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'Porgy and Bess': National Film Registry Selects Controversial & Hard-to-Find Black Musical

Porgy and Bess with Sidney Poitier Dorothy Dandridge: National Film Registry adds controversial black musicalPorgy and Bess with Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge: one of this year's additions to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. The final production in the career of Samuel Goldwyn (Dodsworth, The Best Years of Our Lives), the Otto Preminger-directed 1959 film version of George and Ira Gershwin, and DuBose Heyward's 1935 Broadway opera Porgy and Bess was a box office failure. Since Goldwyn's rights to the story expired in the 1970s, apart from a few special screenings the Gershwin estate has made Porgy and Bess all but unavailable for viewing. As a result, modern-day commentaries about the film, which received mixed reviews upon its release, are hard to come by.

'Porgy and Bess' & 'Bambi' + three Best Picture Oscar winners among Library of Congress' National Film Registry additions

Producer Samuel Goldwyn's final film, Porgy and Bess; Walt Disney's favorite among his films, Bambi; Charles Chaplin's silent comedy-drama The Kid; Howard Hawks' early screwball comedy Twentieth Century; and Best Picture Academy Award winners The Lost Weekend, The Silence of the Lambs, and Forrest Gump are among the 25 “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant American movies just added (December 2011) to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry.

As a costly, controversial, hard-to-find Hollywood musical dealing with social and racial issues, Porgy and Bess is this year's most notable addition.

'Porgy and Bess': Troubled stage-to-screen transfer

First staged by Rouben Mamoulian in 1935[1], George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, and Ira Gershwin's Broadway opera Porgy and Bess – about the relationship between two of the various dysfunctional denizens of a black fishing neighborhood in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 1900s – attained far greater success during its slimmed-down 1942 revival.

About 15 years later, The Best Years of Our Lives and Guys and Dolls producer Samuel Goldwyn hired Mamoulian to handle the film adaptation (the screenplay was credited to N. Richard Nash). Clashes with the veteran producer, however, led to the Queen Christina and Blood and Sand filmmaker being replaced by Otto Preminger.

After numerous other hurdles – costumes and sets destroyed by fire, skyrocketing costs, Mamoulian filing a wrongful termination case with the Directors GuildPorgy and Bess finally reached the screen in 1959, with Sidney Poitier as the crippled beggar Porgy and Dorothy Dandridge as the drug-addicted Bess.

Having two leads unable to sing was the least of Porgy and Bess's issues, as some deemed the $7 million (approximately $55 million in 2011) production to be both insensitive and demeaning to American blacks at a time when the Civil Rights Movement was gaining political traction across the United States.

'Cinematic monotony'

Perhaps even more damning, some reviewers found the Goldwyn-Preminger collaboration elaborately dull.

Porgy and Bess is only a moderate and intermittent success as a musical show,” opined Time magazine. “As an attempt to produce a great work of cinematic art, it is a sometimes ponderous failure.

“… On the colossal Todd-AO screen, Catfish Row [in Charleston] covers a territory that looks almost as big as a football field, and the action often feels about as intimate as a line play seen from the second tier. What the actors are saying or singing comes blaring out of a dozen stereophonic loudspeakers in such volume that the spectator almost continually feels trapped in the middle of a cheering section. The worst thing about Goldwyn's Porgy, though, is its cinematic monotony. The film is not so much a motion picture as a photographed opera.”

Box office misfire & Oscar nominations

Yet not every U.S. movie critic was as dismissive. In the New York Times, Bosley Crowther hosannaed:

The mills of the gods have ground slowly but they have ground exceeding well in delivering at last a fine film version of the famous folk opera Porgy and Bess. … this most haunting of American musical dramas has been transmitted on the screen in a way that does justice to its values and almost compensates for the long wait.

For this we can thank Samuel Goldwyn, who was finally able to convince the solemn guardians of this sacred theatre treasure that he was the man most competent to bring it to the screen. And we can also thank his corps of artists, who have so beautifully and tastefully evolved George Gershwin's musical translation of DuBose and Dorothy Heyward's play that we can almost feel the motion picture medium is the one for which it was destined all the time.

Unfortunately for the producer and his corps of artists, Crowther's praise was hardly enough to save the big-budget musical. As found in A. Scott Berg's Goldwyn, distributor “Columbia released the film with less than enthusiasm,” adding that Porgy and Bess ended up earning back only “half its cost.”

