Review by Veronika Ferdman
Posted on 22 August 2012
Source Warner Bros. DVD
Categories Gene Kelly
The Pirate was Gene Kelly and Vincente Minnelli’s second collaboration, and though at the time – 1948 – it lost MGM $2 million, it is magnificent. Kelly and Minnelli had worked together previously on one of the Minnelli-directed segments of the omnibus film Ziegfield Follies in 1945, and then twice more: on An American in Paris in 1951 and on 1954’s wistful fable Brigadoon. This was also the second time that Kelly shared the screen with Minnelli’s then-wife, Judy Garland, having appeared alongside her in his feature film debut, Busby Berkeley’s 1942 picture For Me and My Gal. The Pirate is playful and fun, showcasing Kelly’s dancing moves and Garland’s not inconsiderable vocal chords, but like all true-blue auteurs, Minnelli also uses the film’s mise-en-scène to develop a complex emotional and thematic architecture.
The Pirate is a musical comedy set in a small town on the Caribbean a few centuries ago. Manuela, played by Garland, is besotted with the idea of Macoco, a ferocious pirate whose name has become immortal, but whom she’s never set eyes on. However, she is betrothed to Don Pedro, played by Walter Slezak, the rich town mayor, and resigned to her fate of a boring life until she meets Gene Kelly’s Serafin. Serafin is a travelling actor who tricks her into falling in love with him by pretending to be the notorious Macoco.
Kelly is the perfect charming rogue, introduced in the musical sequence “Niña” in which he flits from girl to girl. At one point in the number he jumps onto a balcony to woo one girl before sliding down a pipe to land beside another. Then, in an uninterrupted take(!) he snatches away the cigarette she’s been smoking, placing it in his mouth and taking her in his arms while simultaneously swiftly flipping the cigarette inside his mouth, kissing her, and then popping the cigarette back out in time to blow a puff of smoke in her face. If this doesn’t sound particularly enchanting, trust me, it is. Kelly does everything with such perfect grace and timing that it is only possible to be left slack-jawed in response.
The most incredible scene of the film comes halfway through when Manuela has first been deceived into thinking that Serafin isn’t just an actor, but really the man she’s been waiting for all her life. She watches Kelly outside of her window as he fights with some of the townspeople, adopting the role of Macoco. Kelly is dressed in mauve trousers and a loose-fitting white shirt when, all of a sudden, Manuela’s imagination takes over and from her point of view we see red lights flood the scene. Kelly is visually re-born as Macoco, appearing in black cut-off shorts and a short-sleeved, tightly fitting black shirt with a gold ring around his right bicep. In short, he appears in a state of body fetishizing undress uncharacteristic of male musical comedy stars (or, really, actors of any genre) at the time.
His stripped-down costume reveals the bulk of his thighs and quadriceps as he leaps around the stage (all while brandishing a rather large sword laden with metaphor), combining ballet, jazz, and modern dance in a flurry of energy and eroticism. His physicality – the flesh and bone presence of contracting muscles – makes Kelly (the man and the performer) so tangibly real. And perhaps, this is what sets him apart from Fred Astaire. Astaire’s spindle-legged chasteness both in costume and performance lacks a certain carnal masculinity. He is forever the debonair gentleman, but with this performance Kelly pulsates raw heat.
The Pirate is a work of decadent mauves, magentas, purples, blacks, and reds that weave their spell of passion, romance, intrigue and love. The changing of costumes usually goes hand in hand with increasingly rich colors that portend the entrance into dream worlds and/or the playing of roles. This occurs when Garland gets up out of bed wearing a white gown and puts on a deep red and black skirt to go observe Kelly giving a performance with his theater troupe. Kelly hypnotizes Garland, allowing her to unleash the id in a desirous song about Macoco. And later on when Kelly shows up dressed as Macoco he is decked from head to toe in black with a royal purple sash around his waist. These colors give life to a second, more emotional, honest and lustful layer of the world hiding behind the veneer of the first. This complex structuring of worlds is not unusual within Minnelli’s body of work, especially when it comes to some of his other musicals such as Brigadoon and An American in Paris, in which he likewise constructs dream worlds and exterior realities bursting forth from the constraints of the characters’ corporeal reality. But he does so most subtly and effectively in The Pirate, making this film a remarkable note in the oeuvres of all involved.