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In this legendary Gershwin opera set among the black residents of a fishing village in 1912 South Carolina, Bess - a woman with a disreputable history - tries to break free from her brutish lover Crown after he becomes wanted for murder. The only person willing to overlook her past and offer her shelter is the crippled Porgy. Their relationship is threatened by the disapproval of the townspeople, the presence of her old drug supplier Sportin' Life - and the threatened return of Crown. Written by
The Seattle International Film Festival was fortunate enough to arrange a screening of a recently discovered 70mm print, going so far as to fly it in from Germany. It was a bit faded, the sound could stand to be remastered, scores of frames are missing, and it has German subtitles, but all in all it was a special treat to see a film unlikely ever to be made publicly available again.
But I'm rather mystified as to why the rights are still in dispute. There's nothing overly offensive here, neither politically nor artistically. Unfortunately, neglect and apathy are probably to blame... it must be said that, while notable, the film itself fails to fully communicate the passion of this most American of operas. It's more of a historical artifact now.
The audience was most delighted by Sammy Davis, Jr. in a role that seems to have been conceived specifically for him. Rarely has an actor been so perfectly suited for a part. Unfortunately, Mr. Davis' persona eventually overwhelms the character- but one can't be certain if this is due more to his actual performance or to the peculiar place our image of him now occupies in popular culture.
Sidney Poitier was 10-15 years too young for Porgy, but acquits himself nicely (though he is dubbed less than precisely). Dorothy Dandridge is just right- but is denied Bess' climatic scene, which takes place offscreen. Best of all is Pearl Bailey, who gets only a few chances to make an impression but takes full advantage of them. The scene in which she is interrogated by the policemen is so funny, it practically derails the movie.
The songs have been pared down, some making only a cursory appearance, and the staging is static. These choices, commercial in nature, rob the film of the power it should have. Perhaps another movie will one day do justice to the opera.
In this "Porgy and Bess", the portrait of Catfish Row is what is most moving. This community mourns, celebrates together and protects itself from outsiders. When the detective grumbles "nobody lives here", it's quite apparent why the inhabitants of Catfish Row would want him to believe that.
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