Bypassed for Best Picture, and in the directing, acting, and writing categories, Porgy and Bess was ultimately nominated for four Academy Awards for the way it looked and sounded: Best Cinematography, Color (Leon Shamroy); Best Costume Design, Color (Irene Sharaff); Best Sound (Gordon Sawyer & Fred Hynes); and Best Scoring of a Musical Picture (André Previn & Ken Darby).

In a year dominated by William Wyler's Ben-Hur, Previn and Darby were the only Porgy and Bess winners.

'Cultural & historical significance' or no, 'Porgy and Bess' remains unavailable for viewing

Now, who was right about Samuel Goldwyn and Otto Preminger's Porgy and Bess, Time or the New York Times?

Don't expect to come up with an answer anytime soon.

Reportedly due to the reluctance of the Gershwin estate, which has held the rights to the film since the 1970s, more than half a century after its original release Porgy and Bess remains – apart from a handful of special screenings – unavailable for viewing.

And National Film Registry listing or no, its “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significance or no, Goldwyn and Preminger's all-black musical will likely remain inaccessible in the foreseeable future.

In addition to Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge (who five years earlier had worked with Preminger in another all-black musical, Carmen Jones), the Porgy and Bess cast includes Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Sammy Davis Jr., and Brock Peters.

Bambi: Anti-hunting tract shows cruel bloodthirsty humans as threat to nature and by extension to the planetBambi & colorful friend. Supposedly Walt Disney's favorite among his studio's animated movies, Bambi is a heart-wrenching, nightmare-inducing, incurably traumatizing anti-hunting tract. The coming-of-age tale of a fawn who is forced to learn life's merciless lessons, Bambi presents those cruel, bloodthirsty, rifle-toting, two-legged creatures known as hunters – and, by extension, human beings in general – as a perverse, perverted, pernicious menace to nature and, by extension, long before the days of climate change awareness, to the planet itself. Directed/supervised by David Hand, Bambi is based on Felix Salten's 1923 novel Bambi, a Life in the Woods, originally published in Austria as Bambi: Eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Walde.

A young fawn & equally young Uncle Fester learn life's tough lessons + John Barrymore recreates Carole Lombard

According to the National Film Registry's press release, Bambi (1942) was Walt Disney's favorite among his studio's films. That's all fine, despite the fact that Bambi should get an NC-17 rating next time it's shown on TV or whenever it gets a new & improved DVD/Blu-ray release. The brutal murder of a terrified pheasant by a heartless hunter traumatized this viewer for life.

Charles Chaplin's The Kid (1921) was his first full-length directorial effort; Jackie Coogan – decades later, Uncle Fester in the television series The Addams Family – landed the title role. The leading lady role was played by frequent Chaplin collaborator Edna Purviance.

Along with another 1934 comedy release, Frank Capra's Best Picture Academy Award winner It Happened One Night, Twentieth Century officially launched the screwball comedy genre. John Barrymore and Carole Lombard starred as, respectively, a borderline demented, Svengali-esque Broadway impresario and a lingerie model whom he turns into a star.

The title Twentieth Century, by the way, refers not to the mid-1930s zeitgeist but to the New York City-Chicago train.

Trio of Best Picture Oscar winners

Directed by Billy Wilder for Paramount, The Lost Weekend (1945) earned Ray Milland the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of an out-of-control alcoholic – “latently” gay in Charles R. Jackson's novel; not so in the movie.

Besides giving a solid push to Milland's career, until then the Welsh-born actor was best known as a light comedy/romantic leading man, The Lost Weekend helped to turn his brunette leading lady, Jane Wyman, into a star – this after Wyman had been toiling away as a dumb blonde in supporting roles at Warner Bros for nearly ten years.

Jonathan Demme's horror thriller The Silence of the Lambs (1991) earned Oscars for both leads, Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster. A feel-good paean to idiocy and conformism, Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump (1994) unsurprisingly became a monumental box office hit in the mid-1990s, eventually earning Tom Hanks his second back-to-back Best Actor Oscar – coincidentally, he had won the previous year for Philadelphia, directed by Jonathan Demme.

Norma Rae Sally Field: National Film Registry strives to include movies about women and US ethnic minoritiesNorma Rae with Sally Field. The National Film Registry strives to find for its roster not only movies featuring U.S. ethnic minorities, but also movies revolving around female characters – especially those with a social/political bent. This year, one of the inductees was Martin Ritt's Best Picture Academy Award nominee Norma Rae, starring Sally Field as a North Carolina textile factory worker who, with the support of union organizer Ron Leibman, gets her fellow workers to join forces – much to the profound irritation of her bosses. For her efforts, TV's former Gidget, The Flying Nun, and The Girl with Something Extra (and, admittedly, Sybil), became a Best Actress Oscar winner and a well-regarded “serious” film actress. Field would receive a second Best Actress Oscar in early 1985, for her performance as another determined woman in Robert Benton's Places of the Heart.

