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Richardtrains

PORGY AND BESS

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There are simply no legitimate video versions of the movie available at this time. Stay away from any bootleg copies. They are terrible and aren?t worth the expense.

 

The last time this film was seen in public was 1974. The motion picture had periodic showings on television, starting around the late 1960s on local television stations across the country. From day one of the movie?s release in 1959, the project was besieged with problems. The first and perhaps most prevent has been the objections from the Gershwin family and estate. The Gershwin?s hated what producer Samuel Goldwyn had done with the movie version. Goldwyn had already an association with the Gershwin?s, when he produced the last film musical George Gershwin composed songs for, ?The Goldwyn Follies of 1938.? Some of the best songs George and his brother Ira ever wrote were showcased in that 1938 musical film. It had always been Goldwyn?s intent after George died to continue on with the legacy of the great composer, thereby at some point finally producing a major film of perhaps the greatest American musical and at times considered a modern opera of the 20th Century.

 

When the time seemed right to produce a motion picture version of ?Porgy and Bess,? Goldwyn spared no expense, in both cast and crew to make the musical a reality on film. While the cast was on all counts impressive and wonderful, most of the major singing roles had to be dubbed! This aspect annoyed both the Gershwin family, fans and the critics at large. Goldwyn had hoped to quell this problem, by hiring the original director of the stage production, legendary Rouben Mamoulian. Certainly, this choice that was at first considered important, if not, inspiring to some degree, gave a sense of legitimacy to the whole idea of producing a film version. Mamoulian had already directed a few classic films throughout his career and was by the late 1950s, considered one of the finest directors of both stage and screen. Aside from being the original stage director, his record was by that time impressive enough to give Goldwyn?s idea of a movie version tremendous validity amid the flashy publicity behind the preparation to make the motion picture. The casting of Sidney Poitier in the lead role of ?Porgy? wasn?t exactly an easy situation. While Sidney was the top African American actor of his generation, he at first didn?t want to appear in the movie. Most likely the simple fact that he wasn?t a singer, forced him to have some reservations on considering being in the movie. After a bit of convincing from friends and colleagues, he relented and signed on. It was then decided to have opera singer, Robert McFerrin dub all of Sidney?s songs for the movie. McFerrin is today better known as the father of pop singer and composer Bobby McFerrin. The choice of beautiful Dorothy Dandridge to play ?Bess? was a good one, since she was by that time considered a superstar of the African American community. Although Dorothy was a wonderful singer, she really didn?t have the necessary operatic range the role needed. In the final analysis her voice would have to also be dubbed. At this point in the casting, the old Hollywood adage of creating a visual deception came into play. Even the talented Diahann Carroll, who is definitely a great singer, had her voice dubbed along operatic terms! These series of technical changes must have affected the whole outlook of the film, spilling over to the various cast members and the crew behind the camera, creating an atmosphere that evaded any possible veritable connection to what the stage production had once been. The only two major cast members who had pretty much an ?open hand? in their casting and performances were the spirited Sammy Davis Jr. and jazzy Pearl Bailey. But, even here there were a few problems that surfaced along the way. Bailey became critical of the production throughout its making. She was concerned about the imagery of how the characters would be portrayed. In no time, the cast looked upon Bailey?s leadership in addressing issues that might be bothersome. Meanwhile, Goldwyn had to contend with the problem that Sammy Davis Jr. was under contract to another record company and therefore his singing talents wouldn?t be utilized or heard on the soundtrack record album that everyone knew was going to be marketed along with the movie. Sammy?s singing voice for the soundtrack record album would be replaced by another famous African American entertainer, Cab Calloway.

 

The first real major problem to the project came with director Mamoulian and producer Goldwyn clashing over how the motion picture would be shot. Mamoulian wanted desperately to shoot the movie on location, somewhere in the deep coastal south. This made perfect sense to most everyone involved with the movie. But, producer Goldwyn insisted that the soundstages of his studio would be adequate. Goldwyn maintained that he wanted to recreate the whole aura of the original stage show. Mamoulian?s argument against Goldwyn was that a motion picture could and should expand upon the limitations of the live stage. Then, in a twist of rather strange fate, there was a mysterious fire at the studio that destroyed most of the sets, props and costumes! The aftermath of this event, led to Mamoulian feeling that fate had intervened, proving him right all along with the idea of going on location with the movie. These public critical statements by the noted director, finally made Goldwyn feel that Mamoulian was exploiting his position on a level that wasn?t appropriate to a betrayal and lack of respect. It now appeared as if the director wanted total control of the project. So, in a move that was a bit agitating to the production, Goldwyn fired Mamoulian from the project! This resulted in the first outspoken criticism coming from the Gershwin family that was in total support of the fired director. It was then decided to bring on Otto Preminger to direct the film. Otto had already worked with Peal Bailey, Diahann Carroll and Dorothy Dandridge in 1954, with the success of the first all African American widescreen musical, ?Carmen Jones.? What added a bit of spice to this situation was that director Preminger and actress Dandridge had once been lovers. It was only natural that the two of them would be closely watched during the making of the film.

