Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Movie Review: The Pirate

The Pirate (1948) 
directed by Vincente Minnelli, starring Judy Garland, Gene Kelly

(Note: This post is an entry in the Gene Kelly Centennial Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Movie Blogs Association.)

In a small village named Calvados, a young orphan named Manuela (Judy Garland) daydreams about the famed pirate known as Macoco, the terror of the seas and the delight of women. But her aunt (Gladys Cooper) has other plans for her niece. Namely, marriage to Don Pedro (Walter Slezak), the town's pompous and thoroughly unexciting mayor. Being a dutiful girl, Manuela does her best to bury her hopes of romance. 

But as fate would have it, a dashing actor, Serafin (Gene Kelly), and his troupe of players happen to be traveling through a nearby town. And when Serafin claps eyes on Manuela, he knows she's the only one for him. After trying and failing to win her heart through words alone, he hypnotizes her at the troupe's performance. Under the spell, Manuela literally lets down her hair and sings about her passion for the pirate "Mack the Black" Macoco, astounding all with her performance. The next day, Manuela prepares to get married, with no memory of the night before. However, the lovesick Serafin is determined to win her and seizes upon a chance to impersonate the pirate. His plan turns out to have consequences he didn't expect, as the deceptions begin to pile up on each other. Lying is just another kind of performance, after all...


The Pirate is a film that is easy to summarize but hard to explain. On the surface, it's a straight-up musical parody of the old swashbuckler films, with music and dance substituted for swordplay. The romantic, valiant pirate of movies like Captain Blood and The Black Swan is ground to dust and glitter by Kelly and company. Kelly flashes a Barrymore-like profile as he romances Garland, but for most of the film, his Serafin is a clowning show-off whose flirtations play a bit like Errol Flynn on speed skates. "Senorita, don't marry that pumpkin...any man who lets you out of his sight is a pumpkin," he tells Garland, who looks back at him in pure disbelief. As for Garland, her hyperventilating responses to Kelly could be taken as a parody of all those bosom-heaving, "How-dare-you-ing" ladies of the adventure films. But on the other hand, for all its camp and silliness, the movie finds a very stylized but powerful sexuality in its two leads, giving Kelly and Garland an opportunity to heat things up to a level you don't expect from an MGM musical. It's mesmerizing. It's also kind of a mess.

This was the second film for Garland and Kelly, between the wartime musical For Me and My Gal in 1942 and the nostalgic Summer Stock in 1950. Behind the scenes was a warm working relationship that eerily mirrored A Star is Born. In 1942, Judy Garland was the experienced movie star who took the theater-trained Gene Kelly and taught him everything about film acting, how to move, how to emote, how to kiss. In the words of his widow Patricia Kelly, "(Gene) said she was the sexiest woman in Hollywood for him." Kelly never forgot the help.  When The Pirate went into production, however, Garland's personal problems were overtaking her talent, sending her into a drug-fueled nervous breakdown while her marriage to Minnelli fell apart. By 1950, Garland was an emotional wreck, who pulled herself through Summer Stock (and an immortal performance of "Get Happy") by sheer force of will. And the help of friends like Gene Kelly. Kelly, who could be a bullying, relentless taskmaster in the quest for perfection, was endlessly patient with Garland, enduring constant filming delays. In the words of Summer Stock's director Charles Walters, "Gene took her left arm and I took her right one, and between us, we literally tried to keep her on her feet." So The Pirate becomes the strange halfway point, before Kelly had reached the very pinnacle of his career and just as Garland was starting her descent. It's perhaps the closest they got to meeting onscreen as equals.



So what makes The Pirate such a strange film? I could point you to this little number (starting at 2:30) in which, Manuela, now convinced that Serafin is Macoco, watches him play around with a donkey. This for some reason, sets her imagination spiraling into a fantasy of him in tight black shorts, dancing a ballet in the flames and dominating a woman in a white headscarf. And well, just look at the imagery.


