Black Film Classics | Porgy and Bess

18 02 2008

Today we feature a film that has literally disappeared from public conscience, the exquisite musical, “Porgy and Bess.” This classic has not been seen in any form for over 35 years.

The film of the legendary Gershwin opera was set among the black residents of a fishing village in 1912 South Carolina, Bess (Dorothy Dandridge) – a woman with a disreputable history – tries to break free from her brutish lover Crown (Brock Peters) after he becomes wanted for murder. The only person willing to overlook her past and offer her shelter is the crippled Porgy (Sidney Poitier). Their relationship is threatened by the disapproval of the townspeople, the presence of her old drug supplier Sportin’ Life (Sammy Davis, Jr.) – and the threatened return of Crown.

That “Porgy and Bess” ended up stuck in a vault unavailable for public viewing is no surprise with all the drama that surrounded this musical. Sidney Poitier literally was forced to do this film if he wanted the lead role in “The Defiant Ones.” 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 Goldwyn offer would probably have ended his career in films.

Dandridge and Pearl Bailey were also reluctant to be in the film, until they heard that Poitier and Davis were going to be in it. Davis was the only one of the four leads who was actually eager to play his role in the movie.

Then two days before production started, a fire broke out and destroyed most of the costumes, props and sketches. The original director was fired and replaced with Otto Preminger, who famously had an affair with Dandridge some year’s earlier. Their on-screen tension was so bad that Poitier had to come to her defense.

The end result was that both the Goldwyn and Gershwin families so strongly disapproved of this version that they pulled the film from circulation in 1974. The only place this film can be seen is in some unnamed film archives.

Side Notes: Poitier’s singing voice was dubbed by by opera singer Robert McFerrin (father of pop singer, classical conductor and composer Bobby McFerrin). Davis sings and acts the in the film, but for contractual reasons his vocals could not be used on the soundtrack album. His voice was dubbed by non other than Cab Calloway.

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