The Pirate (1948)

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The Pirate (1948)

The Pirate (1948). 102 minutes. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Starring Judy Garland (as Manuela Alva), Gene Kelly (as Serafin), Walter Slezak (as Don Pedro Vargas), Gladys Cooper (as Aunt Inez), George Zucco (as the Viceroy), and Lester Allen (as Uncle Capucho). Special dance sequence with the Nicholas Brothers. Music by Cole Porter.

The Pirate is famous today for its troubled production history. This is largely due to star Judy Garland’s emotional instability at the time of filming, which was related to her mood disorder and prescription pill addiction. She famously missed 99 of the 135 shooting days and had a contentious relationship on the set with director and then-husband Vincente Minnelli. The movie was also unfortunately not a financial success upon its release. But simply watching its colorful sets, beautiful costumes, and expert performances, you would probably never guess that anything was amiss. In addition to featuring the accomplished art direction that we would expect from Minnelli, The Pirate is actually an intriguing take on romantic fantasies—an amusing look at whom we truly love and whom we think we love.

In the Caribbean in the 1800s, orphan Manuela Alva (Judy Garland) is to be married by her Aunt Inez and Uncle Capucho to the stout and slovenly mayor of Calvados, Don Pedro Vargas (Walter Slezak). Manuela is dejected over this news; she wants adventure and romance. Her trousseau is to arrive at Port Sebastian, and she persuades her Aunt to let her travel to the coast to pick it up. While there, she meets the lothario actor Serafin (Gene Kelly), who instantly falls in love with her, although she rebuffs him. On the night after they meet, she can hear his acting troupe performing in the town square, and she rushes out to see him. He performs as a mesmerist and hypnotizes her. While she is in a trance, he learns that she is in love with the legendary pirate Macoco, whom she has heard of but never met.

Back in the village of Calvados, Manuela prepares for her wedding day and is upset to see Serafin arrive with his acting troupe to woo her. He confronts her in her chamber, where he also meets Don Pedro, whom it turns out Serafin knows to be the real pirate Macoco. The actor strikes a deal with Don Pedro: Serafin will pose as Macoco to woo Manuela in return for sparing Don Pedro’s life. Although Manuela is initially impressed by Serafin-as-Macoco, she soon learns that he is an impostor. Nevertheless, Serafin is arrested on suspicion of piracy and nearly executed, but he and Manuela trick Don Pedro into admitting that he himself is the true pirate. The last scene shows Manuela and Serafin performing in a traveling show, very much in love.

Although the movie was not originally conceived of as a musical, MGM eventually determined that it would be a perfect song-and-dance vehicle for Garland and Kelly, with Kelly creating much of the choreography himself. The dancing showcases some of his audacious side. In the “Niña” number, for example, he scales buildings, jumps across balconies, and ducks in and out of open windows. He encounters a woman with a cigarette, takes it out of her mouth, places it between his lips, encloses it in his mouth, and kisses the girl. We may think he has swallowed it, or at the very least that it is no longer burning, but the next moment he has popped it out of his mouth with his tongue, and it is clearly still lit. It is hilariously silly. Every movement he makes, whether in a dance number or just hopping around a room with a whip, is dancerly and elegant. There have rarely been performers as poised as Kelly.

As the lit cigarette dance would imply, The Pirate flirts with a sensuality that it uses to tantalize us but ultimately retreats from. Our sense that the film is reluctant to fully engage with its sexual flourishes is supported by some of what we know about its production history. The somewhat legendary “Voodoo” number, now lost, was cut and possibly actually burned at Louis B. Mayer’s insistence after a screening, owing to its purported sexual nature. This song was originally performed as part of Manuela’s hypnosis scene in Port Sebastian and was replaced with the tamer “Mack the Black” sequence.

It is too bad that the “Voodoo” performance does not survive. I think a bit more heat in Garland and Kelly’s relationship on screen would have been welcome in this story about sultry nights. One scene already features Garland pulling at her nightie from behind mosquito nets during a hot evening, and in another scene a passionate and irate Garland throws dozens of works of art—including paintings, plasters, and bronzes—at Kelly. A musical number that was a little more suggestive would not have seemed out of place. As it happens, the closest we get to a sexual number is the Pirate Ballet, a fantasy sequence that Manuela imagines as she watches Serafin-as-Macoco dancing around a submissive burro. Serafin transforms in this sequence and appears in skimpy shorts. His shirt leaves one upper arm exposed, on which he wears a bracelet; he sports a scarf around his head; his dark hair is curly; and he is heavily mustachioed. As styling, it is fairly over the top and anticipates the appearance of erotic film stars of the 1970s. We get the feeling while watching Kelly swivel around in his tiny outfit that the movie is depicting more than a young girl’s imaginative crush and is actually permitting her to engage in an overtly sexual fantasy.