So Manuela thinks of herself as...oh, dear. Or how about the climax of the film in which Kelly escapes hanging by putting on a show? Granted this is a musical and putting on a show is the solution to every problem, but it's rare to see a plot-based musical throw character so completely out the window as The Pirate does when it chooses to end with its two lovers reprising "Be A Clown." I mean, is this the final image you would expect from a movie called The Pirate?


I suspect the reason The Pirate failed with the audiences of 1948 is because they came in expecting it to be a joke, but couldn't figure out just who was being kidded. Is director Vincente Minnelli just trying to make a parody swashbuckler? Or is he deliberately ragging on the audience, turning a familiar Hollywood fantasy into an arch meta-narrative of two stars ridiculing their own sexual roleplay before reminding us that they are, in fact, just actors? Or maybe it's a commentary on Minnelli's own obsession with performance and artifice? Honestly, I'm not sure myself. The film's intentions are so diverse that it's difficult to categorize.

Take the scene where Manuela is hypnotized by Serafin into telling the audience her deepest desires. Serafin believes she will reveal her love for him and he is dumbstruck when she confesses, in the song "Mack the Black" that she's got the hots for the pirate Macoco. It's Garland's best moment in the film as she lets down her auburn hair, swinging her hips and leading the troupe in song. In essence, she turns the tables on Kelly, taking his fantasy of a helpless, "pure" maiden and turning it into a lusty anthem of her own desires. But even then, the Cole Porter lyrics ("Macoco leads a flaming trail of masculinity") are enough to make you wonder just whose fantasies are being recorded here. And then Kelly swings it back around again by passionately kissing the unaware Manuela, the placement of his hands dangerously skirting the MGM code of conduct. 


As Manuela, Judy Garland is sometimes brilliant, sometimes far-too hectic. Garland was a lovely comedienne with great timing, but I have to say that the fists-beating, foot-stamping, I'm-angry-routine should, nine times out of ten, only be done by Carole Lombard. Garland's greatest strength as an actress was that phenomenal voice, which she could use to heartbreaking affect in drama but could also throb quite effectively in comedy. In a scene where she mockingly insults Serafin, I had to rewind the DVD three times just to listen to Garland's delivery of the line, "I can't believe I thought you were nothing but a common actor...How unspeakably drab." For the most part, Garland's personal problems are invisible on screen and she's obviously relishing the chance to reveal a passionate, desirable woman underneath all that innocence, rattling the bars of her MGM persona. I did find it hard to get over the schizophrenic nature of Garland's costuming in this film, which at times makes her look ravishing, as in the above "Mack the Black" number.

Or makes her look like a mushroom, as per this inexplicable ensemble:


Minnelli usually had a peerless eye for what would make Garland look good on camera so unless he approved this one during one of their marital spats, I don't get it.

However, the film ultimately belongs more to Gene Kelly than it does to Judy Garland. He indulges in too much eye-popping in his early scenes but otherwise, he comes off as much more relaxed and in control than either his director or costar. It's worth the rental price just to watch the scene where he dips a woman, swallows his cigarette for a kiss and then chews it back up to exhale the smoke. It's the true test of a leading man: when you can make blowing smoke into a woman's face into something hilariously funny. He pitches the comedy to the point where you can get all the Barrymore and Fairbanks in-jokes and still enjoy him as a sexy lead in his own right.

For Kelly fans, The Pirate might count as one of the star's most homoerotic films as well. Minnelli's camerawork, Cole Porter's lyrics, and even the dialogue lavish attention on the man's physicality and appeal. When his character Serafin is caught by the Viceroy, who believes him to be Macoco, he looks him over with open interest. "I must say Macoco, you're very satisfying! The other members of your profession whom I've met officially looked more like bookkeepers than pirates, but you - ooo hooo hooo - you fill the eye." It's an assessment that Minnelli seems to agree with because while he films Garland romantically, as usual, Kelly is always the fantasy figure. He is always the centerpiece of attention.


