Porgy and Bess (1959) – Film #0562

Directed by Otto Preminger 
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 2011 
I first watched it on July 14th 2020 

What It’s About:

Porgy (pronounced “PORG-ee”; it doesn’t rhyme with the word that you think it does) is a man with a disability—he can’t use his feet, so he walks around on his knees, and he gets around town in a cart pulled by goats. Bess is a drug addicted woman. When her boyfriend kills a man in anger, the boyfriend goes on the run, and Bess finds herself in need of a place to stay. Porgy is the only one in town willing to open up his home to her. They eventually fall in love, and drama ensues. It’s based on a stage musical with an all-black cast (progressive, at the time) … that was written by three white dudes and is full of negative stereotypes (whoops, maybe not that progressive.)

My experience with the film:

As with my previous entry, this is a film that I watched over the summer when I was first starting this project. However, I ended up getting backlogged and am only writing this entry now. This was also one of the hard-to-find films that I wanted to try to get out of the way early. Just how hard to find? Well, as the fascinating Hollywood Reporter article linked below describes, some people consider this “the ‘Holy Grail’ of Missing Movies.” Essentially, if you want to watch a high quality print of the film, there are only a couple that exist worldwide (held by private collectors). Or, you can travel to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. to watch the digitized version that they have for copyright purposes there. Otherwise, you can find low quality versions online, like the bootleg DVD pictured above that I may or may not have purchased on eBay. (It was only later that I discovered, to my dismay, that there is an extremely low-quality version currently on YouTube, for now at least.)

While there is quite a bit of drama surrounding the circumstances that make this film hard to find, there was also significant drama leading up to the creation of the film. (Again, I would point you to the resources linked below). The short version of events being that most of the people involved with the film didn’t actually want to be involved with it. 

Despite all this trouble, was the final product actually worth it? Not really, in my opinion. I’m sure the source material didn’t help, but I had a hard time believing in the relationship at the center of the story. Not only was there not much chemistry between the two leads, but the common Hollywood axiom of “show, don’t tell” seems to have been inverted for this film: it’s all “tell” and no “show.” Characters talk (and sing) about their feelings rather than actually demonstrating them. I couldn’t help but think of Eliza Doolittle’s song “Show Me” from My Fair Lady. She wouldn’t have been a fan of all of the “words, words, words” that the film uses to convey the way that the characters feel about each other. 

Likewise, I don’t want to spoil the ending in case someone is actually curious enough to seek this out, but although Porgy’s character is portrayed as earnest, naive, and possibly over-attached throughout the film, the final scene seems to dial up these attributes up to 11 and has him make a hasty spur-of-the-moment decision which seemed strangely out of character. Not that he wouldn’t have done what he did eventually, but literally doing it the moment that he learned a key bit of information without any kind of preparation seemed less like something he would do, and more like something the story needed him to do because the film was literally about to end.

That said, there were a few aspects of the film that I enjoyed. A couple (and only a couple) of the songs were particularly well-executed. And, despite the fact that the sets were obviously sets and not real locations, I was still impressed by them. Additionally, Sammy Davis Jr., who played a charismatic drug dealer/pimp named “Sportin’ Life,” was the only actor who genuinely wanted to be involved with the film, and it showed—he seemed to have a great time playing his character. 


As mentioned above, there are a couple sketchy ways to watch this film, and one legitimate one. An extremely low quality version has been uploaded to YouTube (though it will likely be eventually taken down, so watch it while you can). It can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIdrZxaP-gE 

An only slightly better (though still not great) version of the film can be found on (bootleg) DVD on eBay: https://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_from=R40&_trksid=p2380057.m570.l1313&_nkw=porgy+and+bess+dvd&_sacat=0 

Or, it is available for viewing at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.: https://lccn.loc.gov/91733374 

To learn more about the history and significance of this film, I recommend the following resources:

For the complete list of films in the National Film Registry, including information on how you can view each film, and links to every entry that I have written, please see my NFR Directory

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