Manuela’s fantasy life is certainly one of the stranger aspects of The Pirate. Yet although she is caught up in the romance of being wooed by a pirate, her dreams about the pirate Macoco, while sexual, are not particularly romantic and emphasize instead his brutishness. In the Pirate Ballet, she imagines him slicing off the headdress of a native Caribbean woman, greedily running his hands through treasure, and mercilessly shooting two shipmen. It is not clear what about this is supposed to be appealing. We sense that perhaps sweet Judy Garland’s Manuela has gone astray in a major way if she thinks that the wild Macoco of her dreams is relationship material.

Of course, the absurdity of Manuela’s fantasies is neatly underscored by the fact that the real Macoco is the very man she feels sentenced to marry. He is rather overweight, with sleazy hair and unrefined ways. At the very end when he reveals himself and threatens to shoot Serafin, we see that he is indeed a brutish pirate. But fortunately, the aspect of the pirate that Manuela seemed to love most is the drama, as well as the mystique, and Serafin as an actor and mesmerist has all of those things in plenty. So maybe this story is about channeling our fantasies into more practical mates: the fantasy of the pirate does not seem wholly appealing to us, and the reality of the pirate is also not attractive to her, but the man who can furnish his own version of the pirate is a good fit.

I must admit that the song lyrics seemed to me to be at odds with the direction of the fantasy material. Cole Porter music after the 1930s seems to have been borne out of heavy martini consumption. I am thinking in particular of lyrics like those of the opening song “Niña,” where Porter rhymes the word “Niña” with “schizophrenia.” Overall the words and music evoke playful Manhattanites at cocktail parties in the post-war era rather than the Caribbean in the 1800s. For example, in the song “You Can Do No Wrong” (which on its own as a title is an oddity given the setting, as that is a twentieth-century expression), Manuela sings to Serafin, “When you gaze in my direction, life is caviar.” I consider it unlikely that anyone in the Spanish Caribbean at this time was acquainted with cosmopolitan fare such as blinis and champagne. Still, the use of Porter’s wry lyrics in anachronistic settings seems to have been a deliberate and fashionable choice. I have recently seen Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), also starring Gene Kelly, which although set largely in eighteenth-century France nevertheless contains songs written by Cole Porter with a decidedly modern bent.

One song that is really worth paying attention to in The Pirate is “Be a Clown,” sung first by Gene Kelly with accompanying dancers the Nicholas Brothers and later by Kelly and Garland in the movie’s finale. This is the song that gave birth to Singin’ in the Rain’s (1952) “Make ‘Em Laugh,” performed in that movie by Donald O’Connor. Both The Pirate and Singin’ in the Rain were Arthur Freed musical productions at MGM, but my understanding is that Freed was unable to procure the rights to reuse Porter’s “Be a Clown” in the 1952 production, even though Kelly wanted it desperately. Betty Comden and Adolph Green based “Make ‘Em Laugh” very closely on “Be a Clown”: there is a nearly identical melody and musical structure, as well as a lyrical pattern that is very similar. However, “Make ‘Em Laugh” as a revision is superior—its lyrics are snappier, the musical accompaniment is bolder, and the performance by O’Connor is brilliant. Plus, whereas “Make ‘Em Laugh” encourages us to be comedians, “Be a Clown” literally commands us to be clowns, and clowns are, of course, awful.

One interesting historical note: Kelly performs “Be a Clown” first with the dancing Nicholas Brothers, who are agile and charming. They are also black, and this apparently caused trouble in the southern United States; the sequence was cut entirely from distribution in that region. Interestingly, the problem was ostensibly that the dance paired Kelly and the Nicholas Brothers in a mixed-race performance, but I think a likely issue of additional concern for the South was the fact that Kelly interacts with the Nicholas Brothers as an equal dance partner. The three men move in sync with each other, jump over each other, climb over each other, and compliment each other nicely. All three also run up to the gallows where Kelly’s character is to be hung and sign “no” to a hanging noose, a strange and startling image that could out of context appear to be a statement about hanging practices in general, possibly even as manifested in the American South. It is a shame that this performance was not seen by a wider population upon the movie’s initial release because of prevalent racism.

Apart from the “Be a Clown” sequence, we do not see many Caucasian characters interacting with black characters, despite the fact that the movie is set in the Caribbean. We do see black characters in the marketplace and black military drummers at Serafin’s trial and near hanging, but none of them have speaking roles. There was originally supposed to be a part for Lena Horne as a dressmaker; she was to sing the song “Love of My Life,” but the role was cut from the script. Horne was always a commanding performer and could have potentially both complimented Garland’s performance with this song and enhanced the movie’s examination of romantic fantasy.

I will end with an observation about this movie’s relationship to The Wizard of Oz (1939), the movie that launched Garland’s career. In The Pirate, Garland’s Manuela, much like The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy Gale, lives with her aunt and uncle. There is a weird scene where Manuela says “Aunt Inez, Aunt Inez, I want to go home,” which you might momentarily confuse for “Auntie Em, Auntie Em/There’s no place like home.” The fact that Gladys Cooper as Aunt Inez strongly resembles Billie Burke (who played Glinda the Good Witch of the North) physically and vocally makes this echo all the more deliciously strange. I leave it to you to determine if any of this was deliberate.

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