Porgy and Bess Summary - Concise and Clear Description

Porgy and Bess Summary


Porgy and Bess Summary

Are you aware that the film Porgy and Bess (1959) was the first movie to be nominated for both a Golden Globe for Best Picture and Academy Award? Yes, it did. It ultimately won two awards for Best Costume Design and Best Adapted Score.

The film is based on the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, and Dubose Heyward. The director of this captivating film is Otto Preminger, and the key stars are Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge. Other works by this director, Preminger, include Advice & Consent (1962), The Man with The Golden Arm (1955), and Anatomy of a Murder (1959).

It is important to note that many forms of art touch on the story of Porgy and Bess, such as novels, films, plays, operas, and television productions. This article will largely focus on Porgy and Bess movie of 1959, though it will slightly touch on the others. If you are searching for a professional to help you write Porgy and Bess summary for any form of art, place an order with us.

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Overview of Porgy and Bess Movie of 1959

The film Porgy and Bess (1959) is a musical drama based in the 1900s. The film's setting is in a fictional Catfish Row section of Charleston, South Carolina. The leading characters in the story are Porgy, a crippled beggar, and Bess, a drug-addicted woman that resides with Stevedore Crown. Bess gets her drugs from Sportin’ Life. In the rising action and climax of the plot, two people are killed.

This film's key themes are redemption, love, and hope. Porgy and Bess have deep flaws, but they find love and redemption from each other. The film's takeaway is that there is always hope for a better future, even in the darkest moments.

Forms of Art Based On the Porgy and Bess Story

The story of Porgy and Bess originated from DuBose Heyward’s novel, Porgy. Due to the novel’s impact, the story inspired many people and was adapted into numerous forms of art, from plays, operas, ballet, musicals, and films, to television productions.

Below are some of the most popular forms of art based on the story of Porgy and Bess.

  • Novel: The novel Porgy of 1925 by Dubose Heyward is the original form of art that brought the story of Porgy and Bess to life.
  • Play: After the novel, a play was produced in 1927. Todd Duncan acted as Porgy while Anne Brown as Bess.
  • Opera: In 1935, an opera was produced from this story. The directors were Dubose Heyward and George Gershwin. Again, Todd Duncan and Anne Brown took the roles of Porgy and Bess.
  • Ballet: Alvin Ailey choreographed a ballet from this story, first performed in 1976.
  • Musical: In 1976, Fred Ebb and John Kander produced a musical backed with a book and lyrics. Sammy Davis took Porgy’s role, while Lonette McKee was Bess. Furthermore, many jazz musicians have created their own versions of the Porgy and Bess songs in the opera—musicians like John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, and Miles Davis.

Which Films Are Based On The Porgy and Bess Plot?

Here is a list of some of the famous Porgy and Bess films:

  • 1959: The Porgy and Bess (1959) film is the most popular form of art that revolves around this story. (This is the primary reason this article focuses on this film.) As stated above, the director is Otto Preminger.
  • 1972: Another movie is The Porgy and Bess of 1972. It was directed by Sidney Lumet and starred Leontyne Price and William Warfield.
  • 2016: Another Porgy and Bess film was recently produced by Hustin Chadwick, which starred Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald.

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Which Television Productions Touch On Porgy and Bess?

On top of films, television series have been created on the famous Porgy and Bess story. The television productions include:

  • 1955: This TV series aired on CBS and was directed by Robert Breen. Todd Duncan and Leontyne Price played the roles of Porgy and Bess.
  • 1983: This Porgy and Bess series was directed by Tyne Daly and aired on PBS. Cynthia Erivo and Norm Lewis took the roles of the leading characters.
  • 2000: This is another TV production on Porgy and Bess created by Maria Ewing. It aired on PBS and starred Denyce Grave and Eric Owens.

Porgy and Bess Movie Cast

The entire character list in the story of Porgy and Bess differs from one form of art to another. We have discussed in the previous section the diverse forms of art that exist for this story.

In short, you will find more or less characters in one form of art than another. Our focus in this section is to analyze the characters in Porgy and Bess film of 1959. The key characters are:

  • Porgy
  • Bess
  • Crown
  • Sportin’ Life
  • Maria
  • Clara


Porgy is a cripple who lives in Charleston, South Carolina. He is a strong-willed, compassionate, and kind black man. To move around, he uses a goat-drawn cart. Porgy falls in love with Bess. He eventually kills Crown, Bess’ abusive husband. Porgy greatly drives the plot as he offers Bess a safe haven and helps her deal with her addiction. Porgy’s main actions are motivated by his love for Bess and his natural desire to help others.