The Pirate is a film whose greatness lies in its strangeness as much as in its two stars. It's never mediocre but it can be frustratingly flawed. The plot, such as it is, completely falls apart in the third act when characters just stop the story altogether so they can have sporadic musical numbers. If the songs were Cole Porter's best...but they're not. And yet, I can guarantee that you will be remembering this one long after other and better films have faded. It's a passionate, freewheeling bit of escapism and if its intentions are a little muddled, well, the ambition is strong. And that's something worth singing about.

Favorite Quote:

"You know, it's not essential to love me to be in the troupe. It helps but it's not essential."

Favorite Scene:

The "Nina" dance number. "Mack the Black" is a catchier song and "Be a Clown" has the Nicholas Brothers but "Nina" is the film's most complete and fully realized routine. Minnelli's camera follows Kelly's acrobatics around the village as he declares his love for every woman he meets, kissing them, dancing with them, and calling all of them by the name, "Nina." "Nina, Nina, I'll be having neurasthenia 'til I make you mine," croons Kelly, dipping one girl even as he's eying the next one. On an aesthetic level, it's a great-looking number, one of the few times the film's comic energy feels relaxed and fluid. But the true genius comes from the realization that even as Kelly is busily parodying the Don Juan-style swashbuckling of Barrymore, Fairbanks, and Flynn, the sexualization is not of the many gorgeous "Ninas" but of him. The song celebrates the desirability of women all while shamelessly offering you Kelly in the world's tightest pants (and his legs never looked better) in a celebration of himself that's so playfully narcissistic it begins to feel oddly generous. In his willingness to embrace the camp of the Fairbanks part, Kelly finds a very real honesty and sexiness. It's one of the reasons that this film, for all its flaws, is a must for Kelly fans.

Final Six Words

Swashbuckler sent up as carnival entertainment

17 comments:

  1. Rachel, enjoyed your post on this film, which was filled with many perceptive observations. You explained what works for you in the film and what doesn't--and also why--very cogently. I have to say that I don't find this movie as uneven as most--even apparently Kelly and Minnelli, who I understand agonized a great deal over the film and how to improve it. I think in the end one can only explain its failure with audiences by it uniqueness. There wasn't really anything to compare it to and therefore they didn't know exactly what to make of it. Its spoofiness is quite stylized, more in the manner of the operettas of earlier in the century than of the popular American musical theater and film.

    It's not one of the great MGM or Kelly musicals, but I think it's still a good one, with Kelly and Garland in fine form and Minnelli's visuals so eye-catching that they are practically an end in themselves. It's one of those films that I find more interesting in their parts than as a whole. The main downside for me is that for the most part the score by Cole Porter isn't really memorable.

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  2. Such a strange movie, but I'll take its strangeness over the mind-numbing sameness of every New York-set "let's put on a show!" musical anytime.

    And the Nicholas brothers are in it! Even my boyfriend, who teases me about my old movie-musical obsession, will stop and watch every time he sees the Nicholas brothers on screen. Obviously Gene Kelly's off-screen legacy is complicated, but I've had a soft spot for him ever since I learned that not only did he push for the Nicholas brothers to be included in this movie against the studio's recommendations--other dancers would have (rightfully!) feared being upstaged--but that he angled for them to be included in the final number, one that was more integral to the plot. That way, it would be tougher for Southern theaters to cut the scene the way they usually did with black artists' songs. I have no doubt that plenty of theaters still ended up cutting it, but at least Kelly tried to make them think twice about it.

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  3. Oh, I believe you when you say The Pirate is strange--what's up with Kelly's hair. LOL! Good point about this being the films where Kelly and Garland met as equals. Loved reading your insights.; I had many LOL moments while doing so.

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  4. R.D. Finch: Thanks so much for your detailed comments. I found the stylized nature of The Pirate to be its most interesting feature. I mean, you can never take a scene at face value, there's always these multiple levels of meaning underneath. Which makes it hard to review, but great to talk about. And yes, the Cole Porter score is nice and all, but no great shakes. Garland's songs feel especially like little throwaway numbers, with the exception of "Mack the Black."

