It was 2008 when David Geffen started pressing producer John Goldwyn to arrange a screening of Porgy and Bess. The 1959 musical, based on the George Gershwin opera, was produced by Goldwyn’s grandfather, legendary Hollywood pioneer Samuel Goldwyn. Geffen implied that the mogul’s grandson had vowed to set up a showing of the film, but if so it had slipped Goldwyn’s mind. In any case, though his family still controlled the rights, Goldwyn did not have a print and did not know how to get one.
Prints of Porgy are beyond rare. “It probably is the most elusive film that not only got a studio release but a prestige studio release,” says Todd Hitchcock, director of programming at the AFI Silver Theatre near Washington, D.C. Foster Hirsch, author of a biography of the picture’s director, Otto Preminger, calls it “the holy grail of unavailable films.” Many archivists and some of the rights holders don’t know if a complete, quality print even exists.
With an astounding cast, including Dorothy Dandridge, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey and even a young Maya Angelou in an uncredited appearance, Porgy was broadcast nationally on television only once, when ABC aired it March 5, 1967. There are dubious bootleg copies online, but it is not possible to buy or rent a legitimate full-length quality version in any format. And even if a pristine print were discovered today, significant obstacles prevent it from being shown in theaters.
Perhaps Geffen was possessed with a burning desire to see Porgy simply because of the difficulty involved in screening it. Or maybe the movie had been important to the 73-year-old billionaire as a youth. (He would have been 16 in 1959.) Geffen isn’t saying. But as he continued to prod, Goldwyn decided it would be best to accommodate him, quietly.
Any attempt to find a print of Porgy and Bess turns into an epic exercise in bafflement and frustration. The movie is coveted by aficionados even though few see outstanding artistic merit in it. But those very flaws help explain why this film has been charged with emotion for nearly everyone with a connection to it (and why stage revivals, like a 2012 Broadway production, reignite new rounds of controversy): The history of Porgy is a tangled tale of good artistic intentions gone awry and lasting recriminations among the Gershwin and Goldwyn factions.
Still, that does not explain why prints of the film have all but vanished. It turns out finding the rarest studio movie of all time is easier than unraveling that mystery.
The film version of Porgy was snakebitten from the start. Based on Gershwin’s 1934 opera, the story follows a romance in the fictional South Carolina enclave of Catfish Row between the disabled Porgy (Poitier) and Bess (Dandridge), who is struggling to break free from an abusive relationship and the snares of drug-pushing pimp Sportin‘ Life (Davis).
The rights to Gershwin’s opera long were pursued by many big-name producers, and for Sam Goldwyn, it was a dream project. His moment to make the film, when he was in his late 70s, came as the civil rights movement got traction. Many African-American actors, including Harry Belafonte, declined roles because they thought the story promoted demeaning stereotypes. Both Dandridge and Poitier appeared only reluctantly. Davis wanted to be in the movie, but Goldwyn wasn’t interested, finally relenting under pressure from Davis’ Rat Pack buddy Frank Sinatra. Much of the dialogue in the stage version was changed from song to spoken word; singing was dubbed for Dandridge and Poitier. Of course the film included such classics as “Summertime” and “I Loves You, Porgy.”
Rouben Mamoulian, who had directed the stage version, was hired to make the movie, but before shooting began, the sets and costumes went up in flames. The rumored cause was arson by those who objected to the film’s portrayal of African-Americans. By the time production resumed, Mamoulian had been fired over creative differences and replaced by Preminger. Biographer Hirsch says the director previously had an affair with Dandridge and treated her abusively during the shoot. Preminger clashed with Poitier, too.
The film was a commercial failure; reviews were mixed. The New York Times praised it, but Time lashed its “cinematic monotony.” (THR proclaimed it “a monumental Hollywood milestone.”) Poitier is said to despise Porgy to this day. It was nominated for four Oscars but received only one, for the score by Andre Previn and Ken Darby. It was a deep disappointment for Samuel Goldwyn — a memory that seems to have resonated for decades with his family. He never produced another film.
