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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,
decades?

Furthermore, the film, starring Sidney Poitier as Porgy, Dorothy
Dandridge
as Bess, and Sammy Davis
Jr.
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
York
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
Network
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
to.

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
masterpiece.

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

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