    Paperpopsong: I'm so glad you decided to talk about the Nicholas Brothers! I really wanted to go on about them in my review but decided to conserve space. I do think Kelly's lobbying for them was one of his finer moments and it's a real thrill to see them in this film.

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  5. KimWilson: Thanks for commenting, Kim. I really wish Garland and Kelly had gotten the chance to make more movies together. They had such wonderful chemistry.

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  6. You're absolutely right that "The Pirate" is a must for Kelly fans. Whenever the movie is mentioned I can feel my face going into the scrunched-up perplexed attitude that it takes when I watch the movie. Ah well, better they should try whether they reach the goal or not.

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  7. This is one of my favorite Kelly films. I always saw him as Douglas Fairbanks dancing, and in this film it came true. He and Judy, the music, the color - all glorious, over the top and wonderful. Plus, Gene is way mucho sexy.

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  8. It's mesmerizing. It's also kind of a mess.

    Precisely how I felt about it when I first saw this a few years ago! Only I couldn't quite put my issues with it into words. You have. Thank you!

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  9. Caftan Woman: I think you're right. Whether you like the film or not, you do have to admire the film's ambition, especially considering how difficult it was to make.

    FlickChick: Thanks for the comment. Yeah, it's hard to take your eyes off Kelly in this one.

    Hamlette: Thanks! Glad you stopped by.

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  10. What a fun film, Gene Kelly, makes a very sexy "Pirate"..

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  11. I really need to see this one. Fascinating messes can be so entertaining ... :) Thank you for the expert and entertaining analysis.

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  12. Hi Rachel! I'm sorry it took so long to get over here for your review.

    I mentioned during the Me and My Gal review how much I enjoyed Gene and Judy together. Considering I'm not a fan of musicals from this era. I actually enjoy their collaborations. Thanks so much for including the behind the scenes info here. I wasn't aware that Judy was so much help to Gene and who he attributes his early mentoring to.

    I still laugh when I see photos of Gene in his 'Swashbuckler hair'. It just makes me think of a parody of Fairbanks and Gilbert Roland. Such a departure! But that's what I like about Gene and Garland's films they did back to back. They are all so different which is rare for the musicals they spewed out during that time.

    A really fun and informative review.
    Page

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  13. Dawn: Indeed.

    Classicfilmboy: Thanks for your comment. It's definitely worth checking out.

    Page: Yeah, I seem to remember that you're not a musical fan...so your appreciation of Garland and Kelly is especially meaningful. They are just so sweet together. Thanks for the detailed response, I appreciate it.

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  14. Rachel, thanks for covering this Kelly/Garland film since it's not as well known, but one which I always love seeing for its bravado and sheer fun. As for the costumes it's one of those films that "fell through the cracks" at MGM. The fabulous Irene, the head designer was busy designing for Easter Parade before leaving to start her own business. The talented Helen Rose, another MGM designer, was busy designing for Elizabeth Taylor and Cyd Charisse. So an outside designer with limited movie experience, Tom Keogh, was hired-on to do The Pirate. Regardless, it's a unique movie and as you say, a time capsule of evolving careers at a crossroad.

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  15. Rachel, I'd swear I left a comment yesterday, but my internet connection was glitchy over the weekend so, who knows. I haven't seen "The Pirate" beginning to end, only snatches that are shown on TCM or specials and documentaries about musicals/Minnelli/Garland, etc. I think its "messy" reputation is the main reason I haven't given it a look. But I gave the bizarre "Yolanda and the Thief" a chance and developed a fondness for it. "The Pirate," judging from what you've written, might be more to my liking than I'd thought. Great piece.

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  16. Christian Esquevin: Thanks for coming by with all this great info on the costuming. I can definitely imagine that the experience on The Pirate set was so miserable for all involved that nobody wanted to wrangle over the costumes (which for me personally, alternated between great and baffling). Interesting that Tom Keogh worked so little in film.

    The Lady Eve: It's messy alright but definitely memorable and worthy of a look.

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  17. Great analysis and review! I shared the link with my FB friends. It is an odd film.

    I always loved "Be A Clown." They recycled that for "Summer Stock", too.

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