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Porgy and Bess

Original poster
Directed by Otto Preminger
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn
Written by N. Richard Nash
Based on a libretto by DuBose Heyward
Starring Sidney Poitier
Dorothy Dandridge
Sammy Davis, Jr.
Pearl Bailey
Diahann Carroll
Brock Peters
Music by George Gershwin
Cinematography Leon Shamroy
Editing by Daniel Mandell
Studio The Samuel Goldwyn Company
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release date(s) June 24, 1959
Running time 138 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $7 million [1]

Porgy and Bess is a 1959 American musical film directed by Otto Preminger. The screenplay by N. Richard Nash is based on the libretto for the 1935 opera of the same name by DuBose Heyward, his 1925 novel Porgy, and the subsequent 1927 stage adaptation he co-wrote with his wife Dorothy. Ira Gershwin and Heyward wrote the lyrics for the songs composed by George Gershwin.

The project proved to be the last for Samuel Goldwyn, who had produced Wuthering Heights, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Guys and Dolls, among many others, during his lengthy career. Due to its controversial subject matter, the film was shown only briefly following its initial reserved seat engagements in major cities, where it drew mixed reviews from critics. Two months after its release, Goldwyn grudgingly conceded, "No one is waiting breathlessly for my next picture." [2]



Set in the early 1900s in the fictional Catfish Row section of Charleston, South Carolina, which serves as home to a black fishing community, the story focuses on the titular characters, crippled beggar Porgy, who travels about in a goat-drawn cart, and the drug-addicted Bess, who lives with stevedore Crown, the local bully. While high on cocaine supplied by Sportin' Life, Crown kills Robbins during a fight prompted by a dice game, and Bess urges him to flee. Sportin' Life suggests she accompany him to New York City, an offer Bess declines. She seeks refuge with her neighbors, all of whom refuse to help her. Porgy finally agrees to let her stay with him.

Bess and Porgy settle into domestic life together. During a church picnic on Kittiwah Island, Sportin' Life once again approaches Bess, but Porgy warns him to leave her alone. Crown, who has been hiding in the woods on the island, confronts Bess. She initially struggles to resist him but eventually succumbs to his advances and allows Crown to carry her off.

Two days later, Bess returns to Catfish Row in a state of delirium. When she recovers, she realizes she betrayed Porgy and begs his forgiveness. She admits she is unable to resist Crown and asks Porgy to protect her from him. Crown eventually returns to claim his woman, and when he draws his knife, Porgy strangles him. He is detained by the police merely to identify the body, but Sportin' Life, who has fed Bess cocaine, convinces her Porgy inadvertently will reveal himself to be the murderer. In her drugged state, she finally accepts his offer to take her to New York. When Porgy returns and discovers she is gone, he sets off to find her.


The original 1935 Broadway production of Porgy and Bess closed after only 124 performances. [3] A 1942 revival, [4] stripped of all recitative, fared slightly better, as did a subsequent national tour and another revival in 1953, [5] but in financial terms the work did not have a very good track record. Still, there were many who thought it had potential as a film. Otto Preminger was one of several producers, including Hal Wallis, Louis B. Mayer, Dore Schary, Anatole Litvak, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and Harry Cohn - who wanted to cast Fred Astaire, Al Jolson, and Rita Hayworth and have them perform in blackface - who had tried to secure the film rights without success. For twenty-five years, Ira Gershwin had resisted all offers, certain his brother's work would be "debased" by Hollywood. On May 8, 1957, he sold the rights to Samuel Goldwyn for $600,000 as a down payment against 10% of the film's gross receipts. [6][7][8]

When Langston Hughes, Goldwyn's first choice for screenwriter, proved to be unavailable, the producer approached Paul Osborn, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, Sidney Kingsley, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Clifford Odets, and Rod Serling, all of whom expressed varying degrees of interest but cited prior commitments. Goldwyn finally signed N. Richard Nash, who completed a lengthy first draft by December 1957. For director, Goldwyn sought Elia Kazan, Frank Capra, and King Vidor without success. He finally settled on Rouben Mamoulian, who had directed the original Broadway productions of both the play Porgy and its operatic adaptation. [9][10]

Because of its themes of fornication, drug addiction, prostitution, violence, and murder, Porgy and Bess proved to be difficult to cast. Many black actors felt the story did nothing but perpetuate negative stereotypes. Harry Belafonte thought the role of Porgy was demeaning and declined it. So many performers refused to participate in the project that Goldwyn actually considered Jackie Robinson, Sugar Ray Robinson and singer Clyde McPhatter for major roles. Only Las Vegas entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. expressed interest in appearing in the film, and went so far as to arrange an audition for Goldwyn during a party at Judy Garland's home. Ira Gershwin's wife Lee was present and, horrified by Davis' vulgarity, implored Goldwyn, "Swear on your life you'll never use him." The producer, who sneeringly called Davis "that monkey," assured her he would not cast him and offered the role of Sportin' Life to Cab Calloway instead. When Calloway declined, Davis had Frank Sinatra and some of his associates pressure Goldwyn, who finally announced to Davis, "The part is yours. Now will you get all these guys off my back?" [11][12]