Bess is a beautiful and talented black woman. She is, however, mentally disturbed due to the abusive behaviors of her husband, Crown. She turns to drugs to deal with her pain and becomes an addict. Bess falls in love with Porgy due to his compassionate deeds of providing her with a safe haven. Her actions are driven by her desire to find a better life and her love for Porgy.

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Crown is a tall and muscular man with a dark complexion. He is the husband to Bess and a friend to Sportin’ Life. Crown has terrible personality traits, the key being selfish, abusive, and violent. His motivations are as a result of his desire for power. He is willing to do whatever it takes to quench his desires. He controls Bess and aggressively mistreats her when she opposes his commands. Crown is an enemy of Porgy and Robbins. His critical actions in the story are that he brings Bess to Catfish Row, abuses her, and kills Robbins.

Sportin’ Life

Another dangerous character in Porgy and Bess (1959) film is Sportin;’ Life. He, however, masks his wicked traits by being charming and manipulative. He is ready to engage in any deal as long as it makes a buck. Some of his main activities are that he is a drug dealer and pimp. Sportin’ has a good bond with Bess and Porgy, but he is an enemy to Porgy. His key actions in the plot are that he fuels Bess’ drug addiction and persuades her to leave Porgy. Sportin’ is excessively motivated by money and his desire for power over others.


Maria has most of the traits evident in Porgy. She is determined and kind, making her a mother figure to many residents. She offers Porgy a place to live and assists Bess in escaping from Crown. Maria’s actions significantly contribute to the happiness between Porgy and Bess. She is a valuable asset and true friend in Catfish Row, as she sees the best in everyone and is always ready to offer a helping hand.


Clara is also a kind woman that is married to Jake, and the two have a young son called Buster. Her most essential actions in the plot are that she recites the “Summertime” song and helps Bess get away from Crown. Most of her actions are due to her love for her family and the community.

Porgy and Bess Setting

Initial Outlook of the Setting

The setting of the Porgy and Bess movie of 1959 is in the 1900s in a fictional area; the Catfish Row section of Charleston, Carolina. Catfish Row is dominated by blacks, with the residents living a meager life as they struggle to make end meets. The streets are crowded and dirty, and houses are small and rundown. Generally, the setting signals poverty and discrimination that residents encounter.

Fortunately, the community is closely knit as they readily support each other in times of need. They provide each other with strength and comfort, making it survivable in a difficult world.

How Does The Setting Change?

The setting drastically changes as the plot evolves. A setting that once gave its residents a sense of hope and possibility, optimism about the future, and a determination to improve their lives is nowhere to be found. The setting oppressive nature surges as the plot develops, and hardships greatly increase, leading the residents to start to lose hope. The residents’ moods change as the story nears its end, and the setting now profoundly becomes a symbol of their struggle.

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Porgy and Bess Plot

Porgy and Bess (1959) film is adapted from an opera that goes by the same name, which George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward produced. The film tells the story of residents in Catfish Row, Charleston, South Carolina. The story's protagonist is Porgy, a crippled beggar; Bess, a distressed woman who becomes an addict as she tries to escape her offensive spouse; and Sportin’ Life, a drug dealer that convinces Bess to join his world of drugs and prostitution.

The film begins with scenes of Porgy and Bess meeting for the first time. Porgy is instantly attracted to Bess and decides to assist her in running away from Crown. Bess agrees and starts to stay with Porgy. With time, they fall in love and start creating a new life together. To their dismay, their happiness is short-lived as Crown returns. The crown is hell-bent on taking Bess back, even if it means killing Porgy. A confrontation between Crown and Porgy results. However, Porgy is able to defend himself from this gigantic rivalry. Amid self-defense, Porgy kills Crown.

Bess becomes devastated after Crown’s death. Immense guilt and fear grip her as she is unsure of her fate. Sportin’ Life, as manipulative as always, takes advantage of Bess’ vulnerability, and he persuades her to go with him to New York City. Bess eventually gives in and accepts Sportin’s request. The film ends with Porgy setting out to New York to find Bess.

Porgy and Bess Themes

The main themes in Porgy and Bess (1959) film are as follows:

  • Love: The film majors on the romantic life of Bess. Bess leaves her husband, Crown, to be with Porgy. These two come from different walks of life and find love and happiness together.
  • Loss: Many aspects of loss, both physical and emotional, occur in the film’s story. Bess loses Crown and, finally, losses Porgy when she decides to follow Sportin’ Life. Two people are killed; thus, loss of life happens. The two are Robbins and Crown. Also, the residents in Catfish Row lose hope that they previously had for their future once the hardships increased significantly.
  • Hope: The theme of hope is also widespread in the Porgy and Bess film. Despite Porgy and Bess' numerous problems, they never give up on hope. They believe they can find happiness together despite all the adversity surrounding them.
  • Community: The film also tries to show the power people have when working as a community. The residents in Catfish Row are closely-knit and help each other through thick and thin. They offer Porgy and Bess a haven and assist the couple in finding hope when lost.
  • Racism: The film touches on the issue of racism. A majority of the residents in Catfish Row are blacks, including Porgy and Bess. Although the setting, catfish Row, is fictional, the film is based in the 1900s and perfectly shows how racism was rampant in this era. For instance, Porgy and Bess face discrimination daily. Nonetheless, they don’t let it define them; they live in dignity and hope.

