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

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Blogs Rising from the Dead, Liebster Awards, Mass Hysteria

If you hear the sound of creaking hinges, that's because my poor, dear blog hasn't been open for over a month. I feel a bit like Christopher Lee up there (except less stylish, naturally), rising up out of my coffin. I have a good excuse for my absence in that I was using my summer vacation to travel in Malaysia. Most of my computer access was through my smartphone which is wonderful but not exactly conducive to blogging. I have no regrets because it was an excellent trip, full of sun, sights, and good food. But still, it's a relief to get back to this blog and the world of cinema.

While I was away, however, two lovely, gifted, and brilliant bloggers, Natalie from In the Mood and Laura from Who Can Turn the World Off With Her Smile? generously bestowed a Liebster Award on Me. You guys. Your kindness makes me want to rend my garments and vow, Scarlett-O'Hara-style, to never let this blog go hungry again. Alright, that was hardly a great metaphor, but you know what I mean. And if anyone out there isn't following these two great ladies' blogs, well, what are you waiting for? Natalie is a great blogger, funny, original, and a Barbara Stanwyck fan to put all others to shame. Laura is one of the most engaging writers I know; she has the ability to leap on pretty much any topic and pull at least ten different insights out of it.

Now, the Liebster has apparently had a makeover since the last time I saw it. They've expanded the rules to the following:
1. Tell 11 things about yourself.
2. Answer 11 questions from the person who nominated you.
3. Tag 11 bloggers.
4. And ask them 11 questions thought up by you.

The problem for me is, since I've been away, most of the people I might tag have already been honored. And trying to track down who has and hasn't been tagged...if I do that, this post might get postponed to next week and I'd rather not do that. So I'm just going to treat this like a regular meme and respond to parts 1 and 2.

Thanks again, guys and it's great to be back!

11 Things About Me

1. I find it impossible to travel without packing at least two books. Possibly three. Doesn't matter if the trip is two days or two weeks, I need my reading material. There's an 80%  chance that even then I will find an excuse to visit a bookstore while I'm abroad, regardless of whether said bookstore has English-language books or not.

2. I was an obsessive Tetris player as a kid and I still pine for my old-school Nintendo.

3. I am twenty years younger than my brother. We're not half-siblings.

4. Every year I tell myself that I will enter the Bulwer-Lytton Contest and every year I forget to send in an entry on time.

5. My favorite color is green.

6. If someone asked me which Hollywood star I would most want to look like, it would be Maureen O'Hara, no question. I've been hankering after that gorgeous flaming hair since I was seven.

7. Sometimes my taste in fictional men can be a little...offbeat. Louis Renault may be a corrupt captain who blackmails women into sex and is hopelessly in love with Humphrey Bogart--but I still find him madly attractive. Same goes for alcoholic James Mason in A Star is Born, who had my heart from the moment he wiped off Judy Garland's makeup. Oh and Orson Welles for the brief stretch of Citizen Kane where he's lounging around in his chair and joking about how to run a newspaper. I would chalk it up to an attraction to gorgeous voices but then, Alan Rickman does nothing for me.

8. I can't whistle.

9. I'm an early riser by choice. Sleeping in makes me feel uneasy, like I've been missing out on all the fun.

10. My favorite season is winter. Favorite kind of weather is the day after a snowfall when all the ice is melting off the tree branches and the sun is shining but the air is cold. It's the kind of weather that makes me feel anything is possible.

11. I love watching old clips of What's My Line on Youtube. And damn do I love Arlene Francis.

11 Questions from Natalie

1. In film do you prefer black&white or color?

Rather than state my answer in words, I will let these images speak for themselves.

2. In photographs do you prefer black&white or color?

I cannot imagine seeing the Aurora Borealis in black and white or the photos of Dorothea Lange in color so yeah, my answer is the same as before.

3. Your favorite era in music?

‘Fraid I don’t have one. I pick a little from each one.

4. Do you have a tumblr?

Nope. Sometimes I wish I did, but then, tumblr isn’t great for comments and I love the back-and-forth discussions on sites like Blogger and Livejournal.

5. Your second favorite actress?

Wow. Barbara Stanwyck is so obviously my number one that my other favorites are clustered pretty closely together. So, erm, I’ll say Joan Bennett, to pick one at random.

6. Your favorite movie starring your second favorite actress?

The Reckless Moment.

7. Your second favorite actor?

Life’s full of tough choices…I’ll pick Humphrey Bogart.

8. Your favorite movie starring your second favorite actor?

The Maltese Falcon.

