Porgy and Bess (1959)
Porgy and Bess (1959)

Genre: Romantic Drama and Musical Running Time: 2 hrs. 18 min.

Release Date: June 24th, 1959 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Otto Preminger Actors: Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters, Diahann Carroll, Ruth Attaway

 


 

T

he men shoot dice and the women try to comfort crying babies on the cobblestone-like streets of a fishing community (called Catfish Row) at the turn of the century. When crippled beggar Porgy (Sidney Poitier) rides up (using a goat-drawn wagon and then shuffling about on his knees), followed by tipsy yet strapping Crown (Brock Peters) and his drug-addled girlfriend Bess (Dorothy Dandridge), the gambling game grows more heated, particularly as liquor is downed, insults are tossed about, and accusations of cheating are made. Eventually, a fight breaks out, resulting in Crown fatally stabbing fellow gambler Robbins (Joel Fluellen). The killer flees, but Bess opts to hide out momentarily with Porgy – an arrangement that steadily develops into a romance that just might be strong enough to withstand the temptations of drug dealer Sportin’ Life (Sammy Davis Jr., serving as something of a Foulfellow and Gideon rolled into one) and his “happy dust,” as well as Crown’s inevitable return.

Although there are intermittent interjections of dialogue – even if they’re oftentimes merely a sentence or two – the majority of “Porgy and Bess” is sung. In this largely operatic format, the music tends to have a more powerful, bellowing, symphonic quality, though contemporary critics of the era weren’t keen on the marginal change from the source material (the opera by George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, and Ira Gershwin, which was itself based on Heyward’s novel “Porgy”). Nevertheless, the conversations haven’t transformed all that much, preserving the flow of the plot from song to song, allowing Dandridge and Poitier to emote but not sing, as they didn’t have the chops necessary to handle the range.

But despite continual crooning, sizable sections only serve to reiterate obvious story points. A church picnic boasts significant numbers of extras, dancing and feasting in their Sunday best, with Davis getting to show off his signature litheness, while a strawberry vendor and a crab seller receive their own sequences to warble about food. These moments tend to do little but bridge gaps between Porgy and Bess reaffirming their love – the most memorable and affecting scenes – which chronicles a hypnotized, manipulated woman and the uncommonly understanding man who refuses to give up on her, even when she routinely succumbs to poor decisions.

Tackling themes of drug abuse, oppressive masculinity, violence against women, corrupt policemen, and the consequences of manslaughter – all with an eye toward the judicial system’s anticipated treatment of minorities – “Porgy and Bess” certainly provides an unconventional premise for a musical. And it’s largely devoid of sympathetic characters. But its central notion of uncompromising forgiveness – Porgy refuses to see Bess’ faults, embracing only her best qualities – is thoroughly inspirational. Her soul may not be worth saving, but Porgy isn’t about to abandon his cause. Unfortunately, even though the message is monumental, the design of this picture is too simple and straightforward to impart much gravity; it’s a strangely forgettable production with few rousing shots (and even fewer memorable songs), save for the finale. Curiously, the film’s longstanding unavailability in theaters and home media (and heavily-edited versions from overseas) has made it one of the most sought-after of star-studded rarities; its obscurity perhaps fuels the notion that it’s more of a timeless classic than it is.

– Mike Massie

  • 4/10