Porgy and Bess at the Movies
In 1937, George Gershwin predicted that his opera would be filmed “sooner or later.” Over the next 20 years, the Gershwin and Heyward estates regularly received and rejected offers from producers to turn Porgy and Bess into a film. In 1957, they relented and granted Samuel Goldwyn the film rights. In fact, Goldwyn had wanted to create a movie based on Gershwin’s opera since attending its premiere in 1935. Goldwyn hired as director Otto Preminger, who had recently produced and filmed Carmen Jones, the all-black musical version of Bizet’s Carmen.
Work on the movie coincided with the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement, and Porgy and Bess became the locus for controversies regarding the artistic treatment of African American life. Harry Belafonte, who had starred in Preminger’s Carmen Jones, turned down an offer to play Porgy, explaining, “In this period of our social development, I doubt that it is healthy to expose certain images of [African Americans]. In a period of calm, perhaps this picture could be viewed historically.”
The final film, released in 1959, featured Sidney Poitier as Porgy, Dorothy Dandridge as Bess, and Sammy Davis Jr. as Sportin’ Life. Created in the style of a movie musical, the condensed score includes songs, choruses, and brief sections of recitative, in addition to spoken dialogue. The film won an Academy Award for André Previn’s film score and received Oscar nominations for cinematography, costume design, and sound. It was not successful, however, at the box office. In 1972, when Goldwyn’s rights expired, Ira and Leonore Gershwin recalled all film permissions. As their nephew explained, “My aunt didn’t want it distributed. She and my uncle [Ira] thought it was a Hollywoodization of the piece. We now acquire any prints we find and destroy them.” In 2011, the Preminger film was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, which preserves films that it judges to be culturally, historically, or aesthetically important and of enduring significance to American culture.
George Gershwin is one of the most distinctive voices in American music. With an exhilarating combination of jazz rhythms, sweeping melodies, and wistful intonations of the blues—as well as native charm, wit, and verve—Gershwin’s songs, concert works, and opera offer an indelible representation of the American national identity. Indeed, Porgy and Bess is unique in the operatic canon for the extent to which its music has entered the popular consciousness, even for people who have no prior experience of opera or even classical music. Owing to the adoption of the opera’s arias by popular musicians ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Janis Joplin to Christina Aguilera, these songs have taken on a life outside of the opera hall, and in many cases have become jazz “standards” (works that are widely known by jazz musicians and audiences and that are often used as the starting point for reinterpretation and improvisation). Songs from Porgy and Bess that have become standards include “Summertime,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “I Loves You, Porgy.” For decades, jazz artists have used these songs as inspiration for their own takes on Gershwin’s tunes; album-length recordings by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong (1956), as well as Miles Davis’s all-instrumental version for big band (1957), are particularly noteworthy. The song “Summertime” has been recorded by Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holliday, John Coltrane, and Janis Joplin, while Nina Simone’s 1958 recording of “I Loves You, Porgy” launched her career. These performances, along with many other renditions, have contributed to Porgy and Bess’s accessibility outside of classical music. In the hands of these gifted artists, Gershwin’s songs have developed new meanings and relevance away from their birthplace on Catfish Row.
According to DuBose Heyward, Porgy was never meant to be a political work of art. Instead, he hoped that the novel and play would offer a “colorful setting” of “the old Southern slum … without using the story as a vehicle for propaganda or discussion of the race problem.” But although Heyward presented his intentions as honorable, in 1920s Charleston, the “race problem” was inescapable, and Heyward’s own views were by no means neutral. As much as he created serious, emotionally complex characters in his novel, he also placed them in a world devoid of class diversity, education, or activism. These elements were ascendant at the time, but in Heyward’s nonfiction writings, he them found to be of little benefit to Low Country African Americans. Instead, Heyward valued “the old, uncomplicated pattern of life” over “the forces of advancement” that lure African Americans “from our fields, fired with ambition.”
The reality of segregation, although it appears only obliquely in Porgy and Bess, cannot be separated from the history of the opera. For instance, when the opera toured to Washington, D.C., in 1936, the scheduled venue, the National Theatre, was segregated. It was only after the cast refused to perform there and unions threatened to boycott the theater that the management agreed to allow black patrons to sit anywhere in the audience. This arrangement, moreover, held only for performances of Porgy and Bess; afterwards, the theater reverted to its previous policy of segregation. Eight years before, when Heyward’s stage play Porgy had come to the National, the management turned away an entire troupe of black actors when they arrived with their tickets and even went so far as to employ “spotters” to identify African Americans and remove them from the theater. The complex awareness of racial exclusion heard in Langston Hughes’s landmark 1926 poem “I, Too, Sing America” was surely familiar to the performers of Porgy as well as Porgy and Bess.
Given the inescapable imagery of blackface minstrelsy in the portrayal of African Americans on stage at the time, it was inevitable that some audiences and critics would interpret Gershwin’s opera through that lens. Reviewers understood the characters of Porgy and Bess as variations of minstrelsy stock characters (e.g., the uneducated and lazy plantation slave, the promiscuous “mulatto” woman, the city dandy, the mammy, etc.), no matter how complex Gershwin’s characters were in the actual opera. Yet the characters of Porgy and Bess too sing America. Finely hewn individuals with opera-sized emotions and desires, they live, yearn, love, fail, and rise again as operatic heroes just as moving as any Mimì or Desdemona. One can appreciate the “entire fabric made out of all these individuals,” in the words of James Robinson, director of the Met’s production, without forgetting that fabric’s source.