and buy someone’s bootleg copy. Or hope and pray for it to be preserved and released.

It’s interesting to me, that this is why we can’t see the movie. Especially when “Summertime” has been sampled so often, including by the former band Sublime in the song “Doin’ Time.”

This is a melancholy musical with an uncertain ending. No one truly lives happily ever after, though you have hope.

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