Dorothy Dandridge and Pearl Bailey were also reluctant to be in the film, until they heard that Poitier and Sammy Davis, Jr. were going to be in it. Sammy Davis, Jr. was the only one of the four leads who was actually eager to play his role in the movie.
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Producer Samuel Goldwyn was notorious for "playing with film" during the editing stages. Director Otto Preminger resented Goldwyn's meddling in the film editing, so he shot nearly all of it in long takes, with the camera panning in and out and the camera angles seldom changing during takes. There were also few close-ups, and none of the kinds of close-ups found in non-widescreen films. This effectively prevented Goldwyn from incorporating his own photography ideas into the film. Preminger's approach was precisely the opposite of Trevor Nunn, who shot his 1993 videotape television version of "Porgy and Bess" in the style of a non-widescreen film.
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Originally bought as a film property by Columbia Pictures in 1942 to star an all-white cast in blackface: Al Jolson as Porgy, Rita Hayworth as Bess, and Fred Astaire as Sportin' Life. When that proved unrealistic, the property was sold to Twentieth Century Fox, where it was hoped to have been a follow-up to Stormy Weather (1943). Rouben Mamoulian (who directed the original Broadway play) was announced as director and the following cast was announced: Paul Robeson as Porgy, Lena Horne as Bess, Hattie McDaniel as Maria, Canada Lee as Crown, Cab Calloway as Sportin' Life, and Fredi Washington as Clara. When Horne proved to be unavailable after Stormy Weather (1943), and Robeson clashed with Darryl F. Zanuck due to his political beliefs following the filming of Tales of Manhattan (1942), the film was shelved until 1957 when it was bought by Samuel Goldwyn.
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Sidney Poitier's singing voice was dubbed by opera singer Robert McFerrin (father of pop singer, classical conductor, and composer Bobby McFerrin).
The Gershwin family was dissatisfied with the film, largely because it was not staged as a true opera with all the recitative performed musically, and also because the two leads had their singing voices dubbed. The film's original director, Rouben Mamoulian, wanted to film on-location, but producer Samuel Goldwyn refused and insisted on using soundstages. When a mysterious fire broke out and destroyed the sets, Mamoulian again requested that the film be made on-location. Enraged, Goldwyn felt that Mamoulian was taking advantage of a misfortune, promptly fired him, and hired Otto Preminger, who made the film on soundstages in Hollywood. The film is currently (Nov. 2002) withheld from release because of actions by both the Gershwin and Goldwyn estates, as neither Samuel Goldwyn nor the Gershwin family were satisfied with the film.
Pearl Bailey agreed to take part in the film so long as costumer Irene Sharaff understood that she refused to wear a bandanna because it smacked of "Aunt Jemima". Later, when the women chorus singers lined up for the first costume review, Pearl Bailey created havoc by screaming "No one is going to wear a bandanna in any picture I'm in!" A compromise was reached whereby only a few of the women at a time would wear bandannas.
Sidney Poitier had adamantly refused to take the role of Porgy when offered it by Samuel Goldwyn because he felt it perpetuated stereotypes of blacks of a bygone era. However, he was convinced to accept the project by friends and colleagues because a refusal of a Samuel Goldwyn offer would probably have ended his career in films.
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Due to rights issues, and the failure of the Gershwin and Goldwyn families to come to an agreement, this has never been given a home video release.
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Sammy Davis, Jr. sings and acts the role of Sportin' Life in the film, but his vocals could not be used on Columbia Records' soundtrack album because he had an exclusive contract with Decca. Another legendary Sportin' Life, Cab Calloway, recorded his renditions of the songs for posterity, singing to the film's orchestral and choral tracks. Meantime, Davis released his own pop album in which he sang not only the songs of his own character, but many of Porgy's as well. The only commercial release of Davis' soundtrack recordings, in abridged form, is on the long out-of-print promotional LP Samuel Goldwyn Presents.
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Two days before filming was slated to begin, a fire broke out and destroyed most of the costumes, props, and sketches.
For the film's screenplay, screenwriter N. Richard Nash simply converted much of the opera's sung recitative into spoken dialogue, although he did add several lines of his own. He even retained many of the same lines word-for-word. The recitative in "Porgy and Bess" is especially easy to turn into spoken dialogue because, unlike the main musical numbers, it closely follows the pattern of ordinary conversation, and does not rhyme.