More National Film Registry titles: 'Norma Rae' & 'The War of the Worlds'

Other titles added to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry this year include the following:

  • John Ford's silent epic Western The Iron Horse (1924), about the construction of the United States' first cross-country railroad. In the cast: George O'Brien and Madge Bellamy, who get the chance to find romance in the wide open spaces.
  • Byron Haskin's sci-fier The War of the Worlds (1953), about the destruction not only of the United States' railroads, but of everything else in the U.S. and elsewhere. Gene Barry and Ann Robinson witnessed it all.
  • John Cassavetes' Faces (1968), considered the first American independent movie to become a mainstream box office hit. In the cast: John Marley, Gena Rowlands, and Best Supporting Actor/Actress nominees Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin.
  • Martin Ritt's pro-organized labor Norma Rae (1979), which earned Sally Field – Tom Hanks' mother in Forrest Gump – her first Best Actress Oscar. (Her second one was for Robert Benton's Places in the Heart, 1984.)

U.S. ethnic minorities on film

Inevitably, the National Film Registry made room for films featuring ethnic minorities in the United States. Besides the aforementioned Porgy and Bess, added to the roster were:

  • The Frank Capra-produced World War II pro-racial tolerance documentary The Negro Soldier (1944), of interest partly because several of Capra's movies featured black stereotypes. The Negro Soldier was directed by Stuart Heisler, perhaps best known for the 1942 Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake crime drama The Glass Key.
  • Nicholas Brothers Family Home Movies (1930s–1940s), featuring dancers Fayard and Harold Nicholas.
  • Joan Micklin Silver's low-budget Hester Street (1975), which earned Carol Kane a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of a Central European Jewish immigrant.
  • Ramón Menéndez's Stand and Deliver (1988), which earned Edward James Olmos a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his dedicated high-school teacher.
  • Robert Rodriguez's student film El Mariachi (1992), set at the U.S.-Mexican border and purportedly made for $7,000.

Women on film

Besides the aforementioned Hester Street and Norma Rae, women are also at the forefront of the following National Film Registry selections:

  • Julia Reichert and Jim Klein's documentary Growing Up Female (1971), in which six women discuss their lives and the women's lib movement.
  • The recently deceased George Kuchar's experimental short I, an Actress (1977), which is available on YouTube.
  • Chick Strand's documentary Fake Fruit Factory (1986), about Mexican women who create ornamental papier-mâché fruits and vegetables.
The Big Heat Gloria Grahame: Possibly the most violent movie of its time + a sensational leading ladyThe Big Heat with Gloria Grahame doing what looks like a Carmen Miranda impersonation (minus the fruit salad). Quite possibly the most violent film of its era, Fritz Lang's 1953 crime drama The Big Heat features a deadly car explosion, ugly beatings, and a classic scalding coffee-throwing scene that leaves gangster's girl Gloria Grahame with a huge, horrifying scar on her face. Instead of waiting for some god or other – or the U.S. justice system, for that matter – to avenge the wrong done to her, the victim herself is the one to get even with coffee thrower and all-around psychopath Lee Marvin. It's truly a crime (bad pun intended) that Gloria Grahame wasn't at the very least nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award in a year topped by a fluffy Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.

Gays & lesbians not on film

It seems that no titles focusing on gay, lesbian, bisexual, multisexual, etc., or transgender characters were included on this year's National Film Registry roster. As so often happens, political correctness will only go so far.

Anyhow, more interesting than p.c. choices was the inclusion of these two titles:

  • A Cure for Pokeritis (1912), an early comedy starring John Bunny and Flora Finch, a popular (and odd) movie couple in the years before World War I. (John Bunny died in 1915.)
  • The Big Heat (1953), starring Glenn Ford in top form as a homicide police detective and a brilliant Gloria Grahame as a “gun moll.” Directed by Fritz Lang from a screenplay by Sydney Boehm (based on William P. McGivern's Saturday Evening Post serial, published in novel form in 1953), The Big Heat is possibly the best – and most disturbing – crime drama of the decade. Also in the cast: Marlon Brando's sister Jocelyn Brando as Ford's wife, Jeanette Nolan as a cop's widow, Dorothy Green as the same cop's mistress, and Alexander Scourby as a mob boss.

