Sunday, October 08, 2006

Porgy redux

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click lower right hand corner, then click again to enlarge

On the occasion of a rare showing last night here in L.A. of the long-suppressed Premingerization of the immortal Gershwin opera, I am reprinting my 1999 article in Variety about the film. At the time I wrote it, I realized that the Gershwin estate had gone far beyond merely suppressing the film. They had in fact been conducting a seemingly legal auto de fe fueled by every copy of the film they could lay their hands on. Common wisdom leans toward the theory that they especially disliked Andre Previn's somewhat jazzier orchestrations than those of the original's stage production's more high-toned operatic (if you will) scoring by Robert Russell Bennett. But who can say for sure?

The reason I had pulled my punches in Variety was that, during the writing of the short piece, and believing the Gershwin estate's claim to me that they might be willing to let the film be seen again, I found myself on the track of actually getting it back into circulation and thus didn't want to risk getting on their bad side. Besides, a film critic buddy of mine had already blown the whistle on them as rank pyromaniacs a few weeks earlier in an article in an L.A. paper.

Plus, representatives of the Gershwin estate actually had the foolish nerve to brag about destruction of copies of the film in conjunction with the first airing of the PBS TV production of "Porgy" in the early '90s. They were so successful in their mission to destroy Porgy and Bess, in fact, that there are seemingly only a few copies of the film remaining. And reports vary as to their quality and format (it was shown originally in both Todd-AO and Cinemascope). The copy I saw last night was woefully dark, but still managed to get the "job" done; I found Otto Preminger's idiosyncratic but logical close-up-free adaptation---which I have not seen since high school---to be every bit as terrific as I recalled its being.

In the process of doing my 1999 story for Variety, through a well-known film restorer of my professional acquaintance, I tracked down the original elements rotting away in an uncontrolled warehouse in the San Fernando Valley. I became so distraught that the film was now in almost an irreparable state that I made arrangements, through a chance meeting at a party with the head of UCLA Film Archives, to have the elements taken in by them. And with one (!) phone call I also personally raised $100,000, through the auspices of a well-known DVD outfit, to begin restoration of the film. It would take approximately seven times that, but at least it was a start. The integers seemed to be falling into place so miraculously and swiftly that the saving of Porgy and Bess seemed almost fated. From auto de fe to fait accomplit in three simple steps!

But apparently the Gershwins wanted no part of any of this, even though their Michael Strunsky hinted to me in my '99 interview with him that the estate might be ready for an about face. "Apparently," because more than seven years later, he has yet to return any of my phone calls, or answer the faxes, smoke signals, emails, telegrams, carrier pigeon missives and letters sent over the next few months after the Variety article appeared.

For the past few years P&B has been shown in a few clandestine venues without the Gershwin's blessing, but the sold-out screening last night in L.A. credited their co-operation. However, it should be obvious, finally, that they have no interest whatsoever in Porgy and Bess being shown again to the general public. Their so-called "co-operation" last night, and quotes to me in 1999 about "restoration and reissue" notwithstanding, they clearly have every intent of remaining Kulture Kriminals of the first water. In '99 Strunsky said something to me about taking his time in getting the film back into circulation, to which I can only reply, "I'll say!"

After viewing it less than 24 hours ago, I feel that the film would receive a much better reception today than it did when first released in the 1959 (it was not a critical or financial success at the time). It was among the first wave of big, big almost Stars Wars-like wide-screen films. The audience and critics perhaps wanted a chamber opera; instead, director Otto Preminger gave them a Catfish Row that was half the size of Rhode Island. But to my way of thinking, the humanity and brilliance of the original somehow managed to remain intact.

Sidney/Brock/Pearl/Sammy/Dorothy/Diahann, and yes, Otto aficionados, ARISE!

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