The movie was not greeted with joy in the Gershwin family, either. George had died years earlier, in 1937, but his brother Ira lived until 1983. According to Michael Strunsky, the trustee and executor of the Ira Gershwin Musical Estate and Ira’s nephew (by marriage), the main reason Porgy is so hard to find comes down to the fact that Ira and his wife, Leonore, didn’t care for it. Or in Strunsky’s words, “They both thought it was a piece of shit.”
And so, continues Strunsky, “They did something they had a right to do. After 20 years, they had the right to have Goldwyn call in all the prints and destroy them.” And that, says Strunsky, is “absolutely what happened.”
While the musical rights reverted to the Gershwins, it’s less clear they had the power or will to demand the prints be destroyed. Singer and pianist Michael Feinstein worked as Ira’s assistant during the period in which this destruction allegedly occurred. “Ira would never have done it,” he says. On the other hand, Feinstein muses, “It’s the kind of thing Leonore would say at a dinner party — ‘I had it destroyed’ — to emphasize her dislike of it.”
Whatever she or her husband did or did not do, Porgy and Bess became a phantom movie.
As John Goldwyn tried to find a print, his first stop was Barbara Boyle, who teaches at the UCLA film school. She expected it would be in the university archive, the second-largest in the country with 375,000 television and film titles. But archive director Jan-Christopher Horak told her it was not there. (Even today, Wikipedia reports that UCLA has a copy, but that is incorrect.)
But Horak heard that one surviving Technicolor print — perhaps the only one — was in the hands of a quirky collector. That was Ken Kramer, the owner of a place in Burbank called The Clip Joint for Film. Dennis Bartok, the GM of American Cinematheque, calls Kramer’s shop “a magical place, one of the most beautiful private movie worlds in existence.” Packed with posters and memorabilia, the shop had a small screening room. On Tuesday nights, Kramer would fire up his popcorn machine and hold viewing parties. He sometimes would show his rarest possession, a 35mm print of Porgy. (While Porgy was shot in 70mm, there also were 35mm prints. In that format, the Technicolor of the day is comparatively stable, while 70mm prints tend to be faded and pink.) Some of his collector friends sometimes would tease him, saying that it wasn’t a great movie, but he always defended it. “He loved the people in it, and they never got enough screen time in that era. And he loved the music,” says his widow, Kathy Losso.
How did Kramer get his copy? He died in March 2016 at age 72, but Losso says he acquired it from a collector friend. “It probably wasn’t a quite-legal acquisition,” says Horak. “Studios don’t willingly give up those kinds of prints. But in the past, things wandered off the loading dock.” Some believe Kramer’s copy was assembled from different fragments.
When Kramer heard Geffen’s request, he had two conditions: He would bring the film only if it were to be shown at UCLA’s state-of-the art James Bridges Theater. Also, Kramer wanted to meet Geffen. And so, on Sept. 28, 2009, Geffen met Goldwyn for dinner at Toscana in Brentwood, and they set off to see Porgy. The next day, Horak emailed a colleague that the screening went “smashingly well” and the print looked “very, very good.”
Like Horak, Bartok believes Kramer had “the only good screenable print that exists anywhere in the world.” Bartok tells THR that he has heard of a 70mm print in Europe, “but it is badly faded, and the collector who has it wants to be flown in with it and charges a loan fee, and it’s ludicrously expensive and it’s pink.”
THR attempted to reach a collector in Germany who is said to possess a print but got no response. (Bartok, who co-authored a book about film collectors, says they tend to inhabit “a very strange, passionate, obsessive, secretive, often paranoid underground world.”)
In 2012, Hitchcock arranged a screening of the German print at the AFI Silver Theatre and had people making plans to come from as far as Australia to see it. But to his surprise, Sam Goldwyn Jr. and his longtime business partner, Meyer Gottlieb, denied permission. Hitchcock was forced to cancel (and still has not seen the film).
Preminger biographer Hirsch seems to have had better luck. He helped arrange two screenings of Kramer’s print at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York in 2007. Several Gershwin descendants came, he says, and said they were “proud of the film.” And in October, Hirsch arranged a sold-out screening at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. He had located a 35mm print belonging to the National Audiovisual Institute of Finland, which shipped it via FedEx from Helsinki.