Porgy and Bess Symbols

Some of the symbols in Porgy and Bess (1959) are:

  • The Sea: The film repeatedly shows the sea. The sea can symbolize lots of things, some being that it represents freedom and danger. It portrays how the characters desire a life outside of Catfish Row as well as the dangers they may face when pursuing their dreams. This is easily relatable to the case of Bess.
  • Catfish Row: The film's setting is Catfish Row, a poverty-stricken black community filled with economic and social struggles. It is an excellent example of a marginalized community that has been historically segregated and oppressed. The name of this area, Catfish, shares some features with the fish known as “catfish.” This fish is a bottom-dweller that survives in harsh conditions, which is very similar to the community's life in this area.
  • Crown: The word “crown” suggests a position of dominance and power, reflecting the Crown's violent and intimidating traits. Mostly, he desires to assert control and authority over other people.
  • The Storm: In the film's last scenes, a hurricane strikes Catfish Row, representing the disruptive force that challenges and uproots the characters’ lives. The storm is more of a metaphor for the mayhem the characters experience, both on a societal and personal level.

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Porgy and Bess Genre

The film Porgy and Bess is a musical drama film. Why is it grouped in this category?  Because it has the elements listed below:

  • It is based on an opera, which is a musical theater genre
  • It consists of several musicals, including some of the most popular Porgy and Bess opera songs, like “Summertime” and “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin”
  • Its plot is influenced by the characters' relationships and emotions, which are often expressed through songs
  • Its cinematography and set design creates an atmosphere and mood of a musical genre

What Is the Difference between the Film Porgy and Bess (1959) and Novel Porgy

Only a tad difference exists between the stories in the film Porgy and Bess and the novel Porgy. The minor differences can be seen in the following:

  • Characters: The film has fewer characters than the novel.
  • Plot: The film’s plot is simpler than that of the novel.
  • Setting: The film is actually filmed in Harlem, New York City, in the late 1950s. It is mainly because the novel was based on a fictional town, Catfish Row.

Albeit these differences, the film is a perfect adaptation of the novel. It presents the characters in a well-developed manner and captures the novel's spirit. In addition, the movie features some of the most memorable Porgy and Bess opera songs.

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What Are the Popular Porgy and Bess Songs?

Here are some of the most popular Porgy and Bess songs:

  • Summertime: This song focuses on the amazing part of life. It is sung by Bess when longing for a better life.
  • I Got Plenty o' Nuttin': This song is about being content with what you have. Porgy sings this song to represent his status: he is crippled but happy with his life.
  • It Ain't Necessarily So: This song is about the significance of questioning authority. It is sung by Sportin’ Life, who, besides being a drug dealer, has a good knowledge of life matters.
  • Bess, You Is My Woman Now: This song is about love and the power of love Porgy sings to Bess when declaring his love.
  • Ain't No Use Worryin': This song is about the significance of not dwelling on the past. Porgy sings it to Bess to comfort her after she has been through much adversity.

These are just the tip of the iceberg. The film being a musical drama, expect to find tons of other songs.

Lyrics to Summertime by Porgy and Bess

Below are the lyrics to Summertime by Porgy and Bess, the most popular song in this story:

Verse 1

Summertime and the livin' is easy

Fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high

Oh, your daddy's rich, and your ma is good-lookin'

So hush, little baby, don't you cry


One of these mornings, you're gonna rise up singing

And you'll spread your wings and you'll fly all over the world

But until that morning, there's nothin' can harm you

With daddy and mammy standin' by

Verse 2

Summertime, summertime, summertime

Summertime, summertime, summertime


One of these mornings, you're gonna rise up singing

And you'll spread your wings and you'll fly all over the world

But until that morning, there's nothin' can harm you

With daddy and mammy standin' by

Verse 3

Summertime, summertime, summertime

Summertime, summertime, summertime”


We have written many summaries and reviews of movies and books, and what we have come across when discussing Porgy and Bess is nothing like we have ever seen. More than 10 forms of art have been adapted from this story, including plays, operas, films, musicals, and TV series. Anyway, just go through this article to learn all about the Porgy and Bess story portrayed in the 1959 film. Some crucial details discussed include characters, setting, themes, symbols, genre, and others.

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