Porgy and Bess (film)

Porgy and Bess is a 1959 American musical film directed by Otto Preminger. It is based on the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, and Ira Gershwin, which is in turn based on Heyward's 1925 novel Porgy, as well as Heyward's subsequent 1927 non-musical stage adaptation, co-written with his wife Dorothy. The screenplay for the film, which turned the operatic recitatives into spoken dialogue, was very closely based on the opera and was written by N. Richard Nash.

Porgy and Bess
Original poster
Directed byOtto Preminger
Produced bySamuel Goldwyn
Written byN. Richard Nash
Based onPorgy and Bess by
DuBose Heyward
StarringSidney Poitier
Dorothy Dandridge
Sammy Davis Jr.
Music byGeorge Gershwin
Lyrics by
Ira Gershwin
Music supervised and conducted by
André Previn
CinematographyLeon Shamroy
Edited byDaniel Mandell
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
  • June 24, 1959 (1959-06-24)
Running time
138 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$7 million[1]
Box office$3.5 million[2]

The project was the last for Samuel Goldwyn. 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."[3]

The film is not available on home video, and it is unknown if a quality print still exists, prompting it to be considered one of the most prestigious and expensively produced "missing films."[2]

In 2011, the film was chosen for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.


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 title 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 after the latter vanquishes him in a craps game; Bess urges Crown 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 and soon fall in love. Just before a church picnic on Kittiwah Island, Sportin' Life once again approaches Bess, but Porgy warns him to leave her alone. Bess wishes to stay with Porgy, since he cannot attend the picnic because of his disability, but he urges her to go. After the picnic ends, and before Bess can leave, Crown, who has been hiding in the woods on the island, confronts her. She initially struggles to resist him but Crown rapes her. The others, not knowing exactly what has happened, leave and return to the mainland.

Two days later, Bess returns to Catfish Row in a state of delirium. When she recovers, she remembers what happened. Feeling that she betrayed Porgy, she 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.


With Diahann Carroll's death on October 4th 2019, Sidney Poitier is the only living principal cast member.


The original 1935 Broadway production of Porgy and Bess closed after only 124 performances.[4] A 1942 revival,[5] stripped of all recitative, fared slightly better, as did a subsequent national tour and another revival in 1953,[6] 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 had tried to secure the film rights without success. Cohn even wanted to cast Fred Astaire, Al Jolson, and Rita Hayworth and have them perform in blackface, something to which the Gershwin estate was vehemently opposed.[notes 1] For 25 years, Ira Gershwin had resisted all offers, certain that his brother's work would be "debased" by Hollywood. Finally, 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.[7][8][9]

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.[10][11]

Nash's screenplay changed virtually all of the sung recitative to spoken dialogue, as in the 1942 stage revival. For example, in the original opera, Porgy sings the line "If there weren't no Crown, Bess, if there was only just you and Porgy, what then?", upon which Bess launches into the duet I Loves You Porgy. In the film, the line is spoken. The recitatives themselves did not have to really be rewritten, because they do not rhyme, while the words in all the songs do.

Because of its themes of fornication, drug addiction, prostitution, violence, and murder, Porgy and Bess proved 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, disregarding their total lack of acting experience. Only Las Vegas entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. expressed interest in appearing in the film, and arranged to audition for a role 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?"[12][13]

Goldwyn offered Sidney Poitier $75,000 to portray Porgy. The actor had serious reservations about the role and initially turned it down, but his agent led Goldwyn to believe she could persuade her client to star in the film. This proved 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 that he would "do the part to the best of my ability - under the circumstances."[10][14]

Mezzo Muriel Smith, co-creator (double-cast with soprano Muriel Rahn) of the Broadway title role in Oscar Hammerstein's Carmen Jones, and creator of the role of Bloody Mary in the original London cast of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific, whose more important movie ghost-singing assignments included dubbing for Zsa Zsa Gabor in John Huston's original film version of Moulin Rouge (1952) and for Juanita Hall in the film version of South Pacific (1958), turned down Samuel Goldwyn's offer to portray Bess, responding that the work "Doesn't do right by my people." This statement contradicts another that Samuel 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 that 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 that only black singers could be hired for the task. Leontyne Price, who had portrayed Bess in the 1952 European tour and the acclaimed 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.[16][17]

Despite Goldwyn's intention that the music sound as much like it did in the original opera as possible, he did allow Previn and his team to completely rescore and even change the underscoring heard during the fight scenes and at several other moments, as well as in the overture to the film.

A full-cast dress rehearsal was scheduled for July 3, 1958, but slightly after 4:00 am, a fire destroyed all of the sets and costumes, at 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 this rumor, although studio insiders were certain that 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, leading Goldwyn to fire 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 already started preparing both Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Exodus (1960), 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 had taken over Laura (1944) when Mamoulian had ignored all of Preminger's directives as producer of that film. Claiming Goldwyn had fired him for "frivolous, spiteful, or dictatorial 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, that 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.[18][19] Mamoulian later tried to get his credit on the film, but the Screen Directors Guild voted to give sole credit to Preminger.[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.

