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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
I have always been a fan of this largely unseen filming of the Gershwin opera, since I last saw it in 1959. As many of you know, it has been unavailable on video or DVD; in fact, the Gershwin family sought to destroy all existing prints.
Yet, for some reason--hopefully signaling an end to its opposition, the Gershwin family recently approved the showing of a collector's print at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. .
Well, the wide-screen, Technicolor print was excellent! (Not perfect, but excellent.) The sound was outstanding, in road-show quality stereo. The folks who saw this in its original release wouldn't have seen a much better copy. (The program notes include the original Variety review, which cautions that people might balk at the steep limited-release ticket price of $3.50!)
And, as much as I loved it originally, PORGY AND BESS was better than I remembered it. It's just wonderful. Sidney Poitier as Porgy was at the point where his career was just beginning to catch fire, and his charisma shines through. Dorothy Dandridge as Bess is spectacularly beautiful. Brock Peters as Crown is aggressively masculine. Pearl Bailey as Maria provides a few comic moments, although her role is small. And Sammy Davis, Jr., as Sporting Life, steals every scene he's in; he's especially riveting in his two big numbers: "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "There's a Boat that's Leavin' Soon for New York." (That last one won applause in the screening I saw.)
PORGY AND BESS is set-bound, but it really doesn't matter when the set is as gorgeous as this one. The costumes are also outstanding.
Sidney and Dorothy's singing voices are dubbed in, but they are dubbed in extremely well. The exquisite "Summertime" is sung by Clara, played by a young Diahann Carroll; her singing also is dubbed. (Actually, only Pearl and Sammy do their own vocalizing.)
The music is sublime, of course, but what really struck me this time was how much emotion Preminger got out of the story. People were actually sniffling in the audience a number of times--once when Bess sings that beautiful "I Loves You Porgy." And I got a kick out of the audience actually laughing out loud at the lines in "It Ain't Necessarily So." Could it be they had never heard this song before-- or never really listened to it? I believe that much of the emotional impact of this film is due to Poiter and Dandridge's performances--you root for their love to win out.
A minor quibble with the 136 minute running time--one or two slow spot, and a stereotypical, Amos-n-Andy kind of scene about Bess seeing a shyster lawyer to get a divorce from Crown, even though she's not even married to him. (I would have cut that.) And the beginning is a little confusing--both title characters are introduced awkwardly--they're part of the movie before you realize who they are.
And I don't think Preminger used a single close-up in the entire movie. It all seems to be shot in 3/4, which I'm guessing was his way of working with the wide screen.
PORGY AND BESS has always been a cult film for those of us who saw it, for those of us who loved the soundtrack, and for some of us who have only heard about it. Let's hope they find a way to re-release this, and put it out on DVD. It deserves the widest audience possible.
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