Porgy and Bess (1959)
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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.
I have no idea why there have been issues about this film.Whatever objections some groups may have or may still have to the showing of this film are just flat groundless.This film is beautiful.I do hope some kind people would think of the public and give this film back to us,be it on broadcast television or video.
I am sure that if this movie were to be released on videotape or DVD the public would just eat it up.Especially those of us with surround-sound systems.I can just imagine what a pleasure it would be to see and hear this movie at home on a big-screen and in surround sound.
Last night, an extremely rare, cobbled together print screened at the L.A. Cinematheque and it was a bit of a revelation. The performances are strong and memorable. Dorothy Dandridge brings a great deal of vulnerability, strength and subtle (at least by today's standards) eroticism to her part. Sidney Poitier is said to be uncomfortable with the movie, but his performance is terrific, as is Pearl Bailey. Even better are Sammy Davis as the amoral, cat-like Sportin' Life and Brock Peters as the villanious bully Crown.
Still, I'm no fan of Preminger's earlier, leaden -- and far easier to see -- "Carmen Jones." Porgy and Bess" is far superior to that less controversial film -- though that may have to do with the fact that the source material is also far superior.
As seen last night, this is a sturdy but far from perfect work. Not all of the moments quite come alive, and there is some awkwardness in the way the film mixes the overtly stylized Catfish Row set (beautifully done by Oliver Smith) with actual locations. Also, even to my rather untrained ear, some brief portions of the score seem unduly popularized.
Moreover, while this doesn't detract from the achievement of the filmmakers -- Preminger's decision to film almost entirely in wide shots, with no close-ups and occasional medium shots, no doubt rendered it unwatchable on TV "panned and scanned" and may doom it even on widescreen DVDs if it gets the restoration it deserves. On smaller screens, we won't be able to make out the many details that are crucial to the way Preminger staged the film.
Also, the mix heard last night was odd. Many of the vocals, particularly on the opening "Summertime" seemed unduly soft and were overwhelmed by the instrumental music. Perhaps this can be fixed in a restoration.
There is the issue of the film's racial politics. Personally, I see nothing wrong with it, at least in a contemporary context. At the time when so few films depicted strong African-American characters, this may have seemed an unfortunate choice for a big-budget Hollywood film. And, while there may not be much "empowering" here, these are recognizable human beings that are not racial stereotypes. These are operatic characters who make poor choices because that's what tragic characters do. That alone made it a giant stride forward at the time.
In a modern context where strong and heroic African-American characters are less rare (though still not common enough), these characters seem nothing more nor less than human. They truly could be poor and undereducated people of any ethnic background.
Thorny politics aside, the original work is undoubtedly one of the truly great achievements of American music and (secondarily) theater. Poitier, Davis, Dandridge, Peters and, yes Pearl Bailey, were all amazing performers who we'll never see the likes of again. This less than perfect but still solid film clearly deserves to be seen and treasured.
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.
I viewed this movie recently. The sound was excellent! The movie appeared to be complete, color and clarity was fare, but good considering how old this movie is without any repairs on frames. I agree with all prior positive reviews. I do not have any negative views.
I only would like to make one request. Please to whom it my concern, please make this movie available so all can have this historical experience.
Poitier does a good enough job as Porgy but the obvious dubbing of someone with a far deeper voice than he for the songs diminishes his impact. Dorothy Dandridge, Pearl Bailey and Sammy Davis Jr. all have more success with their characterizations but again the camera's distance and the obvious sets are no help to them.
The amazing music makes it worth watching once but the film is a disappointment.
Super actors (Dorothy Dandridge, Sidney Poitier, Brock Peters, Diahann Carroll, Pearl Bailey, Sammy Davis, Jr.), excellent designers (Oliver Smith's sets and Irene Sharaff's costumes), George and Ira Gershwin's music and lyrics overseen by Andre Previn, a director who often knew what he was doing (Otto Preminger) and a producer who usually knew (Samuel Goldwyn). And, yet, the thing never really comes alive.
I think the problem is that they were scared of the wide, wide screen and the camera is kept at a distance, so you never experience any of the drama subjectively, only objectively. Everything is long or medium shots except for 2 or 3 brief moments where you can really see the actors' faces. Maybe it works better on a big screen. But even then, the camera seems to be face level the whole time, like the way a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers dance number was filmed: always tracking horizontal, as if filming a stage show. If Vincente Minnelli had directed it, that camera would have probably been all over the place.
Several of the scenes that are sung in the opera are spoken here. That's not so bad, but, if I remember correctly, one of the famous arias, "My Man's Gone Now," is missing. Of course it isn't meant to be sung by Bess, so maybe it made sense to delete it.
Still, I've wanted to see it for a long time and was excited to finally get the chance.
The movie was given a deluxe roadshow (reserved seat) presentation in only the best theatres, complete with a souvenir program detailing the lavish care that had been taken with lighting and color, multi-track stereo sound, etc. Almost every black entertainer that we white people had any knowledge of was in the movie. Gershwin's music, superbly performed, and the sheer universal humanity of the story was tremendously moving.
I was recently able to obtain a faded copy of a two-hour cutting of the film, and repeated viewings have confirmed my opinion. Time has made what seemed steamy sex scenes in 1959 seem quite tame, but the musical quality has not diminished. Sammy Davis and Pearl Bailey are masterful in their portrayals. What a crime that the young black artists of today are unable to see these performers at the peak of their careers!
Disney is hesitating about releasing Song of the South. The NAACP has voiced no contest for race issues, and let us not forget Amos N Andy was a huge hit in the 50's as a TV series. Ethnicity is our heritage in the U.S., and we should embrace all forms of ethnic artistic diversity.
