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Why You Still Can’t See That ‘Porgy and Bess’ Movie Starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge

Why You Still Can’t See That 'Porgy and Bess' Movie Starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge

Considering that I first wrote about this three
years ago and, as I mentioned in my piece below about Maya Angeiou’s screenplay
for Georgia Georgia, that her actual first film appearance was as an uncredited
dancer in this film, I thought, why not revisit it?

And besides, a question that gets asked a lot is, why
hasn’t the 1959 film version of George
Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
been shown or seen anywhere for, literally,

Furthermore, the film, starring Sidney Poitier as Porgy, Dorothy
as Bess, and Sammy Davis
as Sportin’ Life (pictured above) directed by Otto Preminger, and produced by independent Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn, has never been
available on video in any format at any time… Well, not exactly; but I’ll get to
that in a second.

With the exception of a special screening every few
years, somewhere in the world, such as in New
at the Ziegfield Theater
back in 2007, in Seattle around 2008
(a reportedly a rare 70MM print from Europe), and in Switzerland a few years ago, the last time the film was actually
seen by the public at large was when the ABC
showed it as a Sunday
Night Movie
, during the late 60’s. It was also broadcast in the
early 70’s on a local TV station KTLA
in Los Angeles, which had access to
the Goldwyn film library for a brief while.

And that’s about it. 

No, the film has never been shown on
TV since then, and for anyone who claims that they’ve seen it on Turner Classic Movies or some other
cable channel, your mind is playing tricks on you (I called
TCM to check, and they confirmed that they have never broadcast the film).

Yes, there are some crummy pan and scan bootleg copies, and I
have read of a supposedly good looking German DVD of the film in its correct
aspect ratio, but in a severely trimmed 115 minute version from the longer original
138 minute cut, and without its overture, intermission and the exit music.

There is also a 35MM print in excellent shape, and a 4 track
steno magnetic track at the UCLA archive
library, but that is never loaned out for any screenings.

I know it’s all confusing, and, as a result, the film is
considered one of the great “lost” movies – an important film that, somehow, has been unavailable to the public.

So why? 

Well, it’s pretty simple. The basic fact is that,
through a contractual agreement, the rights to the film reverted back to the
Gershwin estate, from the Goldwyn company, in 1974, and the estate has kept the
film underwraps since then, rarely allowing it to be seen anywhere except
for very special occasions. 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 of the music.

But actually it’s a bit more complicated than that. It
turns out that there are actually two different Gershwin estates that,
reportedly, have never 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 the 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. However, that too has gotten rather complicated since Warner Bros now owns the
Goldwyn library, so they now rightfully could make the same claims that MGM used

If there is one bright spot, for those who are still hoping
to see the film, the National
Film Registry
of the Library of Congress
selected it in 2011 for preservation, saying that it was “culturally,
historically, or aesthetically significant,
” and an “overlooked

So maybe after the preservation work is done, there
might finally be an opportunity for the public at large to
see the film. 

This Article is related to: Features and tagged


judith Guantai

please release original Porgy & Bess with Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge & Sammy Davis Jr I saw it many years ago in Melbourne Australia and would like to see it again. Far from seeing it as a "race" the incredible acting and singing should have made it a classic


Not hardly. There was Warner’s The Green Pastures in 1936, Hallelujah which MGM released in August 1929 but Fox released Hearts in Dixie in May 1929 so that maybe the first all black cast film released by a major Hollywood studio. But there were dozens of independently made all black cast film during the silent era starting back to 1913. And that’s to mention all the all black cast "race" films made by independent black filmmakers such as oscar Michaeux during the 1930’s and 40’s. And those all black Hollywood studio musicals made during the 40’s such as cabin the Sky and Stormy Weather. I take it your wife is really really young and that she thinks films did not exist before Star Wars


Is porgy and bess the first all black cast movie made by a major Hollywood studio,and if not what was the movie,cause my wife seems to think it was the movie carwash. ..please help with this now heavy debate…

    Dimitri Merritt

    The first all-black movie produced in Hollywood was MGM’s 1929 “Hallelujah”. It was even Oscar nominated for Best Director (King Vidor).


