Thirty years ago, the Otto Preminger film version of the classic opera “Porgy and Bess” was withdrawn from circulation by the estate of George Gershwin, which controlled the music rights to the production. The Gershwin estate reportedly loathed the film and felt it made a mess of its original source. Three decades later, “Porgy and Bess” is still not available for public review, unless you count the number of bootleg videos based on 16mm prints, which is where this review came from.
Keeping a title out of circulation inevitably builds the curiosity surrounding it and “Porgy and Bess” has, in the past 30 years, somehow become elevated to a classic status thanks entirely to its elusive status. In watching the film today, however, it would seem that this classic status is wholly undeserved and the disappointment which met the film’s poorly-received premiere back in 1959 echoes loud and clear today.
Let’s cut to the chase: “Porgy and Bess” is a lousy movie suffering a bizarre case of schizophrenia. Producer Samuel Goldwyn was unwilling to gamble on bringing the full opera to the screen, so he had the work refashioned into a standard musical, with new dialogue bridging the gaps between some of the classics of the Gershwin score. But when the songs roll around, the film never knows if it wants to be an opera or a musical, so it divides itself between the two genres by offering several numbers in an operatic approach and several with a jazzy pop music feeling. The result is a cacophony which throws the entire production out of kilter.
The film further confuses matters by casting two gifted singer-actresses in Dorothy Dandridge and Diahann Carroll and then robs both women of their celebrated voices by dubbing in less-than-memorable soprano singers. This is especially egregious in the case of Ms. Carroll, who opens the film with the trademark “Summertime” but whose voice is replaced by one Loulie Jean Norman, who offers one of the most strikingly juiceless renditions of the timeless song ever recorded. Ms. Dandridge fairs somewhat better with Adele Addison’s dubbed soprano, though it is a shame she was not allowed to record the score in her own beloved singing voice.
If this wasn’t bad enough, “Porgy and Bess” cast non-musical Sidney Poitier as Porgy but provided him with the booming tenor of Robert McFerrin, whose singing voice bears absolutely no resemblance to Mr. Poitier’s speaking voice. Even more confusing is the disparity between dialogue and libretto: Mr. Poitier speaks his lines with the gloriously clear, concise diction and distinguished command of the language which always make his performances a treat, but when the music starts his character’s grasp on the language evaporates into the original broken English of the DuBose Heyward libretto (i.e., “Bess, You is My Woman Now”) which had African-American intellectuals cringing for so many years. Imagine Mr. Tibbs channeling the Kingfish from “Amos ‘n’ Andy” and you have some idea what’s happening here.
Rarely has a film been cast with so many gifted performers who are either wrong for their roles or are given nothing to do. As the title lovers, Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge are too Hollywood pretty and poised to adequately suggest the poor crippled beggar and his emotionally tortured lady. Sammy Davis Jr. co-stars as the libertine Sportin’ Life, and this would seem like perfect casting but his performance is little more than an extension of his too-familiar Rat Pack persona (complete with his swiveling walk and idiosyncratic hand gestures). As the villainous Crown, Brock Peters is a commanding physical presence but he never suggests the full visceral power of the sexually and psychologically volatile hoodlum whose jealousy brings ruin on everyone he encounters. Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll are also on hand in supporting roles, but neither has much to do except look on with indifference at the proceedings which swirl about them.
Otto Preminger was never the most imaginative filmmaker and his command of this material is less than thrilling. Musical numbers are frequently photographed in a stagy manner, with the actors remaining weighed down at center screen and emoting for a static camera. The few dance numbers are poorly staged by the usually reliable choreographer Hermes Pan, and the film’s supposed show stopper (Sammy Davis Jr.’s rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So”) is wrecked by having the camera placed too far away from the action while over-exuberant extras swing their arms and bodies without rhyme or reason in something which could hardly be called choreographed dancing.
When “Porgy and Bess” was first released, many critics (both white and black) denigrated the film’s portrayal of the African-American community. Of course, in 1959 the supporters of the nascent civil rights movement could not be pleased with an on-screen portrayal of African-Americans as crap-shooting, fried fish-gobbling, English-mangling poor folk who are happy in their poverty and second-class citizenship. Today, the image is no less pleasant to view, and without the full magic of the Gershwin music to distract from the politically incorrect story, “Porgy and Bess” comes down like a weird and out-of-touch relic from a less sophisticated time.
In the past couple of years, “Porgy and Bess” has been able to sneak back into a few movie projectors at festivals and non-theatrical venues; interest in the film has also been rekindled in the recent belated rediscovery of Dorothy Dandridge and her groundbreaking cinema career. It is still unavailable on home video and has not been seen on TV since it was withdrawn. But truth be told, having “Porgy and Bess” out of circulation is no great loss. Had it been available these past 30 years, the film would have inspired less interest than it currently enjoys in its elusive state.