PLEASE RELEASE 'PORGY' ON DVD !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Then Sidney Poitier declined the role of "Porgy," feeling it too offensive and stereotypical for the late 50s. Story goes that Goldwyn threatened personally to ruin his film career if he refused.
Next the film's director was fired over artistic differences, and another director brought in. Nothing like keeping up the team's spirits.
The new director then turned out to have a professional and personal "grudge" against the leading lady, reportedly bullying and degrading her on the set, and leaving her in tears.
Then the operatic score--one that the composer spent two of the most dedicated years of his career working on, even down to meticulously orchestrating--was drastically modified. Out went the opera genre and in came musical theater--with spoken dialog. Two musicians were brought on staff to re-orchestrate the composer's masterful work. Was it any wonder the Gershwin Estate was horrified and reportedly tried to get the master 70 mm. print burned?
So much for purists' standards. What about the general public?
What most people saw--and loved--was the Goldwyn production as an entity itself. Most had no knowledge or appreciation for the above artistic/political/business factors. Bosley Crowther wrote in his NY Times review, that "Goldwyn's "P&B" is truly magnificent . . . should be seen at least a couple of times . . ."
Well, here we are in early 2006, and so far "P&B" is pretty much the sole hold-out for video, DVD, or even theater showings. Only an international film festival and museum, aided by a private collector and source from Germany, has come to the film's aid.
So we have a very troubled state of affairs, with the Gershwin Estate apparently holding firm in their loathing of this commercial representation of its American operatic "masterwork" with which the Estate's entrusted.
As for the future, stay tuned . . . with the Estate's future coming-of-age heirs as the potential bright light. Hopefully, the print won't be too faded and worn by then for effective restoration.
A Black Musical with all dialogue sung except white cast, adultery, brutality, "happy dust", murder, prostitution, poverty, shibboleths, - does it not cater to black stereotypes?
Quality on publicly available versions is abysmal due to Gershwin Family politics,
Watches like a stage opera transferred directly to the screen- lengthy, melodramatic, and static with long to medium shots; missing character intimacy,
Though some entertaining (dubbed) songs, suspenseful moments, and impressive performances from Dorothy Dandridge and Sammy Davis Jr.,
When even the cast and crew were vocal with their complaints and hesitations, how can viewers expect a bona fide success?
Gogyohka literally translates to "five-line poem." An alternative to the tanka form, the gogyohka has very simple rules. Five lines with one phrase per line. What comprises a phrase? Eye of the beholder- or the poet, in this case. #Gogyohka #PoemReview #AfricanAmerican #GoldenGlobesBestPicture #Musical #StageToScreen
That being said, Porgy and Bess is a beautiful film, even though half the cast is dubbed. Set in a poor town in1912 South Carolina, the sets and art direction manage to both transport the audience to the proper setting and give them the feeling that they're watching a show that used to be on the stage. Otto Preminger chose to capture the film mostly in long shots and long takes, adding to the authenticity and continuity for the audience. It's easy to get sucked in from the first scene, and the ending will come much too soon. I already knew a few of the songs, but even if you don't, the overture will get you hooked, and you'll hum your favorites after the credits roll.
Even though he normally has a beautiful voice and could have easily kept up with the opera singers around him, Sammy Davis Jr. chose to downplay his singing in the film. His big song "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York" could have been a showstopper, but his interpretation was more of a slimy, seedy weasel. It doesn't ruin the movie, though, since everyone else does such a good job.
I highly recommend watching Porgy and Bess if you like musicals and operas. I went into it not knowing one spec of the plot; I'd seen two five-second clips from AFI's 100 Years 100 Passions television special when I was twelve and had wanted to watch the captivating romance in its entirety. I searched far and wide for a copy for fifteen years, and when I finally saw it available, I watched it without delay, not even to read a plot synopsis. I loved it.
I was introduced to the show through the movie soundtrack, so to see it and get the visuals is an automatic plus. Then, add in most of the cast as well as the director of "Carmen Jones", and it's another look at the tragic lives of black characters shown every disadvantage outside of being made slaves again. If at all possible, Dorothy Dandridge's Bess is even more messed up than her soul destroying Carmen. Bess is a drug addict and alcoholic, abused by the murderous Crown (Brock Peters) and protected by the crippled Porgy (Sidney Poitier) at the darkest hours of her life.
Looking in on this tragedy are the opportunistic Sportin' Life (Sammy Davis Jr.), the big hearted Maria (Pearl Bailey) and the hopeful new mother Clara (Diahann Carroll), with the two women becoming friendly with the now sober Bess, seemingly happy and reformed with Crown on the run and finding momentary happiness with Porgy. A lack of closeups on the major players doesn't do the movie any favors, but the singers chosen to dub Poitier and Dandridge give a proper operatic feel. Only Davis and Bailey have the Broadway sound.
Set direction is incredible, costumes appropriate for how even a poor black community would dress for a community picnic. Like Porgy sings, you make the best out of what little you have, as the best things, like the stars in the sky, are all free. I don't find thus perfect, but available prints are nearly half an hour short. Fortunately what remains is a good majority of the music. It's difficult to judge the direction of Otto Preminger as the print is choppy. What's documented in "Inside Dorothy Dandridge" indicates that this was not a happy experience for her as the romantic past with director Preminger left her like Hayworth with "Gilda", as she was thought of as Carmen but was far more fragile than her or Bess. The lack of closeups indicate that time had been tough, which adds a bit of needed pathetic vulnerability to her role here. It's a worthy try, not deserving of destruction, but oh so needing that missing footage.
All I could say about the film is that I thought the musical performances were top notch and the story was perfectly dramatic, worthy to be on my "Favorite Musicals" list. So I say it again: I really love this movie; I still wish the movie was on DVD.