Porgy and Bess

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 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, 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 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.

But just between you, me and these four walls, I’ve actually recently seen the film since that ABC broadcast that I vaguely 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 unimpressive. Poitier is clearly uncomfortable in the role of Porgy, and Dandridge (in her last major film role) comes off as rather dull.

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.