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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
There are those who gripe that this is NOT the opera, but then they don't quibble with the film of CABARET that was not the original show either. All films of musicals/operas are and have to be "adaptations" or they don't work. CABARET took more liberties with the original show than did the film of PORGY AND BESS and yet it kept its original integrity, reworking the material, and is judged an artistic success. The same holds true for PORGY AND BESS- it reworked the opera into a dialogue/song libretto because audiences at the time loved musicals but stayed away from the few echt filmed operas. It would have been economical suicide for Preminger to produce a film of the opera - it would have lost a fortune for the Goldwyn Studios.
That said, this is a fine adaptation. The acting is excellent, the Oscar winning scoring of Andre Previn is magnificent, as is the choral singing, and the individual vocal achievements are incredible. Robert McFerrin (dad of popular musician Bobby McFerrin) dubbed Porgy and Adele Addison dubbed Bess. While Sammy Davis Jr. sang his own songs in the film, his recording contract would not permit his voice to be heard on the soundtrack album, so Cab Calloway recorded his numbers (spectacularly) for that release. Brock Peters' bass/baritone is extraordinary and Pearl Bailey is her own unique self. Diahann Carroll, although a singer of fine note, has the small role of Clara which required a high soprano, so old reliable Marni Nixon dubbed her singing.
The Gershwin Estate hates the film and refuses to grant the musical rights, although the dramatic rights are in the public domain. This sort of hate feud held up the video release of CAROUSEL for almost fifteen years (although in that case it was the dramatic rights that were in litigation) and is currently preventing both PORGY AND BESS and ANNIE GET YOUR GUN from being released on video.
Of all the stage productions given film versions, it is these latter two which are the sole holdouts to video. Only a campaign of letters to the Gershwin Estate in NY might loosen up the reserve.
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