Gershwin wanted to write an opera. One that was definitely set in the USA as there had been none written before.

Most opera storylines are of great tragedy and in writing in those days, he obviously sought the most tragic of circumstances. He also obviously thought that the African-Americans had the worst circumstances and probably the better operatic voices!

As for the music, I never realised that just about every word is sung. I saw a tv version and while good, it seemed to go on forever.

So I can understand the cutting songs and music to make it more palatable to the audiences of the 50s who were more use to the big R&H musicals, and running time.

I’ve never seen it and always wondered why. Now I know. Hopefully I’ll be around long enough to see a wonderfully restored Blue Ray version.


I have the original sound score on vinyl. It sounds great.


Well enough about that

John May

I saw this beautiful film while on my honeymoon
In Paris in 1957. It was su


@FILMLOVERLADYEO – Yes, some elements of it make uncomfortable viewing, but the opera as a whole was an unprecedented step towards confronting the racism of the time. This was the first time black styles of music and black performers were taken out of the ghetto and put on a par with other "respectable", intellectual music. Gershwin chose to do it as an opera, a folk opera, NOT as a musical (the latter was his background, and is probably responsible for some of what comes across as corny today).

Plenty of opera plots involve prostitutes and people generally in adversity – La Boheme, Les Mis, Manon, Fiddler on the Roof etc – I don’t see the characters here as unusually demeaning.

On destroying it and the play: I feel we shouldn’t hide from the past and pretend that everything was fine back then. The racism of the time was horrendous and this opera was written as part of the fight against that, and that is something I celebrate, beyond the music, whenever I see it. Recently I saw Cape Town Opera perform it set in 1970s Johannesburg, and it was a terrifyingly convincing match for 1930s South Carolina.

I recommend reading Maya Angelou on her time with the company (Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas), or just read more online about the background to the opera.

@Sergio – thanks for an excellent informative article – I would love to see this film and I hope the NFR and LC get their act together and release it soon!

jennifer munro

would love to have a copy of this movie saw it as a young woman, loved the music
can you get music ,can anybody help with music woul love it


Well ,I’m sorry,but I would Love to own a copy of this movie. I watched it with my parents & family in the 60’s. I have an appreciation for African American History. My mother could sing Opra Music and she taught us that Black People could sing Opra music. I saw many plays at the St. Louis Muny Outdoor Theater,ie; Hello Dolly with Pearle Bailey and Cab Calloway. It gave me great appreciation for the Arts. This is lacking in many Black Plays today. I have an appreciation for various types of Art to this day.


Thank you for this story. I had just always assumed that it was not shown because of all its racism.

I think you should be aware that the film was shown "regularly" (my guess is about once a year) on a local station, WPIX channel 11, in the NYC area. I believe it was part of a "network" that showed the great Goldwyn films like this, "Pride of the Yankees" and "Hans Christian Andersen." I think it may have been called the SFM Network. You mention in the article rights changing hands in 1974. My guess is that is when WPIX stopped showing it as well.

Traci R.

LOL, I got it bootlegged on my MacBook.


Good. This film as well as the play should be lost forever.

I will never forget my first time seeing this disparaging, racist trash as an adult. My mouth dropped open. I couldn't believe what I was watching. The three main male characters are a pimp, a drug dealer and a cripple (not that there is anything wrong with the physically challenged; but it was symbolic of how white society saw Black men – downtrodden and weak or criminal and violent) . The female character is a prostitute! Without the music, which is admittedly great, this would be a play/movie long forgotten or the object of a picket-line whenever and wherever it is played. The storyline of "Porgy and Bess" is a horrible relic from the days when Hollywood and most of white America were openly racist and sought to depict Black folks and Black culture in the most despicable and degrading manner.

Personally, I say burn all copies of the film and shred all evidence of the play!


