Otto Preminger’s 1959 big screen adaptation of the Gershwin/DuBose Heyward opera “Porgy and Bess” is currently resting among the nation’s treasures in the world’s largest archive of film, TV and sound recordings.
The 1959 film is one of 25 films that was inducted for preservation in the 2011 National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, selected because they are deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant.
The production and after-life of Preminger’s “Porgy and Bess,” which starred Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge, was controversial, as you might expect (its recent Broadway revival starring Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in the title roles also wasn’t without its share of controversy). The 1959 film was made during some very sensitive times in this country’s history, and several black American actors reportedly turned down roles in the film because they were considered demeaning. Notably, Harry Belafonte who was offered the role of Porgy (before Poitier), turned it down, stating, “in this period of our social development, I doubt that it is healthy to expose certain images of the Negro. In a period of calm, perhaps this picture could be viewed historically.”
I can’t say that we’re in a period of *calm* yet but, as Sergio noted in a mid-2011 post on the film, it’s rarely been screened in recent years, thanks to some rights issues:
The basic fact is that, through a contractual agreement, the rights to the film reverted back to the Gershwin estate from producer Goldwyn, and the estate has kept the film under tight wraps since then, not allowing it to be seen anywhere. Reportedly the estate was never happy with the film version, since a lot of the original music was cut out, and they were also very displeased with the orchestral arrangements […] It turns out that there are actually two different Gershwin estates that, reportedly, haven’t gotten along with each other, and both claim ownership of the film. Furthermore, there’s also an issue involving MGM. Years ago, the studio bought ancillary rights to most of Goldwyn’s films, claiming Porgy and Bess as well, and the studio has made claims that any DVD or cable licensing release, as well as the required restoration, has to be done by them.
Sergio also shared that he’d seen the film, and wasn’t impressed with it, calling it “stiff, unimaginatively directed and tedious.”
Announced in November 2013, a “re-envisioned” contemporary film version of Porgy and Bess was put into development with producers Mike Medavoy and Bobby Geisler at the helm, and the Gershwin family and estate of lyricist DuBose Heyward, directly involved, which they were hoping would be “a lot better” than the 1959 film starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge, directed by Otto Preminger.
No writer and director was attached at the time, with Marc George Gershwin, nephew of the Gershwin brothers, stating that “we’re confident that [producer Mike Medavoy] is going to able to find the right director and writer.”
As for who might direct this reimagining, it should be noted that Spike Lee had long been trying to bring a film adaptation of “Porgy and Bess” to the big screen, but wasn’t been successful, although he seemed to have gotten close as recently as in 2012 when he revealed in an interview with The Playlist (while doing press for “Red Hook Summer”) that talks with the Gershwin estate fell apart at the very last minute after lots of “back and forth.”
Although he did later say that he was still negotiating to bring “Porgy and Bess” to the screen: “That’s still in the works. As a film not a play […] Yeah I want to make it, but I’m in long discussions with both estates […] There have been musical elements in my films, but I’ve been wanting to do a straight up musical for many, many years,” he said, adding that the rights issues were “very tricky.”
The obvious question here is whether Spike’s negotiations with the Gershwins overlapped the 2013 announcement of new developments with producers Mike Medavoy and Bobby Geisler. Or if the Gershwins were no longer interested in negotiating with Spike on bringing the film to life, and had moved on to Medavoy and Geisler, who clearly were granted rights, as development of the film was reported to have begun.
Assuming the project might still be alive, might Spike be chosen to direct it? The fact that he’d been trying to get a “Porgy & Bess” film off the ground for as long as 10 years is noteworthy, and it would be good to know what all the negotiating included, especially over such a long period of time. What was Spike asking the estates for, and/or why were the estates seemingly hesitant to grant him the rights he needed to get the film produced?
While we wait for either the original 1959 Preminger film, or for the recently-announced remake to come to a theater near you, or to be released on Blu-ray/DVD/VOD, check out some never-before-seen on-set images of Preminger’s 1959 production, featuring the film’s cast and crew in action, courtesy of Life magazine. For those who’ve never seen any footage from the film (myself included), this may be as close as you’ll get in the meantime.
Here are 5 of them. There are 22 in total. To see the remaining 17, click here.