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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 this movie 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.
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.
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.