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THE PIRATE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Walter Slezak, Gladys Cooper, Reginald Owen, Fayard and Harold Nicholas
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English, French
Video: Color, full-screen
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Commentary, The Pirate: A Musical Treasure Chest featurette, comedy short, cartoon, "Mack the Black" remix, audio-outtakes, guide tracks, radio interviews, theatrical trailer
Length: 101 minutes
Release Date: July 24, 2007

"Don't tell me you never longed for a prince instead of a pumpkin!"

Film ****

During the 1940's, Judy Garland was far and away MGM's top female musical star.  A child prodigy who had literally grown up in the public spotlight, Garland had been known as the little girl with the big voice.  Her early career had garnered early success through a series of popular musicals, including a couple of Andy Hardy films with Mickey Rooney.  As she matured, however, Garland tired of playing adolescents and innocents and requested that MGM cast her in more mature roles.  One such role in the war-era film For Me and My Gal with Gene Kelly seemed to indicate that Garland was ready for such roles (and more importantly, that audiences were perhaps willing to accept her in them).

Uncle Sam required Gene Kelly's services during WWII, but once the star returned from active duty, MGM was eager to reunite him with Judy Garland again.  The resulting film, The Pirate (1948), was a lavish musical extravaganza with seemingly the right pedigree.  Produced by the legendary Arthur Freed, directed by Vincente Minnelli (who had already helmed several of Judy Garland's hit films), scored by Cole Porter, photographed in breath-taking Technicolor, and starring MGM's top two stars, The Pirate was a film that just couldn't fail.

Based on a hit Broadway play, The Pirate was to be the culmination of years of musical-making experience by the one Hollywood company that excelled at the genre.  Though a light-hearted spoof of swashbuckling tales, The Pirate would also have adventure, action, comedy, music, and practically everything else but the kitchen sink.  The film would also allow Gene Kelly to experiment with his athletic style of film dancing, incorporating ballet, Spanish dance, and gymnastics into the innovative choreography.  Not surprisingly, the film would become MGM's most expensive musical ever (until 1962's Jumbo with Jimmy Durante).

In The Pirate, Judy Garland portrays Manuela Alva, a young woman obsessed with the legendary pirate Mack the Black Macoco, scourge of the seven seas.  Unfortunately, she is also betrothed to lackadaisical Don Pedro (Walter Slezak), her village's rich but dull and pompous mayor.  The prospect of living a practical if dreary life at home, never to experience the world, bores Manuela. She wants a man of fire, romance, and adventure, in short her pirate Macoco.  As a compromise with her guardian aunt, Manuela agrees to the marriage if she is allowed one final chance to travel about the Caribbean before settling down.

Judy Garland may seem a highly unconventional choice to play a fiery and alluring Spanish maiden.  Her vocal intonations and jittery speaking mannerisms suggest Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz or Esther from Meet Me in St. Louis rather than a hot-blooded senorita.  Then again, who ever watches Judy Garland for her dramatic acting abilities?  In The Pirate, she is at her absolute best during the film's numerous musical comedy sequences.

The film shifts from Calvados, West Indies to Port Sebastian circa the 1830's, a haven for pirates, merchants, and adventurers.  Among them is Serafin (Gene Kelly), a simple entertainer with other trapeze artists, artisans, and musicians just arrived in town.  Serafin is a ladies' man, as depicted in his song and dance "Nina," an ode to all beautiful women (this number was another in a long line of MGM show-stoppers encouraging the romantic notion that the Caribbean was populated solely by lovely Caucasian women; compare this number to "Heat Wave" from Blue Skies or "I Left My Hat in Haiti" from Royal Wedding).

Unmindful of all these lovely women, Serafin has eyes only for Manuela and offers her a personal invitation to attend the evening performance of his acting troupe.  Despite her better judgment, Manuela decides to show up incognito, and as part of the show, Serafin hypnotizes her.

Originally, there was to be a "Voodoo" number at this point, but purportedly, the dance's overt eroticism shocked MGM boss Louis B. Mayer and he ordered toned-down reshoots.  In the end, "Voodoo" was still cut anyway and replaced with a "Mack the Black" number, in which the hypnotized Manuela reveals in still-sensual song and dance her love and desire for Macoco.

Once awakened from her trance, Manuela, frightened by the depths of her inner longing, rushes back to Calvados, vowing to find safe haven in her upcoming marriage.  Serafin, however, has other plans.  More smitten than ever (and now armed with the knowledge of Manuela's "true" love), Serafin brings his acting troupe to Calvados, where he pretends to be the infamous Macoco in a ruse to win Manuela's heart.  One of the film's great dance highlights is the spectacular fantasy ballet sequence at this point in which Manuela imagines Serafin as her beloved Macoco.

The ruse scatters the villagers in fright, including the mayor, who scurries out of town to notify the local militia.  Manuela does not remain fooled by the fake pirate for very long, and in another of the film's highlights, throws a comic fit of rage involving anything breakable and not nailed down.  This being a musical, however, Manuela and Serafin eventually kiss and make up, first in the sweet ballad "You Can Do No Wrong" and later with the seductive "Love of My Life."