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.[21] He also wanted Previn to provide orchestrations favoring jazz rather than symphony, but the producer wanted the film to look and sound as much like the original Broadway production he had admired 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.[22][23]

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.

Release and reception

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."[24]

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."[25]

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."[26]

Theatrical release

The film opened 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.[27][28]

The film was commercially unsuccessful, earning back only half its $7 million cost.

Television and home media

It was broadcast on network television only once - Sunday night, March 5, 1967, on ABC-TV (during a week that also saw a rebroadcast of a TV adaptation of Brigadoon, as well as the first telecast of Hal Holbrook's one-man show Mark Twain Tonight!).[29] The 1959 Porgy and Bess has not been seen in its entirety on network TV since, although clips have been shown on some of the American Film Institute specials. The film had multiple presentations during the 1970s on Los Angeles local television, KTLA-TV, Channel 5, an independent station with access to the Goldwyn Studios output, most likely using the special pan and scan 35mm print which was made for the ABC-TV network presentation, as was KTLA-TV's practice.[notes 2]

Unavailability of prints

Goldwyn's lease of the rights was only 15 years. 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.[30]

Prints of the film are "beyond rare" and the film has been called "the holy grail of missing movies." Though bootleg copies are available, it is not known if a complete, quality print exists. Michael Strunsky, the trustee and executor of the Ira Gershwin Musical Estate, told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017 that Ira Gershwin and his wife, Leonore, viewed the film as a "piece of shit" and directed Goldwyn to destroy all remaining films 20 years after release, as was their right. However, Michael Feinstein, who was Ira Gershwin's assistant, denies that this ever happened.[2]

A faded 70mm print with faulty 6-track magnetic sound and German subtitles has been discovered and was screened for the opening of the 22. International Film Festival Innsbruck.

It wasn't until 2007 that it was given a theatrical showing again when, on September 26 and 27, the Ziegfeld Theatre in midtown-Manhattan presented it in its entirety, complete with overture, intermission and exit music, followed by a discussion with Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch.[31][2]

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 E. Sawyer and Fred Hynes were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Sound, but lost to Franklin Milton for Ben-Hur.[32]

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.

An official CD of the film's soundtrack was released in Germany and most likely also the Netherlands in 1989. This CD is near impossible to find and commands high prices in the collector market. Earlier in the 1970s, a stereo 7-1/2 ips reel-to-reel tape of the soundtrack was released.

In 2011, Porgy and Bess was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.[34] The Registry noted the film's production history, a period when "the civil rights movement gained momentum and a number of African-American actors turned down roles they considered demeaning," but that, over time, it was "now considered an 'overlooked masterpiece' by one contemporary scholar".[34]


  1. The Gershwin estate stipulated that unless it was absolutely impossible given very unusual circumstances, Porgy and Bess must always be performed by real African-Americans.
  2. KTLA and competitor KHJ-TV telecast 35mm prints in preference to 16mm prints.

See also


  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. Masters, Kim (February 23, 2017). "David Geffen, Samuel Goldwyn and the Search for the "Holy Grail" of Missing Movies". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved February 2, 2019.
  3. Berg, A. Scott, Goldwyn: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1989. ISBN 0-394-51059-3, p. 488
  4. Porgy and Bess (1935) at the Internet Broadway Database
  5. Porgy and Bess (1942) at the Internet Broadway Database
  6. Porgy and Bess (1953) at the Internet Broadway Database
  7. 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
  8. Hirsch, p. 285
  9. Berg, p. 478
  10. Hirsch, p. 286
  11. Berg, p. 478-479
  12. Hirsch, pp. 286-288
  13. Berg, p. 479-481
  14. Berg, pp. 480-481
  15. Hirsch, p. 287
  16. Berg, p. 482
  17. Hirsch, p. 288
  18. Hirsch, p. 288-289
  19. Berg, pp. 484-486
  20. "Preminger, Undivided". Variety. February 11, 1959. p. 7. Retrieved July 6, 2019 via Archive.org.
  21. Berg, p. 486
  22. Marx, Arthur, Goldwyn: A Biography of the Man Behind the Myth. New York: Norton 1976. ISBN 0-393-07497-8, p. 350
  23. Hirsch, pp. 289-290
  24. New York Times review
  25. Time review
  26. Channel 4 review
  27. Hirsch, pp. 294-296
  28. Berg, p. 487
  29. "Television, Theater, Records, Cinema". Time. March 3, 1967.
  30. Hirsch, p. 296
  31. TheaterMania.com
  32. "The 32nd Academy Awards (1960) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 2011-08-21.
  33. "Writers Guild of America archives". Archived from the original on 2006-10-01.
  34. "2011 National Film Registry More Than a Box of Chocolates". Library of Congress. December 28, 2011. Retrieved December 29, 2011.
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