'Porgy and Bess' Film: Controversial Black Musical on National Film Registry

Porgy and Bess film Sidney Poitier Dorothy Dandridge: Controversial black musical National RegistryPorgy and Bess film version with Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge: one of this year's additions to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. Samuel Goldwyn's final production, the Otto Preminger-directed 1959 version of George and Ira Gershwin, and DuBose Heyward's 1935 Broadway opera Porgy and Bess received mixed reviews and 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 the Porgy and Bess film all but unavailable for viewing. As a result, modern-day commentaries about it are hard to come by.

'Porgy and Bess' film & 'Bambi' + three Best Picture Oscar winners: National Film Registry additions

Samuel Goldwyn's final production, the 1959 Porgy and Bess film version; 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, Goldwyn's Porgy and Bess film adaptation is this year's most notable addition.

'Porgy and Bess' film version: 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.”

Porgy and Bess film Dorothy Dandridge. First (part-)black female Hollywood starPorgy and Bess film with Dorothy Dandridge. A remarkable talent, singer/actress Dorothy Dandridge became a Hollywood star – and the first (part-)black Best Actress Oscar nominee – after playing the title role in Carmen Jones, Otto Preminger's 1954 film adaptation of Oscar Hammerstein II's Broadway musical, itself inspired by Georges Bizet's opera Carmen. Three years later, Dandridge was seen in one of the biggest box office hits of the decade, Robert Rossen's interracial romantic drama Island in the Sun. Yet her career faltered after Porgy and Bess. She died – either due to a rare embolism or an antidepressant overdose – at age 42 on Sept. 8, 1965.

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, 1959 'Porgy and Bess' film version remains unavailable for viewing

Now, who was right about Samuel Goldwyn and Otto Preminger's Porgy and Bess film adaptation, 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 film cast includes Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Sammy Davis Jr., and Brock Peters.

Bambi: Anti-hunting film shows cruel bloodthirsty humans as threat to natureBambi & butterfly. Supposedly Walt Disney's favorite among his studio's animated movies, Bambi is a heart-wrenching, nightmare-inducing, incurably traumatizing disquisition on the evils of hunting. 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. Humans, in fact, were to have also been the cause of the horrific forest fire seen in the animated film.

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.

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.

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, Svengaliesque 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 movies about women + US ethnic minoritiesNorma Rae with Sally Field. The National Film Registry strives to add to 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 is Martin Ritt's Best Picture Academy Award nominee Norma Rae, starring Best Actress winner Sally Field as a North Carolina textile factory worker who, with the support of union organizer Ron Leibman, gets her fellow laborers to join forces in the fight for better working conditions – much to the profound irritation of their greedy, abusive bosses.

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' marital drama Faces (1968), considered to be the first American independent movie to become a mainstream box office hit. In the cast: John Marley, Gena Rowlands, and Best Supporting Actor/Actress Oscar nominees Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin.
  • Martin Ritt's pro-organized labor Norma Rae (1979), which turned Sally Field into a “serious” film actress, in addition to earning TV's former Gidget and The Flying Nun her first Best Actress Oscar. (Her second one was for a less impressive performance in Robert Benton's period drama Places in the Heart, 1984.) Sally Field can also be seen as Tom Hanks' mother in Norma Rae's fellow 2011 National Film Registry inductee Forrest Gump.

Porgy and Bess Film: Controversial Black Musical on National Film Registry” follow-up post: “National Film Registry Additions: The Negro Soldier & El Mariachi + The Big Heat But Gays & Lesbians Bypassed.”

'Porgy and Bess' film & play 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), Golden Boy (1939), The Mark of Zorro (1940), Rings on Her Fingers (1942), Summer Holiday (1948), and Silk Stockings (1957).

Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge Porgy and Bess film images: Columbia Pictures.

Bambi image: Walt Disney Studios.

Sally Field Norma Rae image: 20th Century Fox.

Porgy and Bess Film: Controversial Black Musical on National Film Registry” last updated in January 2019.

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3 Comments to 'Porgy and Bess' Film: Controversial Black Musical on National Film Registry

  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.