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