National Film Registry: Last batch

Here are the remaining National Film Registry 2011 titles:

  • George Nichols' socially conscious melodrama The Cry of the Children (1912), from an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem and featuring future filmmaker James Cruze (of the 1920s blockbuster The Covered Wagon).
  • Jordan Belson's five-minute 1961 short Allures, “inspired by Eastern spiritual thought.”
  • Robert Drew's Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963), about Governor George Wallace's attempt to prevent two black students from enrolling in the University of Alabama.
  • Pixar visual effects artist Ed Catmull's one-minute short A Computer Animated Hand (1972).

'Hopes and dreams'

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, who selected the 25 movies out of 2,228 titles submitted by the public, stated that “our film heritage must be protected because these cinematic treasures document our history and culture and reflect our hopes and dreams.”

It all sounds very, very nice. But in spite of my film lover credentials, it's hard to get excited about the National Film Registry choices. After all, who in their right mind is afraid that Paramount and Disney won't be “protecting” Forrest Gump and Bambi in the decades to come?

Meanwhile, hundreds of lesser-known but no less “culturally significant” American motion pictures – many of them feature films, which would be much more costly to preserve than one- or five-minute shorts – lie in vaults, some already rotting away for lack of preservation funds.

Additionally, no matter how lofty it sounds, the National Film Registry's mission to protect “our film heritage” for future generations doesn't necessarily mean the movies in question will be made available for viewing on DVD or VOD or cable TV or online.

Studios still own the rights to most post-1923 releases. If the vast majority of them are lying in a vault somewhere, the all-powerful suits couldn't care less.

But hey, one can always hope and dream that one day our hopes and dreams…


'Porgy and Bess' origins & Rouben Mamoulian

[1] The opera Porgy and Bess was based on the 1927 play Porgy, written by DuBose Heyward and his wife, Dorothy, and itself adapted from Heyward's 1926 novel of the same name.

Rouben Mamoulian was a renowned Broadway director. Besides Porgy and Bess, his credits included the opera's predecessor, Porgy, in addition to A Month in the Country (1930), A Farewell to Arms (1930), Oklahoma! (1943), Sadie Thompson (1944), and Carousel (1945).

Mamoulian's screen credits were no less prestigious. Besides Queen Christina (1933) and Blood and Sand (1941), there were, among others: Applause (1929), City Streets (1931), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Love Me Tonight (1932), Becky Sharp (1935), The Gay Desperado (1936), The Mark of Zorro (1940), and Silk Stockings (1957).


Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge Porgy and Bess image: Columbia Pictures.

Bambi image: Walt Disney Studios.

Sally Field Norma Rae image: 20th Century Fox.

Gloria Grahame The Big Heat image: Columbia Pictures.

'Porgy and Bess': National Film Registry Selects Controversial & Hard-to-Find Black Musical © 2004–2018 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).
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3 Comments to 'Porgy and Bess': National Film Registry Selects Controversial & Hard-to-Find Black Musical

  1. DC Lee

    Re: There's nothing “liberal” or “politically correct” about a little kid horrified by the slaughter of a beautiful creature. It's disturbing that anyone could think so.

    Your comment “…the brutal murder of a pheasant by a heartless hunter…” is both 100% “liberal” and “politically correct” crap trap of the first order. Don't try to say otherwise because, excuse an old hunting phrase that fits here, that dog won't hunt. Hunting pheasant is neither brutal nor heartless unless you are that type of liberal who would put any animal's life about a human's and are anti-gun to boot. And I would bet my last dollar you are guilty on all counts.

    Back in the 1960s my cousin was the only person of the liberal bent that I ever changed their mind. He was running with the anti-Vietnam War weather underground screaming at the top of his lungs for more and more gun control. I told, him if he got his way, the only people who would have guns would be the police, government and the military. “I never thought about that!” he exclaimed. To make a long story short, he is still a looney left coast liberal on everything except gun control.

    Oh well, I don't expect you to change but just know that your liberal view is not the only one even if when I disagree, you claim “It's disturbing that anyone could think so…” Be disturbed, old top, because I am by far not the only one who disagrees with you.

  2. Andre

    There's nothing “liberal” or “politically correct” about a little kid horrified by the slaughter of a beautiful creature. It's disturbing that anyone could think so.

    As for being eaten by worms, speak for yourself. There's another option: cremation.

  3. DC Lee

    Gadzooks! Not a word about “Man entering the forest” and killing Bambi's Mom? Your liberal politically correct attitude has no place in a non-political film review. Hunting has been around since Mankind enter the scene and will be here a long time after you and I have been eaten by worms.