One of only two widescreen films produced by Samuel Goldwyn; the other one was Guys and Dolls (1955).
This was the last film to be produced by Samuel Goldwyn.
Although passed by the British Board of Film Censors on February 10, 1960, the London premiere did not take place until October 2, 1962. The reason for the delay was attributed to Samuel Goldwyn's insistence that it be presented in Todd-AO, fearing that optical reduction to 35mm might spoil the effect. The only London cinema with the right equipment was the Dominion, who were running South Pacific (1958) for a record-breaking four years. When Porgy and Bess was finally allowed to take over, it ran for twenty-three weeks at the Dominion, then transferred to the Columbia, Shaftesbury Avenue, for a further five weeks.
The "Morning Sounds" scene in the film's final sequence, in which street noises are heard and gradually combine to form a dance rhythm, had previously been seen on the screen in the film Love Me Tonight (1932), which was directed by Rouben Mamoulian, who was the original director of this "Porgy and Bess". Mamoulian had also staged the sequence in the 1927 non-musical play "Porgy", which was the basis for "Porgy and Bess", and in the original 1935 stage version of the opera, both of which he also directed. It is the only sequence directed by Mamoulian which remains in the 1959 film. Other productions of "Porgy and Bess", although retaining the song "Good Mornin' Sistuh", have not retained the "Morning Sounds" sequence because it was Mamoulian's idea, not Gershwin's.
Samuel Goldwyn bought the rights in May 1957 with the full intention of making it his final production.
This was the second time Otto Preminger replaced Rouben Mamoulian as director, following Laura (1944).
Claude Akins and Sidney Poitier appeared in The Defiant Ones (1958).
Premiered on network television in April 1967 on ABC. It was later shown on independent stations until the early 1980s, when it was withdrawn from circulation. A restored print was shown in New York City shortly before the Ziegfeld Theatre was closed as a movie house.
According to the November 7, 1957 issue of Jet Magazine, the film's producers were interested in R&B singer Clyde McPhatter for the role of Sportin' Life.
The film's renditions of "Summertime" by Loulie Jean Norman (dubbing Diahann Carroll) and Adele Addison (dubbing Dorothy Dandridge) have placed at #52 in the AFI's (American Film Institute) list of the 100 Best Movie Songs of All Time.
Elia Kazan, Frank Capra, and King Vidor all turned down the opportunity to direct.
Reputedly, Frank Sinatra put considerable pressure on Samuel Goldwyn and Otto Preminger to cast Sammy Davis, Jr.
According to the book "My Lunches with Orson", Orson Welles was offered to direct the film, but declined as he would've had to adjust to the same shooting style that Samuel Goldwyn wanted of bright lights constantly on the actors and actresses.
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Opened at the Warner Theatre, New York City on 24 June 1959 and according to the New York Times review then had a running time of 146 minutes plus intermission. Most other release times are given as 138 minutes. The print submitted to the British Board of Film Censors has been logged in their records at 170 minutes 24 seconds, calculated from a stated footage of 15,336 feet. However, somebody at the BBFC overlooked the fact that 70mm film with its bigger frames travels at 112.5 feet per minute, not the 35mm speed of 90 feet per minute. So the BBFC copy would have been 136 minutes and 19 seconds. When the film opened in London the Monthly Film Bulletin announced the footage and time as 15,470 feet (70mm) and 138 minutes.
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After plans for any provincial road show failed to materialize, the UK general release was announced on the ABC circuit from 26 May 1963. Disappointingly, the film ran only one week in big cities and three days in most smaller towns. Curiously, in Buxton, Derbyshire it was chosen for a midnight charity premiere on Friday, 17 May 1963 in aid of the C.T.B.F. and the N.S.P.C.C.
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Contrary to the filming locations shown in this entry, Nichelle Nichols recalls in her 1994 autobiography Beyond Uhura that the Kittiwah Island picnic was filmed in Arizona. Indeed, Nichelle particularly remembers that it was on the plane to Arizona that Sammy Davis Jr. first asked her out for dinner.
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As of 2020, the only existent prints of Porgy and Bess (1959) run 116 minutes, with twelve minutes of the original running time missing, nearly all of it dialogue. The musical numbers remain, with the exception of "My Man's Gone Now."
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