9. Favorite foreign film?

Currently it’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

10. Ice cream or French fries?

Finally an easy question! Ice cream.

11. If you could see your favorite actress in any movie role [real or imagined] what would it be?

I’m going to combine two of my answers here and say that I would love to have seen how Barbara Stanwyck would have tackled the Brigid O’Shaughnessy role in The Maltese Falcon. Just as an alternate version since I would never want to lose Mary Astor’s superb performance.

Questions by Laura

1. Ever written about something you changed your mind about later?

Oh sure. I don't know if I've ever had a direct 180 on a movie or performer. More often, I'll make a flippant comment on somebody else's blog and then think later, "Man, I was way too hard on Stanley Kramer." I usually agonize so long over my blog posts that it gives me time to tear apart my opinions and see what they're made of. But of course I'm going to rewatch films and change my mind, that's what it's all about. I think I did mention in one post that I change my mind about Marnie every single time I watch it.

2. Favorite photograph of your favorite actor/actress?

3. Favorite film critic?

The Self-Styled Siren.

4. Least favorite film by favorite director?

I’ve actually managed to put off seeing a large number of Alfred Hitchcock’s misfires. And what’s the point really in picking on a minor little film like Jamaica Inn? Or a film I can barely remember like The Paradine Case? So I’ll say the one that actually manages to irritate me the most: Torn Curtain. I’d love to play contrarian on that one but here’s the thing. That movie managed to make Paul Newman dull. Some things should not be forgiven.

5. Do you prefer foreign films dubbed or subtitled?

Subtitled, of course.

6. What common feature in classic Hollywood films would you have changed? (Racism, sexism, all the smoking, etc.)

Well, if you’re giving me the option, naturally I’d want to dismantle the racism and sexism.  But then, doesn’t that imply that I think racism and sexism aren’t still running rampant in current Hollywood film? Which, no, I don’t. So I guess I’d go after the Production Code, one of the single greatest factors in ensuring that Hollywood stuck to those eye-rolling black servants, tragic mulattos, unhappy career women, and sloppy, forced endings.

7. Most misleading trailer/poster/overall marketing for a movie?

I'm sure there are much more egregious examples out there but posters like this and trailers like this, along with critics calling it "the feel-good movie of the year," had me telling my friends, "Oh let's go see Slumdog Millionaire, that'll be a nice one." And after two hours of poverty, cruelty, child abuse, mutilation, rape, and torture, my friends turned around and solemnly informed me that I would not get to pick the next movie.

8. Which actors around today (if any) do you think will be considered true immortals fifty years from now, in the tradition of Garbo or Bogart?

I think we do have some acting immortals although the ones that come to mind are mostly longtime legends like Meryl Streep and Michael Caine. But I find it hard to imagine the same kind of actor cults and glamor that follow someone like Garbo. I just think that kind of aloof, semi-divine celebrity has been replaced with a more casual yet even more invasive popularity.

9. Have you ever been put off by an actor, director, or producer's work by their obnoxious or offensive offscreen shenanigans, or do you think that's irrelevant to their body of work?

I'd like to say it's irrelevant, but no, I do think that real life can infect the work. Mel Gibson comes to mind as the most obvious example. But then, if I really loved, loved Gibson's work as an actor, would I feel differently? I can still enjoy Rex Harrison's acting even if the real man was egocentric, anti-Semitic, and a supremely obnoxious personality. Of course Harrison has the advantage over Gibson in that his screen personality never depended on being liked.

10. Marry, boff, or kill (men): Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart?

I guess I’d kill Clark Gable on the condition that this would immediately send him to a happy afterlife with Carole Lombard. I can’t wrap my head around the idea of marrying Bogart (there is only Lauren Bacall) so I guess I’d nip into my time machine and boff Bogie while he was still in his “Tennis, anyone?” stage. And then I’d tie the knot with Cary Grant, asking him to teach me the proper way to drink cocktails, lounge in chairs, and do backward somersaults. Then we’d amicably divorce.

( ladies): Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Louise Brooks?

I can’t imagine killing Hepburn or Monroe so sorry, Louise Brooks gets it. But then, she’s tough and smart, maybe she’ll find a way out of the situation. Then I guess I’d have to be friends with benefits with Marilyn for a short, happy interlude before I married Audrey.

11. Pet obscure actor/actress?

I have a wellspring of love in my heart for Theresa Harris, Helen Walker, Doris Dowling, and Florence Bates. And others, besides.

And on that note of love, this is Rachel (who really should have taken her own advice and carried a parasol in Malaysia).