The best of the Garland-Kelly collaborations?
It seems a shame that Judy Garland and Gene Kelly were afforded only three opportunities to make a film together (musical buffs know that the pair were meant to appear together in Easter Parade before Kelly broke an ankle during the film’s rehearsal stages and was replaced by Fred Astaire). Worse still, they never really managed to make that perfect, definitive Garland-Kelly picture. The wartime musical melodrama For Me and My Gal was their first film, and for all that makes it movie musical canon— the title number and Garland’s solo of “After You’ve Gone,” for instance — the film is hobbled by its descent into unpalatable propaganda when Kelly’s WWI-era hoofer finds he must repent for dodging the draft. Their last film, 1950’s Summer Stock, includes Garland’s legendary “Get Happy” number and Kelly’s inspired soft-shoe with a newspaper, but its “let’s put on show” plot (the show is in Garland’s barn, no less) is terribly quaint. Aside from that, it’s hard to get wholly swept away in the escapist fun when noticing Garland’s fluctuating weight throughout the picture and becoming preoccupied with her offscreen troubles. That leaves only the film that Kelly and Garland made in between, 1948’s The Pirate, alternately hailed as an underappreciated gem or written off as a dismal financial and artistic failure for its stars and for director Vincente Minnelli. Like the other Garland-Kelly pictures, this one’s far from perfect. Garland was suffering through a difficult time during the making of this film as well, and more often than not, she was absent from the set. This shows in some of The Pirate‘s choppier moments, particularly in the strangely truncated climax and jarringly abrupt transition to the big finale, a reprise of its most famous song, Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown” (that song would be pretty much plagiarized wholesale only four years later with Singin’ in the Rain‘s “Make ‘Em Laugh,” but I digress). Another possible distraction comes from the fact that Minnelli’s vision of the Caribbean in the film is so insistent in its artificiality, an element that is doubtlessly intentional but nevertheless takes a bit of getting used to. The MGM soundstage wouldn’t make itself so obvious again until Minnelli’s indoor romp through the Scottish highlands with Brigadoon. Yet there’s something about The Pirate. It’s an oddly addicting charmer, perhaps the most lovable of all the films Garland and Kelly made together.
Kelly stars as one of his most memorable characters, an irrepressible actor named Serafin who poses as the infamous pirate Macoco in the hopes of winning the heart of Garland’s pirate-infatuated maiden Manuela. Kelly pays winking tribute to silent star Douglas Fairbanks with his athletic performance, and alternately plays Serafin as swashbuckling rogue, Pal Joey-like lothario, and earnest romantic. Each of these roles suits the grandiose Kelly just fine, and he plays Serafin to the hilt, infusing the character with the sort of gleeful, self-aware sardonicism of his famous “Dignity” monologue in Singin’ in the Rain. The film gets a tremendous charge from his unflagging energy.
Along with the amusing, Pepe Le Pew-like solo number “Nina,” Kelly is afforded the sort of fantasy sequence that both he and Minnelli gravitated towards throughout their time at MGM. In this case it’s the gravity-defying “Pirate Ballet,” which features Serafin surrounded by an absurdly over-the-top amount of fire and smoke (the scene would be parodied later in Minnelli’s classic The Band Wagon). Best of all, Kelly performs an acrobatic dance routine with Harold and Fayard Nicholas when first introducing “Be a Clown.” The Nicholas Brothers were a great African American tap-dancing duo relegated to being a ” specialty act” in most all of their movies, their numbers strategically positioned so that they might be deleted from prints shipped to the American South without disrupting a given film’s continuity. The duo’s greatest cinematic triumph may be their heart-stopping contribution to the finale of Twentieth Century-Fox’s all-black musical Stormy Weather, but their desegregated appearance in The Pirate — a climactic moment not designed for excision — is a different kind of triumph. Kelly reportedly requested the Nicholas Brothers for the film and battled with the studio to get them cast. That he dared to speak out in favor of the duo is admirable. That he dared to dance with them without fear of being shown up is awfully gutsy.
Garland, meanwhile, is given a rare opportunity with Manuela. She gets to play a woman who ultimately bucks tradition and repression to assert her own desires. One her best moments in this film, and in any film period, is the lusty number “Mack the Black,” in which a hypnotized Manuela sings about her love for the dread Macoco. As Garland belts out the song, she is whirled about the set by a bevy of males, her long red hair trailing behind her like wildfire. Porter’s lyrics here are a riot: “Throughout the Caribbean and vicinity/Macoco leaves a flaming trail of masculinity,” Manuela informs us. It’s a great bit of unleashed ardor that might have freed Garland from playing the good girl once and for all, had anyone actually seen it. Unlike Meet Me in St. Louis or The Wizard of Oz, which found Garland playing a chaste girl innocently seeking happiness in her own backyard, The Pirate allows her to seize passion and adulthood. Manuela will never be content staying home.
Garland serenades Kelly twice, first with ” You Can Do No Wrong” (which has the kind of lyric you only get from Porter, “When you gaze in my direction/Life is caviar”) and then with “Love of My Life.” The latter finds the two nuzzling one another at their steamiest, or at least the steamiest they were allowed to get in front of a camera without Louis B. Mayer ordering the print be burned, reportedly the fate of the deleted and destroyed number ” Voodoo.” The romantic chemistry is there, and they also make great comic foils for one another, both of them overplaying The Pirate‘s most famous non-musical set piece, in which a furious Manuela attacks Serafin with everything in the room that isn’t bolted down (and also slaps his derriere with a sword, if you’re into that).
That scene offers a glimpse of The Pirate at its broadest and most stagy. But as broad and stagy as the film surely is, it’s so smart and self- reflexive that it becomes a delight for those who get the joke (that won’t necessarily be everyone, which is why the film has so consistently divided critics and audiences). There’s no denying that this is a weird movie, one that comes by its status as a cult classic honestly. It’s loopy, knowingly campy, brightly colored, ambitious, and absolutely unique. Unlike For Me and My Gal and Summer Stock, The Pirate is a risky piece of work perfect for those who prefer the strange and daring over the formulaic.