Souvenir Book

         Very rare booklet









The Mess of Porgy and Bess

George Gershwin’s controversial homage to Catfish Row in the form of a gargantuan three-quarter folk opera, Porgy and Bess failed as a movie and why it did is very apparent. In The Hollywood Musical, author Ethan Mordden writes re the fatal distraction: “Gershwin’s line calls for extremely vital singing, the one thing dubbing can’t deliver, and this film was plenty dubbed. Opera movies never work. That kind of big—the full-out musicality of singer-public vocal communication—film cannot raise.” Excepting Rosi’s Bizets Carmen, possibly the finest movie ever made from an opera, Mordden’s right—dubbing, especially when combined with 1950s ultra-faked sets and deadened stylization, is an audience killer. Porgy and Bess had troubles from the start: producer Samuel Goldwyn originally hired Rouben Mamoulian to direct, on the basis he was the director who mounted the first major production of P and B back in 1935. (Walter Kerr wrote it was “so opulent that it had to lose money even at capacity.”) Fighting with Goldwyn, Mamoulian was replaced by Otto Preminger (who also replaced Mamoulian during the filming of Laura). Having previously done a fairly respectable job with Carmen Jones, and always wanting to film the Gershwin extravaganza but unable to secure the rights from the family, Otto ended up fighting bitterly with Goldwyn. The major clash was Otto not being eager to do his boss’s vision—a prestige soundstage opera as close as possible to the original presentation. Otto hoped to open up the monstrosity and give it some jazz, to keep it from becoming packed with actors lip-synching operatically as equivalent to blackface drag. Wasn’t an easy shoot for anyone: there was a fire (rumored to have been arson) which destroyed sets and costumes; Otto once again reprised his Hitlerian mode against some of the performers, particularly ugly to ex-lover Dorothy Dandridge; no actors in the cast except Sammy Davis, Jr. really wanted to be in it as they rightly objected to the libretto’s blatancy. Maybe more than anything else, the entire apparatus, toxically artifical from the start, turns into a TODD-AO minstrel in stupefying medium shot. Had Mike Todd not died a year before the release of P and B, he would have succumbed after taking in the static camera by Leon Shamroy cramping his beloved process. Viewers might feel pity for Otto in trying unsuccessfully to resolve the sticky dilemma of Sidney Poitier’s Porgy exiting on his knees in a small wagon pulled by a goat, if they could forget all the degradation coming before it. Some critics thought Gershwin arrogant and racist to write an intrinsically mockable black opera; others carped Goldwyn insisted on a reserved seat attraction, affordable in 1959 to predominantly white audiences. (The production cost $7,000,000; last reported gross was $3,500,000.) The Gershwin family hated the movie, condemning its Hollywoodization, and went to legal war trying to destroy the existing negative and all prints, including trailers. The Goldwyn camp wasn’t very thrilled by the final product, either. Therefore no authorized and restored DVD available and likely won’t be until death do the combatants part. Unverified reports: neither the 65mm negative is any longer useable nor a 70mm print from which to do a renovation. As of 2007, a decent 70mm print was somehow found and shown at an Innsbruck film festival, and later the same year and again in 2016 historian Foster Hirsch hosted a 35mm print, which, if given over to the restoration expertise of Robert Harris or David Strohmeier, might suffice.* Bummer bootlegs show up on ebay; a pathetic print is repeatedly uploaded to youtube until Warner Bros. claims copyright and demands removal. Some prints at 110 minutes, 115 minutes, others 138 minutes. Poitier is dubbed by Robert McFerrin, Dandridge dubbed by Adele Addison. With Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters and Diahann Carroll. Years later Carroll revealed she and Poitier fell in aduterous love during the shoot, split afterwards, resumed their affair while filming Paris Blues, then splitting again. (Opening 7/22/1959 at the McVickers, running 22 weeks.)

Oscar for best “scoring of a musical picture”; nominations for sound, Shamroy’s photography, Irene Sharaff’s costumes.

*There is recent news from Robert Harris over at Home Theatre Forum about a possible restoration.  

Text COPYRIGHT © 2002 RALPH BENNER (Revised 12/2022) All Rights Reserved.