 

Goldwyn?s previous big film venture, another musical, ?Guys & Dolls? had been a tremendous success four years earlier in 1955. He poured on as many resources as his finances would allow, resulting in a film version that was close to, if not, as good as the original Broadway show. His perseverance to do the same with ?Porgy and Bess? unfortunately ran into all sorts of trouble. While Goldwyn wanted to honestly make a worthy version of the original stage production, somehow he got caught up into logistics he couldn?t control. The situation was also under the heated criticism from various civil rights groups, some objecting to the imagery and portrayal of African American life. Goldwyn then had to make allowances he didn?t expect to keep the project under some semblance of order. As one of the last major independent movie producers of Hollywood, Goldwyn?s once proud maverick status could no longer sustain the many changes that had come to the movie industry, on top of what was happening in American society. Even though he was still running one of the best studios in the business, he was forced to have to seek the help of Columbia Pictures that would act as the film?s distributor and thereby be a partner to financing the motion picture.

 

Filming wasn?t all that easy. It proved to be a bit of a hassle, with Goldwyn interfering with director Preminger throughout most of the production. Preminger was under lots of pressure to live up to recreating not only the whole aura of the original stage show, but the enormous reputation that surrounded everything associated with what was considered by that time an American classic. Everything to make the movie a success now seemed to rest all on his shoulders. It?s believed that his being hired to direct the film as a replacement to the original director of the stage show must have hampered him to some extreme. There was an atmosphere of Otto having to prove that he was in the same league as Mamoulian. Most film critics and fans will agree that Otto was one of the best directors of Hollywood?s Golden Age, but whether he was the right choice for this type of motion picture, stemmed on issues that didn?t exactly have any relationship to what was originally conceived in the minds of anyone who saw or remembered the original stage production. Certainly, his having already directed a major film with an entire African American cast had lots to do with his finally being hired as a replacement. Otto simply couldn?t control or stop the amounting conflicts and disagreements that initially hampered the motion picture?s making. It wouldn?t take long for the most important player to the saga of the movie, the Gershwin family, to begin to have their doubts about what was being created or how it was to evolve. It?s now believed that the firing of Mamoulian spelled the beginning to a sort of technical doom to overshadow the motion picture.

 

The film opened for the summer of 1959. There was lots of fanfare, but the plain simple reality was that the film would have to face a limited release across the country, due in large part to various areas of the South that wouldn?t be so prone as to showcase a major motion picture that consisted of an all African American cast. Despite the limitations that had to be expected, everything about ?Porgy and Bess,? as a movie turned out to be big and expensive. Goldwyn had the movie shown in as many big theaters as possible, utilizing the big widescreen process of Todd-AO. This made the production the biggest African American motion picture up to that time. The movie received reasonable reviews, but weren?t all that prone as to feel any connection to what had been presented on stage. What hurt the film to some technical regard were various stage productions of the musical that were still going strong. Just idea that most of the principal cast members of the movie version had their singing voices dubbed, didn?t give much in the way of professional, if not, technical respect. It was only Sammy Davis Jr. who most believed, stole the whole movie with his lively performance as ?Sportin? Life.? Sammy?s rendition of the now classic number, ?There?s A Boat That?s Leaving? was truly the movie?s greatest highpoint and proved in so many ways that Sammy was one of the most naturally talented performers of the 20th Century! The film had a respectable box office response, leading to four ?Oscar? nominations and two wins for the music scoring. While Goldwyn managed to produce a really good looking movie, it wouldn?t take long for comparisons to the staged version and the changes made for the film, result into a situation of much criticism that to this day still continues. Once the negative response from the Gershwin family began about the motion picture, everything uplifting or positive Goldwyn had hoped for quickly slipped away. A bit of chaos ensued with lots of finger pointing on who was to blame for the film?s lack of respectable legitimacy towards the Gershwin legacy. In the end, Goldwyn for the rest of his life, when asked about the movie admitted that it didn?t turn out as good as he had hoped. The results of this saga are related to the film being withheld from any video release, because in the course of 50 years, the Gershwin family has remained stringent on refusing to agree to any public release of the film. The only agreed upon best filmed version of the musical is a 1993 television production. It is readily available on DVD.

