Silver Screen Standards: The Pirate (1948)

Silver Screen Standards: The Pirate (1948)

I always say that a splashy Technicolor musical is the best remedy for the dreary days of winter, and The Pirate (1948) certainly makes waves with its lively comedy and energetic dance numbers, even though it proved a box office flop when it first appeared in theaters in 1948. Maybe it was too silly for audiences then, or maybe, as Gene Kelly later opined, viewers didn’t appreciate his hammy parody of silent stars Douglas Fairbanks and John Barrymore, but I find it absolutely delightful in spite (or maybe because) of its quirks. The Pirate is sometimes referred to as Judy Garland’s “cult” film because it initially bombed, it’s an undeniably weird movie, and it attracts both ardent admiration and loathing. Compared to later cult musicals like Phantom of the Paradise (1974), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and Hairspray (1988), however, I think most modern film fans will find it very tame. If you haven’t seen The Pirate before, I can’t promise that you’ll love it as I do, but it’s worth seeing at least once for stars Garland and Kelly, director Vincente Minnelli, and the musical contributions of Cole Porter.

The Pirate Gene Kelly and Judy Garland bridge
Instantly smitten, Serafin (Gene Kelly) tries to woo Manuela (Judy Garland), even though she’s about to be married.

Judy Garland plays Manuela, a young woman in a Caribbean town whose Aunt Inez (Gladys Cooper) has arranged her marriage to the much older and very rich mayor, Don Pedro (Walter Slezak). Manuela harbors a deep yearning for adventure and romance, embodied in her fantasies about the legendary pirate, “Mack the Black” Macoco, but she resigns herself to her fate until she meets strolling player Serafin (Gene Kelly), who attempts to win her by pretending that he is, in fact, the infamous buccaneer. Unfortunately for Serafin, Macoco is a wanted man, and playing the pirate might prove to be his final role.

The Pirate Walter Slezak Gene Kelly
Don Pedro (Walter Slezak) and Serafin are rivals for Manuela’s hand, but Serafin knows the truth about Don Pedro’s past and uses it to his advantage.

The Pirate is a movie about make-believe, with an image of piracy rooted in romantic fantasy rather than fact. It intentionally recalls Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate (1926) and Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935), sits alongside pirate adventures like The Sea Hawk (1940), The Black Swan (1942) and The Spanish Main (1945), and predates The Crimson Pirate (1952) and all those Disney movies starring Johnny Depp. While most pirate movies are actually about the titular pirate and masculine derring-do, The Pirate digs into the figure’s symbolic value to a sheltered young woman facing a life of perpetual submission, obedience, and dull routine. Manuela, our protagonist, fantasizes about being carried away by a pirate because pirates represent excitement, adventure, and sexual experience. Although the deleted number “Voodoo” might have made the sex angle too explicit for Louis B. Mayer, the theme is omnipresent. The whole movie is basically a bedroom fantasy in which Manuela and Serafin play at being victim and ravisher but are, in reality, all the while working toward a partnership built on mutual love and equality. Manuela relishes playing the martyr to the villagers while she eagerly prepares to meet “Macoco” as a human sacrifice, but the tables – and all the rest of the furniture – turn when she punishes Serafin for his deception, even though she loves him all the same. The fact that Serafin is an actor only adds to the make-believe theme, but, as it turns out, Manuela is quite the ham herself, a quality Serafin recognizes and appreciates.

The Pirate Gene Kelly and The Nicholas Bros
A musical highlight of the movie features Gene Kelly teaming up with the Nicholas Brothers for the first performance of “Be a Clown.”

The comedic sexual fantasy is heightened by the bright colors, elaborate costumes, catchy songs, and relentless energy exhibited throughout the film. You can find plenty of accounts detailing the production problems caused by Garland’s illness and addiction, but in the final film none of that shows. She looks beautiful, sounds great, and has real chemistry with Kelly in the second of their three onscreen collaborations, following For Me and My Gal (1942) and concluding with Summer Stock (1950). Kelly is clearly having a ball with his Barrymore impression and chews the scenery with enthusiasm, but that doesn’t detract from the real skill in his dance numbers, especially the delightful version of “Be a Clown” performed with the Nicholas Brothers. “Mack the Black” is the earworm of the lot, but all of the songs are fun, and Kelly gets to lean into his classical dance abilities for the “Pirate Ballet” number. Garland sports some eye-popping gowns, including a gorgeous wedding dress decked with lace and pearls, but I’m usually more distracted by the series of tight pants worn by Kelly, which show off his athletic figure to great effect. Although the leads rightly dominate our attention, the supporting players also merit mention for their contributions. Walter Slezak makes an amusing and effective antagonist to the couple, alternately menacing and sly or craven and flustered depending on the situation. He ironically gets to embody both the tedium of respectability and the unsavory reality of piracy. Gladys Cooper is less duplicitous as the domineering Aunt Inez, but she also balances seeming propriety and mercenary aims in her determination to marry her niece off to her own financial advantage, and Cooper is fun to watch in the scenes where she takes command over both her husband and her contracted nephew-in-law.

Pirate Gene Kelly and Judy Garland clowns
United in love, Serafin and Manuela perform a reprise of “Be a Clown” together in the film’s finale.

While it’s not the most iconic film for either star, I think The Pirate offers plenty of entertainment, and I’m definitely in the “love it” camp. Granted, I also love that urtext of silly pirate musicals, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance (as well as its 1983 film adaptation starring Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, and Angela Lansbury). For more of Garland’s work in the late 1940s, see The Harvey Girls (1946), Easter Parade (1948), and In the Good Old Summertime (1949). Gene Kelly’s other films from this period include The Three Musketeers (1948), Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949), and On the Town (1949). Pirate movies must have suited Walter Slezak; you’ll also find him in The Princess and the Pirate (1944), The Spanish Main (1945), and the 1972 adaptation of Treasure Island, but he’s especially good in Hitchcock’s WWII thriller, Lifeboat (1944).

— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub

Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.

Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.

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