The Pirate closes with a showdown between the militia, the mayor, Serafin, Manuela, and essentially everyone in the entire cast.  Can Serafin convince these humorless soldiers that he is just a simple street entertainer acting in the name of love, or will he be hanged as a fake pirate?  This finale involves a number of stellar musical numbers, including the spectacular "Be a Clown" dance with Gene Kelly and the incomparable Nicholas Brothers, followed by an even better comic song-and-dance variation of the tune with Gene Kelly and Judy Garland.

Unfortunately for MGM, The Pirate did not perform as well at the box office as the studio had hoped.  Perhaps the film was too progressive and artistic for 1940's audiences.  Or, was it because of The Pirate's unusual mixture of burlesque, vaudeville, and slapstick comedy within a costume musical setting?  Was there not enough romance between the co-stars?  Was it because Judy Garland was playing a more sophisticated woman and not a young girl anymore?  Was it because of Gene Kelly's moustache?  Whatever the reasons for the film's original box office failure, The Pirate would sadly mark the beginning of the end for Judy Garland's career at MGM.

The year 1948 had been a very trying one for Judy Garland, who appeared in Easter Parade, Words and Music, and The Pirate.  The constant stress of making pubic appearances while toiling long hours for MGM had by now begun to affect Garland's well-being.  Her numerous health-related absences from the set of The Pirate caused the film to go somewhat over-budget, and the film's failure at the box office was perhaps unjustly blamed on Garland.  After 1948, Judy Garland's career at MGM would decline, and while she would appear in a few more musicals, by the end of the decade, her career at the movie studio was over.

Still, her eventual dismissal from MGM was probably a blessing in disguise.  Free from the confines of a movie studio contract, Garland was able to embark upon an enormously successful singing and recording career.  And of course, she would have the last laugh as an actress, earning an Oscar nomination for 1954's A Star is Born for MGM rival, Warner Bros!

BONUS TRIVIA:  Gene Kelly broke his ankle after finishing The Pirate.  As a result, he was unable to co-star in Easter Parade with Judy Garland.  Instead, Fred Astaire was persuaded to come out of retirement for the film, and Gene Kelly would instead follow this swashbuckling spoof with a real swashbuckler adventure, The Three Musketeers.

Video ***

"I love you for what you are - ruthless and cruel, fearing no one!"

The Pirate is a full-frame musical extravaganza in the best Technicolor tradition.  The brilliant colors burst from the screen in the usual Vincente Minnelli manner (the director was considered one of MGM's best directors when it came to working with Technicolor).  There are a few dust specks and a slight softness in the details of this video transfer but nothing particularly distracting.

Audio ***

The Pirate is presented with its monaural soundtrack, although a stereo remix of Judy Garland's "Mack the Black" is also available among the bonus features.  The film boasts a fine original Cole Porter score, and the famed writer-composer apparently did not object to the striking similarities between his song "Be a Clown" and Singing in the Rain's "Make 'Em Laugh."

Features ***

"You can make anything come true by wishing for it."

This film is one of seven included in the box set Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory, Vol. 2, but it can also be purchased separately.

The most substantial bonus feature is the film commentary by historian John Fricke.  He discusses The Pirate's complicated production history and various deleted scenes.  Fricke delights in identifying many of the contract dancers and otherwise unnamed supporting players while providing biographies for the film's bigger stars, supporting actors, and also Cole Porter, too.

The featurette The Pirate: A Musical Treasure Chest (19 min.) chronicles the stormy adaptation of the Vincente Minnelli musical.  Whether a stylized film ahead of its time or an expensive failure, The Pirate remains without a doubt a glorious film to behold.  This featurette talks about the history of the hit vaudeville Broadway play, whose film rights were purchased in 1943 by MGM (the film lingered in pre-production limbo until Arthur Freed took over).  The featurette also discusses Judy Garland's health problems and marital difficulties which took their toll on the production of The Pirate.  The featurette includes interviews with Fayard Nicholas, Liza Minnelli, and Gene Kelly's widow.

There are two MGM comedy shorts.  One is 1948's Oscar-nominated You Can't Win (8 min.) about an accident-prone perpetual loser.  The other is the hilarious 1947 Tom & Jerry cartoon Cat Fishin' (8 min.) in which Tom goes fishing using Jerry as live bait!  Neither of these shorts has anything to do with The Pirate, but they are fun to watch.

There are a few curio pieces.  First is a "Mack the Black" stereo remix (3 min.), as sung by Judy Garland.  An alternate version of "Mack the Black" is also among a trio of audio-only outtakes (17 min.) including "Love of My Life" and "Voodoo," both also sung by Judy Garland.  More audio-only outtakes include guide tracks (12 min.) by lousy singer Roger Edens for "Be a Clown," "Manuela," "Nina," "Voodoo," and "You Can Do No Wrong."  These five test tracks are performed to piano accompaniment only.

Among the promotional features are brief radio interviews (9 min.) with Gene Kelly for On the Town and The Pirate and Judy Garland for The Pirate and Easter Parade.  There is also an exciting vintage theatrical trailer for The Pirate.

Summary:

Overblown opus or misunderstood masterpiece?  Vincente Minnelli's The Pirate is a far better film that its troubled reputation might have one believing.  The film has garnered cult status and now, far removed from the original controversies over its budget or production woes, can be truly appreciated for its exceptional production values and musical numbers.

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