Goldwyn offered Sidney Poitier $75,000 to portray Porgy. The actor had serious reservations about the role and turned it down, but his agent led Goldwyn to believe she could persuade her client to star in the film. She proved to be unsuccessful, and Goldwyn threatened to sue the actor for breaching an oral contract. When Poitier realized his refusal to star in Porgy might jeopardize his appearance in the Stanley Kramer film The Defiant Ones, he reconsidered and grudgingly accepted, assuring Goldwyn he would "do the part to the best of my ability - under the circumstances." [13][14]

Goldwyn's first and only choice for Bess was Dorothy Dandridge, who accepted the role without enthusiasm. Her Carmen Jones co-stars Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters, and Diahann Carroll also accepted roles, but all of them had concerns about how their characters would be portrayed. Bailey warned costume designer Irene Sharaff she would not wear any bandannas because she was unwilling to look like Aunt Jemima. [15][16]

Completing the primary creative team were production designer Oliver Smith, who recently had won the Tony Award for Best Scenic Design for My Fair Lady, and André Previn and Ken Darby, who would supervise the music. Because Poitier could not sing and the score was beyond Dandridge's range, their vocals would be dubbed, and Goldwyn insisted only black singers could be hired for the task. Leontyne Price, who had portrayed Bess in the 1953 Broadway revival, was invited to sing the role on film but responded, "No body, no voice." Adele Addison and Robert McFerrin eventually were hired, but neither received screen credit. [17][18]

A full-cast dress rehearsal was scheduled for July 3, 1958, but slightly after 4:00am a fire destroyed all the sets and costumes, a loss of $2 million. Rumors that the blaze had been started by black arsonists determined to shut down production immediately began to circulate. Goldwyn publicly denounced the story, although studio insiders were certain the fire had been set deliberately. The production was placed on hiatus for six weeks to allow for reconstruction. During this period, director Mamoulian repeatedly clashed with the producer about every aspect of the film, and Goldwyn fired him. William Wyler was willing to step in if Goldwyn could postpone the project for a few months, but the producer opted to replace Mamoulian with Otto Preminger, who had started preparing both Exodus and Anatomy of a Murder but was willing to set them aside for the opportunity to helm Porgy and Bess. Mamoulian was incensed not only that he had been dismissed after eight months of pre-production work, but that he had been replaced by Preminger, who in 1944 had taken over Laura when Mamoulian had ignored all of Preminger's directives as producer of that film. Claiming Goldwyn had fired him for "frivolous, spiteful, or dicatatorial reasons not pertinent to the director's skill or obligation," he brought his case to the Directors Guild of America, which notified all its members, including Preminger, they could not enter into a contract with Goldwyn. This prompted the Producers Guild of America to become involved. They insisted Goldwyn had the right to change directors and was not in breach of contract because he had paid Mamoulian in full. When Mamoulian changed tactics and attempted to raise charges of racism against Preminger, he lost any support he had managed to gather, and after three weeks the matter was resolved in favor of Goldwyn. [19][20]

The change of directors was stressful for Dandridge who, according to her manager, had ended an affair with Preminger when she became pregnant and he insisted she have an abortion. According to the director, he had ended his relationship with the actress because he was neither willing to marry her nor deal with her unstable emotions. In any event, Dandridge was unhappy and lacked self-assurance, especially when the director began to criticize her performance. She also had difficulty playing intimate scenes with her darker co-stars. Preminger referred to her problems with men of her own race as "the tragedy of Dorothy Dandridge. She was divorced from a black man who had fathered her retarded child. From then on she avoided black men." [21][22]

Preminger objected to the stylized sets and elaborate costumes - "You've got a two-dollar whore in a two-thousand-dollar dress," he admonished Goldwyn [23] - and wanted Previn to provide orchestrations favoring jazz rather than symphony, but the producer wanted the film to look and sound like the original Broadway production he had admired as much as possible. He grudgingly agreed to allow the director to film the picnic sequence on Venice Island near Stockton, but for the most part Preminger felt his creative instincts were stifled. Only in the area of actual filming did he exert complete control by shooting as little extra footage as possible so Goldwyn couldn't tamper with the film once it was completed. [24][25]

Principal photography ended on December 16, 1958. Columbia executives were unhappy with the film, particularly its downbeat ending, and one suggested it be changed to allow Porgy to walk. Goldwyn, however, was determined the film should be faithful to its source, going so far as to insist it be described as an "American folk opera" rather than a "musical" in all advertising. He opened the film on a reserved-seat basis at the Warner Theatre in New York City on June 24, 1959 and the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles on July 5. Shortly after opening in Atlanta in early August, the film's run there was cancelled because it angered some black viewers, and although the Atlanta Journal accused Goldwyn of censoring his own film, he pulled the film from several other areas throughout the country as well. [26][27]

The film earned back only half its $7 million cost. After a few television broadcasts in the mid-1970s, it virtually disappeared. Goldwyn's lease of the rights was only fifteen years, and after they expired, the film could not be shown without the permission of the Gershwin and Heyward estates, and even then only after substantial compensation was paid. Despite repeated requests, the Gershwin estate repeatedly refused to grant permission for the film to be seen. [28] It wasn't until 2007 that it was given a theatrical showing when, on September 26 and 27, the Ziegfeld Theatre in midtown-Manhattan presented it in its entirety, complete with overture and intermission and exit music, followed by a discussion with Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch. [29]


