Every movie fan (this writer included) has a case of “Hollywood Blinders” they slap on for certain films they love because without them, thinking of anything abnormal taking place behind the scenes ruins much or all of a particular movie’s strengths. This little review just so happens to be about one of those films some outright adore while others don’t take to it all that well.
While its comic book colors and highly exuberant performances make Vincente Minnelli’s 1948 musical The Pirate a mostly to extremely fun to watch slice of Hollywood entertainment, it’s the behind the scenes stuff that makes the film somewhat problematic as a classic one can fully enjoy unless you ignore certain elements. For this particular film, those Hollywood Blinders take the form of an eye patch (or bandanna or even a big felt pirate hat if you like watching your colorful, imperfect musicals with two working eyeballs).
The pairing of Gene Kelly and Judy Garland should have been a wonderful one and in fact is when the film hits most of its high marks. But thanks to the studio system’s lousy treatment of her from the beginning of her career, Garland’s star was far from shining bright during the troubled production. The results are amusing and impressive at times, but it’s also a somewhat flawed film with a too quick finale that pops in as if the cameras were running out of film and something needed to get shot or someone had to walk the plank.
Garland’s assorted troubles (including a nervous breakdown that kept her off set for an extended period) thankfully don’t show up in the finished product. But it’s clear that the wide-eyed gal next door who played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz less than ten years previously was a wider-eyed and far more troubled soul on a downward spiral to a much shorter life than she deserved. Toss in a fantastic Gene Kelly dance sequence with The Nicholas Brothers that seemingly got them pushed out of the movies (and Hollywood) for a few years too long and you end up with a film best seen with those Hollywood Blinders on. Nice and tight, now. So, buckle your swash and slap on that eye patch, folks. There’s a storm a-brewin’ on the shooting stage and you’re getting shanghaied and strapped into your seats for a wild ride…
As a film, The Pirate is a fun, fluffy watch that’s also hit and miss on a few levels. It’s indeed colorful, bold and downright sexy. The 25-year old Garland who played mostly prim and proper roles gets to be a grown woman playing a grown woman part. As usual, Mr. Kelly soars (at times, in the literal sense) in his sort of dual role as entertainer Serafin who pretends to be Macoco, terror of the seas and shipping lanes or something like that. Now, if you know anything about real-life pirates and not the Harlequin Romance or lesser variant versions, yeah… you kind of need to go into this one knowing it’s not even pretending to be anything close to “reality”. But hey, you know what you’re getting with most musicals, right? F-a-n-t-a-s-y is the name of the game and this flick waves that gaily colored flag at you from the blast of color that opens the film and every chance it gets.
Garland’s character, Manuela Alva, is about to be forced into marriage to the plump, mean, and quite wealthy Don Pedro (a reliably amusing Walter Slezak), but thanks to her daydreams (and night dreams) about the dread pirate Macoco, she’s not quite willing to commit to the lesser of two evils. Kelly’s Serafin and his circus troupe roll into the sleepy port sound stage representing a nearby village and Manuela happens to show up for the evening’s entertainment. She ends up getting selected as a volunteer for Serafin’s hypnotic act and while under his spell, she belts out a lusty (and awesome) song “Mack the Black” where she goes all out in her desire to be swept away by someone who’d be shot on sight or hanged in the real world. Ladies and their bad boys, yeesh. Still, Judy gets in the deliciously loaded line “Don’t call me “pure soul”- it irritates me!” before she goes all wild and free in that great tune.
Hopelessly smitten himself by the fiery redhead gone wild, Serafin spends the next chunk of the film pretending to be Macoco in order to woo Manuela, but she’s not biting. Well, until she beats the crap out of him during a heated argument and sings a love song to his unconscious body. Yeah, love is indeed blind until you conk your future non-dread pirate life partner on the noggin with a heavy object. Now that I think about it, “Macoco!” is probably the sound Serafin’s brain was making inside his aching head when it was knocked loose by Manuela’s lusty throwing arm.
That said… you may want to hold onto your pirate hat and tighten those blinders because a spoiler wave is inbound because it makes for an amusing but not so amusing issue I had with this film. It turns out fat, mean and rich ol’ Don Pedro used to be the dread pirate Macoco (!!!) and he’s in disguise as Don Pedro. Why? Well, partially because he probably wants to settle down and be no longer a hunted man, I guess. In other words, Manuela is willing to give up the real Macoco and his pissy attitude for a fake one and the fake one is up until one key moment in the film, doing a really crappy job at being the man of her dreams!
Sure, Serafin is a handsome and dashing rogue of a man and his own fantasy (in the form of the hilarious, overblown but eternally stunning “Pirate Ballet”) equals Manuela’s for sheer sexiness (well, as far as 1948 standards go). But he’s still faking being someone else to woo someone betrothed to a person who might be a nice guy under all that puffy skin once he realized all that glitters isn’t gold and maybe telling the truth to Manuela might get her to love him on different terms. But hey, it’s a f-a-n-t-a-s-y, right? Pretty girls marry handsome guys in films like this and Don Pedro isn’t much a looker unless Manuela needs a portly human-shaped sun shade at the beach fawning over her every need.
But hey, it’s Hollywood! In the 40’s! Anyway, the final portion of the film has the real Macoco find out about the fake one and laying a trap for him that would sever all ties between Serafin and Manuela for good. If this were a drama, you’d get less singing, more hand-wringing and sweeping sea-worthy music as things worked their way to the climax. What ends up happening is you get two versions of a memorable song (“Be A Clown”), some slapstick applied generously to Don Pedro and an ending that’s well… an ending. It works as closure of sorts, but it’s a pretty weak one with all that passion zapping between the two leads. Granted, checking your “thinky” brain at the door is a requisite for most Hollywood musicals. The Pirate turns out to work best if you flip that switch on before it starts and keep those blinders on at all times.
Sure, the film has its legion of loyal fans today and it’s certainly worth seeing for all the work that went into it. But if your eyebrow doesn’t fly up during the otherwise brilliant dance number above when that noose appears (um… yipes?), those blinders are on and tight as a snare drum at that. Introducing the film to a friend a little while back ended up making for an interesting conversation about the possible mood on the set that day. I’m in the “it’s just a job!” camp for that debate, by the way. But as noted, thinking about stuff like this can kill the good vibes any film has. Blinders on for this sequence, which according to some research was supposed to have been clipped out of some prints of the film so it could be shown in certain southern states. That may also explain the doubling of that tune and the more amusing take Kelly and Garland get at the end.
That said, it’s easy to both like and dislike The Pirate because it wears its heart and its warts on its puffy sleeves. Of the three films Garland and Kelly made together (1942’s For Me and My Gal, The Pirate, and Summer Stock in 1950) it’s probably the most interesting to watch because of its flash and flaws. But it’s also something to wonder about if one considers which actresses could or would have replaced Garland if she was unable to continue filming after her breakdown incident. Imagine a Stanwyck, Hayworth, Grable or some other big star slipping into the role. Now, I’m not saying at all Judy wasn’t made for the role (“made” being a proper choice of words here). It’s just one of those thoughts that occur once the blinders come off and the eyes are wide open. Of course, your own mileage may vary with this or any other film. But I bet you have a closet full of Hollywood Blinders for just about every film you love. I know I certainly do.
What, you’re still here and not scouring TCM‘s schedule to see when The Pirate is airing (or tracking down your very own copy of the film on some online store)? Okay, okay. I should let you know that this post if part of the wondrous Swashathon! hosted by Movies, Silently (a great spot to hang your hat if you want to know all about silent film, talkies and even a few old-tyme “gen-u-ine” movie star recipes you may or may not want to play around with.