Friday, July 8, 2011

Porgy and Bess

A few days ago, I watched Porgy and Bess, the 1959 film directed by Otto Preminger. Just the fact that I was able to see this film is something worth mentioning, as it was pulled out of the marketplace in 1967 by the Gerhswin family and has (to the best of my knowledge) received only one public showing since (this took place in New York City in 1998; after the film, author Foster Hirsch who wrote a biography of Preminger, commented on this work before an appreciative audience).

The history of this film is quite remarkable, as several producers in the 1940s and '50s wanted to acquire the rights to the famed opera, written in 1935 by George and Ira Gershwin, with a libretto by DuBose Heyward; the opera itself was based on Heyward's 1925 novel Porgy as well as a subsequent 1927 play written by Heyward and his wife Dorothy. In 1957, Ira Gershwin sold the rights to famed producer Samuel Goldwyn, who had produced such celebrated films as The Best Years of Our Lives and Wuthering Heights.

Goldwyn hired Rouben Mamoulian as director, after previous individuals turned down the assignment. Mamoulian had directed the original stage production as well as the opera, so this seemed like an inspired choice. But after personal differences between the producer and director, Goldwyn fired him and hired Otto Preminger, who early on had expressed interest in making this film. Having Preminger replace Mamoulian was highly ironic, as the same thing happened on the film Laura (1944), which turned out to be one of Preminger's most critically acclaimed works.

I cannot tell you where or how I saw the movie, but I was enthralled with the opportunity, not only because of its "lost" status, but because I am also a big fan of Preminger's work. Throughout most of his career, he displayed a solid hand in his direction, elegantly blocking out scenes and using graceful camera movements. He favored medium shots that would show several characters; thus the viewer could watch the part of the screen he or she wanted to - Preminger in my mind, greatly respected the audience. Overly dramatic closeups were not his thing; this led some critics to complain that Preminger's visual style was objective and without emotion. I disagree and am on the side of many critics who saw in the director's work a subtle quality attained only by the very best craftsmen of the cinema.

I like this film very much, as Preminger once again treated the audience with respect, as we look in on the residents of Catfish Row and see their world with soft brush strokes. If you thought this might be a high energy musical with lots of noise and extravagant production numbers, you would be disappointed (save for "It Ain't Necessarily So", enthusiastically performed by Sammy Davis, Jr. as Sportin' Life). But if you know Preminger's restraint, you would have a better understanding of this film and admire its pace and subtleties.

This is not to say it is a great film; while some performances are very good (such as Brock Peters as Crown) Dorothy Dandridge gives an uneven portrayal of Bess. She is fine in her scenes with Peters, especially displaying the fear of being under his spell. But in other scenes, she seems uncertain and even lacking a bit of focus. The fact that Preminger and she had a tumultuous affair a few years earlier may have had something to do with this, but the fact is she looks uncomfortable at times.

Then there are the sets, which have the look of a talented production designer (in this case, Oliver Smith, who had performed similar duties on Guys and Dolls and Oklahoma among other films). But no matter how handsome the sets are, they lend an artificiality to the film and take away from its intimacy. Preminger reportedly complained, as he wished to film most of the movie on location, but producer Goldwyn overruled him. The only exception was the picnic scene which Preminger did shoot on location - it's clearly one of the highlights of this production.

So Preminger did not have the creative freedom he was used to enjoying - he was at this point in his career a tremendously successful independent producer and was about to embark on what would be two of his biggest successes: Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Exodus (1960). But he does have his moments in Porgy and Bess, especially in the scene in which Porgy (a very earnest Sidney Poitier) takes in Bess; this is simply handled, as Porgy pours her a cup of coffee, which is about all this crippled beggar can give her. Bess smiles - that's it. No big emotions in this scene; we'll see this later when they sing to each other, Porgy with "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" and Bess singing "I Loves You Porgy."

Another memorable scene occurs right after the quiet scene between the two title characters. This is the wake the citizens of Catfish Row have for one of their own workers who has been killed by Crown. They sing, "Gone, Gone, Gone", a marvelously moving dirge that lets us experience the deep emotions of these characters. Finally, there is a quiet scene late in the film where Bess changes the diaper of her daughter under the loving eyes of Porgy; all the while she sings "Summertime" as a lullaby to her offspring. She embraces her baby, Porgy administers a gentle rub and Preminger fades away- it's an elegant, moving scene made more so by the director's light touch.

So I hope some of you will get the chance to see this film, if only for the uniqueness of this production, as well as its mysterious identity. You'll also get to hear the great Gershwin score and be moved by this story that is at times heartbreaking and quite sad, but one that ultimately celebrates the triumph of living, loving and maintaining hope.

Note: The original film as shown in theaters in 1959 was 138 minutes, but the version I saw was 118 minutes. I spent several hours researching this, but was not able to find out what happened to those twenty minutes and what exactly is missing (as well as why it is missing).

Also, Poitier and Dandridge did not sing in this film, their voices were dubbed, respectively by Robert McFerrin (father of Bobby McFerrin) and Adele Addison, who are wonderful. As for Sammy Davis Jr., who sang so brilliantly in the film, his vocals were not on the original soundtrack album; those songs were recorded by Cab Calloway, who ironically had originally been offered the role of Sportin' Life.

André Previn and Ken Darby won the Oscar for Best Adapted Score and the original soundtrack album won the Grammy for Best Film Soundtrack of the Year.

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