 

P R O F E S S O R

 

Edited by: MovieProfessor on Sep 28, 2009 5:17 AM

 

Edited by: MovieProfessor on Sep 28, 2009 5:23 AM

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You're Correct Hollywood . . . What I obviously neglected were the various presenations of the film from archival sources. While this should be considered a release of the film, they don't equate with me for the long term of having public access to regularly be able to see the motion picture. I'm confident that the time will come when all parties concern will come to some agreement and the film will have its long awaited general release on both a regularly screened basis and on video.

 

P R O F E S S O R

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Yes, I agree, the showings have been pretty rare, certainly nothing that would qualify as a proper re-release.

 

I do have word that the movie might get shown in NorCal next year, but I don't know if the booking has been confirmed, or if it's still up in the air.

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> {quote:title=markfp2 wrote:}{quote}

> Holly, by any chance did you see it? If so, what was the print like?

 

Unfortunately, I wasn't anywhere near NYC at the time, although I would have loved to watch it then.

 

And I do have a recording of it, which I haven't seen yet, because I keep hoping I'll get a chance to watch it either shown in a theater, or at least in a properly licensed version (either a broadcast or an official video release).

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Holly, thanks for the link to Movie News about the 2007 showing. Should we be conserned that the print was from a private source? Does the Gershwin family own the actual negative, I wonder, or just the rights? If they have the actual film elements, I hope they're at least being concientious about preservation, whatever their opinion of the film itself. I love this film, and saw one of those 1970's TV showings The Professor mentioned. Slightly before VCRs, unfortunately.

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I'm not sure about who has the negative, but I can check it out next time I read about the movie.

 

Obviously, by this time it should probably be about ready for some restoration work, at any rate. But restorations are hard to finance without the potential upside of video sales.

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I wonder if the negative still exists at all. It's always been said that the Gershwin family hated the film so much that they tried to have the negative and all prints destroyed. It would seem to me that if this was true, they would have had easier access to the negative than to prints already in circulation. It's obvious that they've missed at least a couple of prints.

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> {quote:title=finance wrote:}{quote}

> Was it Ira that tried to have them destroyed? Was he still alive at the time?

 

I don't think it was Ira. The references I've seen usually just say the Gershwin family or Gershwin estate. Somewhere in the back of my head (it's hard seeing past all the cobwebs) I seem to recall somebody saying it Ira's wife, but I can't remember where I might have heard or read that so don't take it as gospel. At this point I guess it really doesn't matter who it was.

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In answer to your question about how many films, being major Hollywood productions that Mamoulain was fired from, you are correct with your list. He also had the bad luck of being involved in projects that never got made or even finished. There were also various films throughout his career, he was brought in as a last resort to direct, only to see him never receive any screen credit. Mamoulain considered himself more geared towards stage directing, then filmmaking, despite having created some innovative techniques to the whole history of the cinema. What he?s best remembered for, at least in Hollywood was his maverick ways of working, that in the end usually bothered most of the studio heads. It?s believed by some film historians that Mamoulain probably single handedly influenced a whole generation of young filmmakers, after the Second World War. This is due in large part to his film work during the early 1930s. Although he stopped working in films around the late 1940s, to later on concentrate on his various successful stage productions, his greatest of all influenced is said to have been on Stanley Kubrick! Oddly for some, Orson Welles doesn?t equate with having been influence by Mamoulain?s filmmaking, probably because Mamoulain didn?t have such a large output of film work to impress Welles. If anything, it?s been felt that Welles did copy and emulate Mamoulain?s stage work, when they both were directing important projects in New York. But, no one who has seen a Mamoulain film can argue against the rather patterned and organized way his films seem to express an artistic temperament. His movies certainly are a cut above the usual Hollywood escapist commercial productions that have dominated the history of Hollywood.

 

P R O F E S S O R

 

Edited by: MovieProfessor on Oct 10, 2009 5:13 AM

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Has anyone here seen the 1993 made-for-TV version directed by Trevor Nunn? (It's not Nunn's most recent revival of the work; that version was staged a couple of years ago and was a big flop because he chose not to use operatic voices. In the 1993 production, Nunn uses all operatic voices, as well as the original Gershwin orchestrations and vocal arrangements. )

 

The 1993 production is the only "Porgy and Bess" on DVD (unless you count bootlegs of the 1959 movie). It is truly excellent and very underappreciated by fans of the 1959 film. It is very faithful to its source and uses nearly the entire score. There's much more singing in it than in the 1959 version, and it's more like an opera.

 

Edited by: AlbertCD on Nov 9, 2009 2:57 PM

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