As a fan of movie musicals–Busby Berkeley, Fred and Ginger, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth, Carmen Miranda, and so on–imagine my surprise when I came across the movie soundtrack to Porgy and Bess at a record store. How could I miss that Porgy and Bess was turned into a movie? I love Gershwin, at a time I even had the soundtrack to Of Thee I Sing, and yes I’ve seen Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger’s in Shall We Dance (1937), Gershwin’s only Hollywood musical. So why was I unaware this movie exists? The first source I turned to was YouTube, and when I looked years ago, I came up empty. There’s a good reason why, the Gershwin foundation sealed Porgy and Bess in it’s vault in 1974 and refuses to release the movie. Now clips are starting to appear on YouTube and that gives us some insight into the movie and why it’s locked up.
Before we can dive into Porgy and Bess, we have to talk about African American cinema. Since the advent of the movie studio system, around the 1910s and 1920s, black artists were kept off the screen. If they did appear in movies, they were stereotyped as caricatures. The absence of black stories on the screen led black film makers creating their own movies, independent of the studio. Director and producer Oscar Micheaux is one of the first successful filmmakers who is responsible for a large output of black cinema from 1918-48, giving black artists, like Paul Robeson, their start in film. By the end of the 1930s, these movies were bringing in enough money for the studios to notice. There was an audience for black stories. By 1940s, MGM and Fox were producing major motion pictures of black cinema, but the screen was still segregated.
All major studios operated under the principle of maximizing profit by showing movies to the largest audience possible. The censor boards of each state, along with the Hayes Code dictated what kind of black characters could be shown on screen. The Hayes Code was a set of rules on what can be shown on the screen: drug use, clothing (lack of), violence, and sex. The movie had to pass the board if they wanted a national distribution. In the Hayes Code, under Section II. Sex, 6. “Miscengenation (sex relationship between the white and black races) is forbidden.” In the South, movies with black characters were censored by the local censor boards. If there was a black character on the screen, say Lena Horne singing the latest hit, those scenes were cut for southern audiences. The black characters who found success in Hollywood, Hattie McDaniel and Stepin Fetchit, portrayed caricatures of Black Americans that the south could accept. This limited the output of stories and characters for black actors, actresses, and musicians.
By 1957, civil rights leaders were working on integrating movies and were sensitive to the portrayals of black characters. Harry Belafonte directly challenged the Hays Code, getting death threats after his interracial romance in Island in the Sun (1957). Just a few years before in 1954, Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, and Pearl Bailey electrified the screen in Carmen Jones, a retelling of Bizet’s Carmen set in North Carolina Army Base during WWII. The success of the all black cast in Carmen Jones, leading to major award nominations proved that black stories on the screen can succeed both financially and critically.
Several producers attempted to bring Porgy and Bess to the screen in the 1940s. One producer, Harry Cohn, wanted to cast Fred Astaire, Rita Hayworth, and Al Jolson as the main characters, performing in blackface. The Gershwin estate refused that request. Finally in 1957 the Gershwin estate allowed Samuel Goldwyn the rights to the opera.
In Porgy and Bess, the cast is almost a repeat of Carmen Jones, except for Harry Belafonte who turned down the role and was replaced by Sidney Poitier. Dorothy Dandridge, whose Oscar nomination for Carmen Jones should have elevated her profile in Hollywood, found herself isolated and was forced to take on the role of Bess. Sidney Poitier was threatened by the studio, unless he agreed to play Porgy they would can The Defiant Ones (1958). The only cast member who wanted to be there was Sammy Davis Jr., who only got the role Sportin’ Life after Frank Sinatra intervened. Samuel Goldwyn asked Leontyne Price to overdub Bess, and Price came back with an offer: she’ll provide vocals if she can play Bess in the movie. Goldwyn declined.
Porgy and Bess hit the screen at a complicated time in American History. Many Black stars were sensitive of the characters they played. Dorothy Dandridge recoiled at playing a prostitute with a drug habit. This movie ended up destroying Dandridge’s career in Hollywood. Pearl Bailey refused to wear a bandanna on her head. James Baldwin lambasted the movie, calling it a product of a white-directed Hollywood that had no idea what to do with black talent on the screen. Andre Previn provided the soundtrack, turning the Gershwin’s original score into Vegas show bands, as seen in this clip below.
The Gershwin foundation was critical of the movie. It didn’t capture the spirit of the opera. The music is sounds like 1959, not like the 1920s as Gershwin envisioned. After Goldwyn’s lease on the rights of the opera expired, the Gershwin estate locked all copies of the movie into their vault in 1974. Ira Gershwin and his wife order Goldwyn to destroy all remaining copies. But in 2011, Porgy and Bess was inducted into the National Film Registry. Library of Congress holds a digital copy of the movie. For the first time in almost 40 years, there is a way to finally watch the movie the Gershwin’s don’t want you to see.
Researching this movie led me to Department of Afro American Research Arts & Culture. They have a channel on YouTube rare and hard to find clips of Black Cinema. This is an essential resource for those interested in Black Cinema. Looking through the clips, I discovered this one of a young Sammy Davis Jr. in his first movie appearance. It’s fun to compare his first movie appearance, and seeing he’s got the “It” factor, to his character Sportin’ Life in the above clip. If you are a fan of jazz, cinema, or Black Hollywood, this channel is a valuable resource.