“I’ve been here for over 30 years, and this was on my bucket list of movies to show before I die,” says Cleveland Cinematheque director John Ewing. The quality of the print surpassed his expectations: “For my money, it was gorgeous.”
Still, Ewing believes Kramer’s copy likely is better. But Sam Goldwyn Jr. and Gottlieb were not impressed. Losso recalls one day several years ago when the two men asked if they could come to The Clip Joint to see it. She made popcorn, offered them drinks. “They watched a few reels and finished their popcorn and then said they had seen enough,” she says. “They didn’t like the film.” Gottlieb confirms the visit to Kramer’s shop. “Sam and I went to his joint,” he says. The print “was not acceptable to us from a quality perspective.”
In recent years, says Losso, the Goldwyns have blocked public screenings of her husband’s print of the film, even rebuffing the Academy’s request to screen it for its staff. Losso says her husband had great respect for Gottlieb and was scrupulous about getting permission to screen the movie for the public.
After all these years, the Gershwin and Goldwyn camps still are pointing fingers over what happened to Porgy. Complicating the situation are two distinct Gershwin factions: Michael Sukin is a New York attorney who represents the George Gershwin Family Trust, while Ira’s nephew Strunsky handles the Ira-and-Leonore side of things. Sukin and Strunsky agree that both parties would like to see the film version of Porgy restored. They say they were working on that with the Goldwyn side but that the talks ground to a halt because of the cost. And Sukin says he does not even think a negative exists at this point.
Gottlieb sees it differently. In the late 1990s, he says, he and Sam Goldwyn Jr. asked the Gershwins to renew the rights to the music so the negative could be restored. And Gottlieb knows the negative still exists because it’s just where he and Sam Jr. put it: in the Academy library. But after many months negotiating with “a lot of lawyers and family members” who represented the Gershwin interests, he says he suddenly got only silence, with no explanation. “I decided from a frustration perspective, emotion perspective and business perspective, there was no benefit to showing a poor-quality [print] to an audience,” he says.
Brothers John and Tony Goldwyn, who now control the family trust with Gottlieb, say they have no objection to restoring the film in the right circumstances. “We would all as a group be completely open and enthusiastic if all the parties could come to agreement, in a financial sense, to restore it,” says Tony, best known for playing President Grant on ABC’s Scandal. In other words, the Goldwyn family does not intend to finance the restoration but insists on retaining its rights to release the film in all formats.
What would it take to restore the film? Michael Pogorzelski, director of the Academy film archive, says a test scan of the negative showed it to be in good shape. But to make a 70mm print might cost in the low-six figures, and there’s no impetus for the Academy to attempt to raise the money with such immovable obstacles to screening the movie.
Given the tangled rights and emotions, there may never be a restoration. But for those who are determined, there is a way to see Porgy and Bess. A 35mm print was submitted to the Library of Congress in 1960 for copyright purposes, and it still is there, though it is never screened. “We’re well aware of the scarcity,” says Mike Mashon, head of the Moving Image Section. The library made a video copy and digitized it, so anyone with a Library of Congress researcher’s card — which is not difficult to get — can see it. The library added the film to the National Film Registry in 2011.
The Finnish print of Porgy remains in its archive, and records indicate that since 1985, it’s been screened nine times. “There has been more demand during the years than what we have granted,” says archivist Juha Kinberg.
And what of Kramer’s print? Losso wants certain collectors to know that she doesn’t store it in Kramer’s office (“These guys are fanatics”). She’s determined to protect a film that was so special to her late husband. “Ken loved movies, and to share that experience was his passion in life,” she says. Bartok says it’s hard to say what Kramer’s print is worth, but he hopes to see it preserved. “I don’t think it holds up as well as some other musicals of that period,” he says. “But that doesn’t make it less historically and musically important.”
Gottlieb agrees, even if he doesn’t intend to allow any existing prints to be screened. It’s not that he doesn’t want the film to be restored, he says — but there’s that catch-22 of who would pay for it if the Goldwyns retain their rights. Porgy and Bess is “an American opera; it’s a classic,” says Gottlieb. “It’s got wonderful music, the creme de la creme, the best stars of the time were in the movie. I think the audience deserves to see it.”
This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.