Classic Film of the Week #15: The Pirate (1948)

One of the most intimidating things about getting into classic film is when you watch a film with a beloved classic star . . . And you can't stand them. How do you admit to the world that you think an iconic, world-renowned actor is just awful? Sometimes, that feeling never goes away, but other times, the remedy is just to find the right film--actors are actors for a reason, and sometimes it's just a particular performance that you didn't enjoy, not the actor's persona as a whole. Having now seen The Pirate, I'm relieved to say this is the case for both Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, two actors I wasn't a fan of in their most famous works--but in this underappreciated romantic musical, I simply could not love the pair more.
The Pirate is directed by Vincente Minnelli, and stars his then-wife Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. It tells the story of Manuela (Garland), a young woman living in a small town in the Caribbean who longs for adventure. In particular, she wants the infamous pirate Macoco to come and take her away for escapades on the high seas--but instead, she's engaged to the town's mayor, an aged adventurer who is finally ready to settle down in one place, much to Manuela's dismay. As her wedding nears, she finds out that her wedding dress is to be delivered by ship to a nearby waterfront town, Port Sebastian, and convinces her aunt to allow her to meet the ship there, so that she can see her beloved sea one last time before her marriage. Once there, she meets Serafin (Kelly), a traveling actor who immediately becomes infatuated with her. She has no interest, and flees back to her hometown--but he follows her there, and after discovering her passion for Macoco, decides to capture her attention by pretending to be the pirate, disguised as an actor to avoid trial for his crimes. Chaos ensues.

The funny thing about The Pirate is that it's a real TCM favorite, and they play a lot of clips from it in their programming between movies--and based on these clips, I had no desire to ever watch it. Why? The color palette. It sounds silly, but honestly, I thought this film was so ugly; it's largely browns and creams and other neutral colors, which would be fine, but then there's these splashes of bright reds, greens, and purples that just clash so horribly. Combined with my lack of interest in Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, I was happy to pass this film right by. But lately I've really been wanting to see more of Garland's filmography--in the hopes of discovering what her legions of fans see in her--and there was The Pirate playing on Gene Kelly's Summer Under the Stars day. So I decided to take the leap. Unfortunately, I still think the film is ugly: it has one really gorgeous scene, a fantasy sequence with Kelly that's all in black and red, but for the rest of the film there's a really unpleasant battle between the natural colors and the typical Minnelli musical colors. The good news is that, while this is the rare Technicolor musical that is not pleasing to the eye, it more than makes up for it in every other respect.

The most important, and best, part of the film is simply the chemistry between Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. Like I said, I've been no big fan of either actor in the past, but this film finally convinced me on both of them: they're two larger-than-life personalities and here they get the chance to play equally out-of-this-world characters, whose arguments are explosive and whose romantic intervals are even more-so. Indeed, the film is imbued with an unusually forceful sensuality, starting right from the opening scene in which Manuela expresses her desire for Macoco--and this element is solidified in Serafin's show in Port Sebastian, where he hypnotizes Manuela and tries to get her to admit her attraction to him, but instead she declares her love for Macoco and bursts into a song dedicated to him. Serafin tries and fails to break the trance, and finally resorts to kissing her, which snaps her out of it. Now, the funny thing is that this sequence is representative of the exact things I haven't liked about Kelly's screen persona in the past: it bothers me how his characters are always relentlessly pursuing women who aren't interested in him. However, this scene works for me because, unlike those other films, we've seen the woman's perspective: we know that Serafin is exactly the kind of man Manuela wants, but she's too respectable and polite to recognize that her "Macoco" ideal is standing right in front of her, therefor requiring some extra persuading on his part. While the action is the same, the context for it is quite different. And it all pays off in the end: watch for a truly spectacular scene in which Manuela destroys an entire room full of priceless artifacts in her anger at Serafin, only to feel guilty when she finally does hurt him and immediately drops to her knees and starts singing to him and kissing him.

Now, this production marks the only real collaboration between Minnelli, Garland, and Kelly, a trio who should have been a true dream team. Instead, this film performed poorly with audiences and at the box-office, and isn't held in high regard even to this day. Why? Honestly, I'm not totally sure. I look at it and see all the pieces of a successful musical (well, except for those atrocious colors); it seems it's just one of those unfortunate films that failed to find its audience. Particularly unfortunate given how much trouble it went through even making it to the big screen, with Garland at a particular emotional low-point throughout shooting. It's a real testament to what a great actress she was in that her personal struggles never come through in her performance--she's just as on-the-ball as Gene Kelly, never letting him outshine her for a second. But while this film has a murky past, it's truly a diamond in the rough, a film I didn't even expect to like but that may turn out to be one of my favorite viewings of the whole year. It's a uniquely sexy, mature, stylized musical that differentiates itself from its Technicolor peers in ways that obviously weren't for everyone, but if you're willing to take it on its own terms, it doesn't waste any time in winning you over to its bright, sensual Caribbean charms.

The Pirate is an oddity in the filmographies of all of its principal players, but hey, isn't being different a good thing? Gene Kelly and Judy Garland both bring their A-game in bringing these over-the-top lovers to life, and create an experience that isn't quite like anything else you've ever seen. If you watch a lot of movies like I do, you probably appreciate movies that occupy their own little stylistic niche in film history, and this one certainly does, making it well-worth a viewing to decide for yourself if it deserves the relative obscurity it has fallen into. The Pirate comes highly recommended.


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