Critical reception

Bosley Crowther of the New York Times said the "most haunting of American musical dramas has been transmitted on the screen in a way that does justice to its values and almost compensates for the long wait . . . N. Richard Nash has adapted and Otto Preminger has directed a script that fairly bursts with continuous melodrama and the pregnant pressure of human emotions at absolute peaks . . . Mr. Preminger, with close and taut direction, keeps you keyed up for disaster all the time. To this structure of pictorial color and dramatic vitality, there is added a musical expression that is possibly the best this fine folk opera has ever had. Under André Previn's direction, the score is magnificently played and sung, with some of the most beautiful communication coming from the choral group . . . To be sure, there are some flaws in this production . . . But, for the most part, this is a stunning, exciting and moving film, packed with human emotions and cheerful and mournful melodies. It bids fair to be as much a classic on the screen as it is on the stage." [30]

Time observed, "Porgy and Bess is only a moderate and intermittent success as a musical show; as an attempt to produce a great work of cinematic art, it is a sometimes ponderous failure . . . On the stage the show has an intimate, itch-and-scratch-it folksiness that makes even the dull spots endearing. On the colossal Todd-AO screen, Catfish Row covers a territory that looks almost as big as a football field, and the action often feels about as intimate as a line play seen from the second tier. What the actors are saying or singing comes blaring out of a dozen stereophonic loudspeakers in such volume that the spectator almost continually feels trapped in the middle of a cheering section. The worst thing about Goldwyn's Porgy, though, is its cinematic monotony. The film is not so much a motion picture as a photographed opera . . . Still, there are some good things about the show. Sammy Davis Jr., looking like an absurd Harlemization of Chico Marx, makes a wonderfully silly stinker out of Sportin' Life. The singing is generally good — particularly the comic bits by Pearl Bailey and the ballads by Adele Addison . . . And the color photography gains a remarkable lushness through the use of filters, though in time . . . the spectator may get tired of the sensation that he is watching the picture through amber-colored sunglasses." [31]

Channel 4 noted, "That it stands as an entertaining spectacle and the director's best musical is secondary in interest to the Hollywood politics surrounding it." [32]

Awards and nominations

André Previn and Ken Darby won the Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. Leon Shamroy was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography (Color) but lost to Robert Surtees for Ben-Hur. Irene Sharaff was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Costume Design (Color) but lost to Elizabeth Haffenden for Ben-Hur. Gordon Sawyer and Fred Hynes were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Sound but lost to Franklin Milton for Ben-Hur.

The film won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy. Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge were nominated in the musical/comedy performance category but lost to Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe, both for Some Like It Hot.

N. Richard Nash was nominated for the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Written American Musical but lost to Robert Smith, Jack Rose, and Melville Shavelson for The Five Pennies. [33]

The film's soundtrack album won the Grammy Award for Best Sound Track Album or Recording of Original Cast From a Motion Picture or Television.


  1. ^ Hirsch, Foster, Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King. New York: Alfred A. Knopf 2007. ISBN 978-0-375-41373-5, p. 296
  2. ^ Berg, A. Scott, Goldwyn: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1989. ISBN 0-394-51059-3, p. 488
  3. ^ Porgy and Bess (1935) at the Internet Broadway Database
  4. ^ Porgy and Bess (1942) at the Internet Broadway Database
  5. ^ Porgy and Bess (1953) at the Internet Broadway Database
  6. ^ Alpert, Hollis, The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess: The Story of an American Classic. New York: Knopf 1990. ISBN 0-394-58339-6, p. 259
  7. ^ Hirsch, p. 285
  8. ^ Berg, p. 478
  9. ^ Hirsch, p. 286
  10. ^ Berg, p. 478-479
  11. ^ Hirsch, pp. 286-288
  12. ^ Berg, p. 479-481
  13. ^ Hirsch, p. 286
  14. ^ Berg, pp. 480-481
  15. ^ Hirsch, p. 287
  16. ^ Berg, p. 482
  17. ^ Hirsch, p. 288
  18. ^ Berg, p. 482
  19. ^ Hirsch, p. 288-289
  20. ^ Berg, pp. 484-486
  21. ^ Preminger, Otto, Preminger: An Autobiography. New York: Doubleday 1977. ISBN 0-385-03480-6, p. 138
  22. ^ Hirsch, pp. 291-292
  23. ^ Berg, p. 486
  24. ^ Marx, Arthur, Goldwyn: A Biography of the Man Behind the Myth. New York: Norton 1976. ISBN 0-393-07497-8, p. 350
  25. ^ Hirsch, pp. 289-290
  26. ^ Hirsch, pp. 294-296
  27. ^ Berg, p. 487
  28. ^ Hirsch, p. 296
  29. ^
  30. ^ New York Times review
  31. ^ Time review
  32. ^ Channel 4 review
  33. ^ Writers Guild of America archives

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