    The film and play were not meant to be racist.

John Harold

This is a travesty. There is nothing about the play or the production that is not true and wonderful. To deny this is to deny black culture, and as a right-wing Republican who believes with all his heart that every person is essential to our survival, with whatever graces and faults they might possess, pray never portray me as other than what I am.
I suspect, though, the truth lies in Copyright. I have had a few runins with the Gershwins and the Berlins over my life, doing parodies, which are allowed.
Three generations of useless dolts still living off their grandpa’s efforts.
Well, a century soon runs out; just ask Gilbert, Sullivan, and D’Oyly Carte.
Then we might again hear Sammy Davis Jr. doing the best thing he ever did, along with a now mostly dead cast making this a thing of fantastic power and beauty.
It makes me so sad.

I had a chance to see this movie when I was in the 4th grade I’m now 67yrs old and I’ve never forgotten this movie. My teacher’s name was Mrs.Wellington who we all thought was so cool because she was young and she loved classical music I often tell my friends about the movie and wish that they could see it. The movie was awesome boy would I like to see it again. We actually did the play in our classroom.

Frank Angel

UCLA HAD a print that was runable years ago. We were allowed to run after much haggling, and only because our theatre is part of a performing arts center which is part of a University; the condition was that we needed to surround the engagement with a lecture and discussion to give it “accademic stature.” Thing is, as beautiful as that IBTechnicolor, 4 track magnetic 35mm print looked and sounded, it also had begun to go “vinegar” — a term that refers to a chemical process that causes the triacetate base to decompose and warp. The process cannot be reversed and continues unabated until the film is so distorted that it will no longer run thru a projector. Fortunately for us, while all the reels (eight I believe) ran without jumping the sprocket rollers — which happens when the sprocket holes become so warped that they won’t engage the sprockets — the last two reels were warped enough that the image couldn’t be focused across the whole CinemaScope screen. We needed to continually pull focus in real time so that the main characters and the main action were in sharp focus and let the rest of the frame go soft. That was at least 7 years ago. Since vinegar acidosis is a cascading chemical process that feeds on itself, I would predict with pretty high confidence that much of that print would be unrunable today.

To my knowledge, that is the only 35mm extant Technicolor mag stereo print of this very special title. I do not believe any 70mm prints exist, and even if one could be found, all the 70mm (Todd-AO) prints were Eastman color and that means they would all be faded to beet red by now.

Given all the legal entanglements of who owns what rights to this title and when — factions of the Gershwin family each claim ownership and have been fighting for decades…Samuel Goldwyn and MGM as well as Warners and even Turner Classics each had a hook in it for a time and transfer of ownership in those conglomerate take-overs and buy-outs are wildly complicated, many times leaving clear ownership in legal limbo. It won’t be easy task to get a restoration mounted for this important work, and sadly that really is a crime and a complete bastardization and perversion of the INTENT of the Copyright Law, which is to INSURE that the public have ACCESS to art so that we should be enriched and enlightened by it, not to PREVENT the public from having access to it. But that’s a whole other discussion.

barbara jackson

When iwas in my mid teen i saw this movie. I will always remember sammy davis jr. and thought he was mesmerizing. sidney p. was so believeable in his role. Dorothy Dandrige was a house whole in my mother’s home. It is the one and only time i got to hear her sing. The songs in that movie, bring tears to my eyes they were a part of the romantic part of my 56 year marriage.This movie and the chance to see it or own are #1 on my bucket list.PLEASE SOME BODY GET IT OUT FOR FUTURE. tAKE IT FOR WHAT IT IS. nOT HAS AND INSULT TO BLACK PEOPLE.


The P&B soundtrack LP was played often in our home during the early ’60s. Dad loved classical, opera, big band jazz, etc. & this was one of his all-time faves. I saw the movie on TV many years & the scene I remember most was Porgy setting out for New York City in his little goatcart: ♪”…Oh, Looord it’s a long, long waaay…♫”

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