In a remote small Caribbean village, Manuela (Judy Garland, The Wizard of Oz) prepares to marry the town’s mayor, Don Pedro (Walter Slezak, Sinbad The Sailor). She, however, dreams of having an exciting life with the legendary pirate, Mack “the Black” Macoco. When a travelling actor, Serafin (Gene Kelly, Singin’ in the Rain), finds out about Manuela’s obsession with Macoco, he pretends to be the pirate in order to impress her. The plan, of course, backfires on him.
Reaction & Thoughts:
The Pirate is one of MGM’s less celebrated musicals. It seems that you either love it or hate it. I tried to re-watch it with that in mind, and I still don’t understand what’s not to like about the production. Perhaps because it is a rather unusual movie from the roaring lion — stylish to the ninth degree — it is possible that some viewers find the film’s artificiality hard to digest. That’s my best guess. Anyhow, I loved it even more the second time around.
Cole Porter was hired by producer Arthur Freed (An American in Paris) to write songs for a non-musical play by S. N. Behrman, which had been a big hit for Broadway darlings, the famous real-life couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Porter knew that he was writing for Kelly and Garland and that’s why the melodies fit the actors so well. Garland’s then husband Vincente Minnelli (Gigi) was put at the helm. Cedric Gibbons and Jack Martin Smith created the fantastic sets. Harry Stradling shot the film in gorgeous Technicolor. All that talent and postwar audiences stayed away. Even today there are plenty of naysayers. I simply don’t get it.
My only complaint is that it doesn’t have enough musical numbers. I counted only five — Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade (1948), Garland’s second musical of the year, has fourteen songs! — so there are big stretches with no music.
Garland, who was really a monument of talent, keeps the non-singing segments alive with a truly fantastic comedic performance. We all agree that she can sing, dance and do drama, but I feel she hasn’t gotten enough recognition for her funny bones. She’s hilarious and she does slapstick like a true master of the genre. Anyhow, she performs the best number, “Mack the Black,” a real showstopper. It’s one of her finest moments on the silver screen. Garland also sings the beautiful romantic ballad “You Can Do No Wrong.”
Kelly really stepped up his game with a series of dance numbers that varied in style, but are consistently amazing. I think he’s able to covey the idea that you can be both masculine and graceful. His “Niña” is just sublime; a smooth, but energetic dance routine. He also has a striking dreaming sequence — a Minnelli trademark — full of ballet and acrobatics. It’s also a musical number that suggests deep psychological ideas. But I think, “Be a Clown,” with the Nicholas Brothers, is still one of best things Kelly ever did. The song was later transformed into “Make ‘Em Laugh” (Singin’ in a Rain) (Porter didn’t mind the plagiarism).
I liked how Slezak plays the heavy as if he were in a serious drama — he’s a superb villain. Gladys Cooper (Now, Voyager) plays Garland’s silly, but well-intentioned aunt. The cast also includes George Zucco (The Mad Ghoul), Reginald Owen (Mrs. Miniver), and Lester Allen (The Dark Mirror).
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
From start to finish The Pirate is a lot of fun. It compares favorably with with the greatest movie musicals — it’s clearly the best of the three musicals Garland and Kelly made together. Color, 102 minutes, Not Rated.