Sammy Davis, Jr. Does Gershwin

Air Date: October 8, 1959

Notable Cast

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Sammy Davis, Jr. at the piano with Matt Dennis

A Classic Clip

This classic TV clip from The Big Party, initially broadcast on October 8, 1959 pairs two Gershwin tunes performed by Sammy Davis Jr., It Ain’t Necessarily So and Fascinating Rhythm. The show’s premise was an imagined celebrity party, and each episode featured several entertainers performing their specialties.

This clip starts with Sammy singing a song sung by Sportin’ Life, a role he had played in the recently released, and very controversial, movie, Porgy and Bess. The second song is another Gershwin tune and Davis displays both his song and dance skills. Davis’ skills as a celebrity and entertainer are clear in both numbers. The first song’s cultural context, and Sammy Davis, Jr.’s choice to perform it here, is important to understand. Many prominent black actors had declined auditions for Porgy and Bess, concerned about the racial stereotypes portrayed. Ultimately, the film casts Sidney Portier as Porgy, and Dorthy Dandridge as Bess, both of whom required the dubbing of other singing voices for the film.

A Classic Role

Despite many Black star’s refusal to be involved in the production, Sammy Davis, Jr. sought an audition for the part as Sportin’ Life. Although resistant at first, he eventually won over producer Sam Goldwyn, some say as the result of pressure from Frank Sinatra and others.

The film opened on June 24, 1959 to an audience on a reserved-seat only basis. Critics gave the film mixed reviews. The opening of the film in Atlanta so angered some black viewers that ultimately, the run was canceled. Producer Sam Goldwyn pulled the film in other areas of the country due to pressure from the communities. Ultimately, the film made back only half of its production costs.

After only 15 years, rights to the film returned to the Gershwin family. Due to dissatisfaction with the film, the family refused to allow it to be shown for many years. Prints became extremely rare. Director Otto Preminger called it, “the holy grail of unavailable films.” Rumored versions of prints abound; a pieced together version held by a private collector in LA, a German collector who flies in with his print for an exorbitant rental fee. A version of the film had been made available on DVD on Amazon but the DVD is of questionable quality and is out of stock with little indication of renewing supply.

A Classic Performer

With a close look, this classic TV clip gains a social perspective, and demonstrates the important role Sammy Davis, Jr. held in the integration of the entertainment industry.  The clip, almost casually, highlights Sammy Davis, Jr’s. presence among the other exclusively white guests. He moves and is easily accepted among them. He entertains them, but he is one of them, and most important, and somewhat shocking at the time, he LEADS them. This situation repeatedly confronted Davis throughout his career. Because of the extraordinary, and undeniable, range and quality of his abilities, he was often the first person of color to break a norm. Through his owns comfort and ability, he insists his talent be recognized. He knew he belonged and had the confidence to show it.

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