'59 'Porgy' film taking New York curtain call


NEW YORK -- It was a much-touted, much-seen and in some quarters much-admired motion picture in its time, with four Oscar nominations (and one win) to its credit and a cast filled with talented people who, if not yet icons, certainly became so in the years after: Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Pearl Bailey, Sammy Davis Jr. and Diahann Carroll. We're talking Samuel Goldwyn's mammoth 1959 musical "Porgy and Bess," a film that has not -- except in a few rare instances -- rolled through a projector in decades but will again Sept. 26-27 at the Ziegfeld in Manhattan amid much hoopla, all in conjunction with the publication of an extensive new biography on the film's director titled "Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King," written by Foster Hirsch, published by Knopf and headed for bookstores Oct. 21. ... There are reasons the film version of George Gershwin's famed folk opera has been unseen for the past 40-plus years. After a complicated birth (its original director, Rouben Mamoulian, was fired during production, with Preminger taking over; there also was a mysterious fire that destroyed much of the set and delayed production), the finished film drew some negative criticism for its "unrealistic, soundstage look," while there also was strong opposition from several civil rights groups that felt "Porgy" in any form gave a slanted, unfavorable view of black American life. (The original stage version was similarly roasted when it premiered in 1935.) The movie opened as a roadshow attraction at New York's Warner Theatre, with the New York Times' Bosley Crowther hailing it as "a stunning, exciting and moving film, packed with human emotions and cheerful and mournful melodies (that) bids to be as much a classic on the screen as it is on the stage." Others disagreed, stunning Goldwyn. The movie ran 30 weeks at the Warner, then played dates around the U.S., but thereafter, except for a few TV airings in the 1970s, it virtually disappeared. Goldwyn's rights expired after 15 years; despite attempts to renew them, the Gershwin estate turned a deaf ear, and "Porgy" has been sitting in a vault ever since. (It also was said that Poitier and others preferred that it disappear.) At the moment, whatever kept this movie under wraps seems to have if not evaporated at least mellowed, and one holds a hope that, if there's not a theatrical reissue in the future, at least a DVD edition might be forthcoming. As Hirsch says in his Preminger book, "Whatever their objections, the estate has a moral responsibility to ensure that viewers have the opportunity to come to their own conclusions about this still contested work." At least this two-day theatrical screening is a step in the right direction. It's a particular gift for those who've always been eager to get a look at this piece of film ghostory, not only those in the black community but also curious historians and eager cinemaniacs who are devotees of Gershwin, Preminger, Poitier and Dandridge, all of who have been the subjects of an interest that's grown a great deal since the film was launched 48 years ago. ... That Sept. 26 date is a significant one for another reason: It's Gershwin's birthday, his 109th. "Porgy" is also the last film made by Goldwyn, whose career in film dated back to 1913.