Sunday, November 10, 2013

Movie of the Week: "Porgy and Bess" (Review)

This week--in honor of what would have been Dorothy Dandridge's 91st Birthday, I watched the controversial 1959 film adaptation of Porgy and Bess, starring Sidney Poitier, Ms. Dottie D, Sammy Davis, Jr., Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters, and a host of other legendary entertainers. 

From Wikipedia

"In this legendary Gershwin opera set among the black residents of a fishing village (Catfish Row) in 1912 South Carolina, Bess (Dorothy Dandridge)--a woman with a disreputable history --tries to break free from her brutish lover Crown (Brock Peters) after he becomes wanted for murder. The only person willing to overlook her past and offer her shelter is the crippled Porgy (Sidney Poitier). Their relationship is threatened by the disapproval of the townspeople, the presence of her old drug supplier Sportin' Life (Sammy Davis, Jr.) - and the threatened return of Crown." [IMDb]

Before I get into the review, allow me to give you a little background information on this film:

  • Porgy and Bess was originally bought as a film property by Columbia Pictures in 1942 to star an all-white cast in blackface: Al Jolson as Porgy, Rita Hayworth as Bess, and Fred Astaire as Sportin' Life.

  • Sidney Poitier had adamantly refused to take the role of Porgy when offered it by Samuel Goldwyn, because he felt it perpetuated stereotypes of Blacks of a bygone era. However, he was convinced to accept the project by friends and colleagues because a refusal of a Samuel Goldwyn offer would probably have ended his career in the movies.

  • Dorothy Dandridge and Pearl Bailey were also reluctant to be in the film, until they heard that Poitier and Sammy Davis, Jr. were going to be in it. Sammy Davis, Jr. was the only one of the four leads who was actually eager to play his role in the movie.

[All info from IMDb]


Now, some months ago when I watched this movie for the first time, I tweeted "Why are they singing so much?!" Of course, I knew that Porgy and Bess was originally an opera, but so was Carmen Jones--and I think I watched the movie with "Carmen Jones" expectations (more dialog than singing to drive the narrative). This time around, I popped the movie in with a more clear mind and this time, I enjoyed both the movie and its music. 

From Dorothy Dandridge Forever 

Still, this is one of those cases in which most of the time, I was thinking "I should definitely read the play" or "I should watch a performance of this play", because throughout, I began to question a lot of things that either made no sense and/or seemed downright unbelievable. For example, in the middle of the film, a big storm hits the town and the residents of Catfish Row gather in one house (the home of Serena, played flawlessly by Ruth Attaway). Now, one of the residents--a woman who is extremely worried about her husband who is at sea--walks out of the house in a panic to find him.

Now, may I mention again that ALL of the residents of Catfish Row were gathered in that house? Therefore, ALL of the residents watched this character walk right out the door and into a hurricane. Not only did they watch her, but they CLOSED THE DOOR BEHIND HER. There is no gif available to express the look on my face when this happened, but the thing is, so many (too many!) situations like this occurred: avoidable situations unrealistically took place. There was no build-up for dramatic moments and the setups for them were super obvious. This explains my desire to read or watch a performance of the play: "Was this scene written like this in the play???"

I guess you could say that the script wasn't as well written as it could have been; and also, as the original director, Rouben Mamoulian adamantly insisted (before he was fired), I do believe the film would have looked better if filmed on location. This movie really had some potential, but behind-the-scenes drama (and some egos) really sort of killed it before it even hit the screens.

Porgy and Bess is only saved by its performances.

From Barnes and Noble

Here are some words from Dorothy Dandridge herself, from her autobiography, Everything and Nothing: The Dorothy Dandridge Tragedy (this autobiography was titled and published posthumously):

"When pressure is brought against an actress, a picture, a book, anything creative, you are apt to get a vitiated, neutralized product which comes out weak, mediocre, and not believable.

What happened was an attempt to clean up Catfish Row! An actual attempt to make life on Catfish Row look not so bad. Everyone connected with the movie embarked on a program to take the terror, fright, and oppression out of ghetto living. You can't do a picture about the black lower depths and then wash up the street and wash the dogs that cross into the scene.

That was the kind of cleanup operation that was done in the film version of Porgy and Bess. That is what happens when people who are not artists, directors, actors, or writers make their influence felt on an art production. They come in with their fears and their great self-belief and their little button-pushing neighborhood political power, and they tell the actor how to act, the writer how to write, the singer how to sing and what to sing. The influence of this pressure permeated Porgy and Bess and wrecked it both as an entertainment vehicle and as a vehicle of instruction."

...and there it is.

You can check out Porgy and Bess on Youtube by clicking here.


The images above were used for entertainment and informational purposes only. If the rightful owner(s) of any of these images wishes to have them removed, please contact me and I will do so immediately.--Adrienne


Also, please check out the video I made in honor of Dorothy Dandridge's birthday!

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