The Pirate January 20, 2023
1 Hr., 42 Mins.
incente Minnelli’s The Pirate (1948) is one of the oddest movies to come out of MGM’s musical golden era; it’s also among the most fun and boundary-pushingly playful. Riffing on the swashbuckling adventure movies typically starring dashing, thin-mustached stars like Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, it’s set in an unspecified past (probably sometime in the 17th or 18th century) largely in the
Caribbean village of Calvados and the neighboring, more bustling Port Sebastian. Our lead is Manuela (Judy Garland), a young orphan raised by a high-society aunt and uncle (Gladys Cooper and Lester Allen) who, as the film opens, are in the process of arranging a marriage for her. Their suitor of choice is Calvados mayor Don Pedro (Walter Slezak), a middle-aged and portly grump who as much as Manuela gets the reasoning behind the arrangement without hiding his befuddlement around how two people with this big a gap in age and life experience are supposed to build a life together. But protestations be damned when social status is at stake.
The Pirate emphasizes how much Manuela’s desires are at odds with the life being thrust on her. She dreams of travel and adventure. Not unlike a teenage girl with a Harry Styles poster stuck to their bedroom wall, Manuela idolizes a legendary, darkly handsome pirate named Macoco, whose dangerousness thrums more with enticingly edgy sexiness than menace to her in the books she reads about him. Unbeknownst to her, Don Pedro is actually the long-retired Macoco in disguise, and he hopes to keep it that way: he loves the conventional life of a stuffy politician he’s adopted. (One early thing he notes to Manuela is that, once they’re married, he’d like to stay settled down and avoid traveling.)
A traveling actor with eyes for Manuela, Serafin (Gene Kelly), catches wind of this deception and decides to leverage it to his romantic advantage. Manuela has thus far rolled his eyes at his flirtations — which only get more aggressive — so he figures that, if he declares that he is, in fact, Macoco, he will at last win her over, not thinking about the fact that that kind a proclamation will not bode well when the name is synonymous with a laundry list of crimes for which the only punishment in the eyes of most is public execution.
The Pirate doesn’t build that convincing a romance between Serafin and Manuela. Instead it relishes in the joy they respectively take in the performative cruxes of romantic gesture and in fantasizing about romantic possibility. The movie doesn’t belittle the storybook-exciting future Manuela envisions for herself even as it reaps comedy from some of the kooky decision-making springing from it; it also, in what is probably the best thing about it, has a keen understanding of what makes Kelly such a pleasure to watch.
There’s a will-stop-at-nothing-to-entertain-the-audience ebullience to Kelly’s dancing; it’s easy to tell how much he likes being seen, being marveled at. Both things are true across his movies, but they’re given a sort of mirror to bounce off in The Pirate, where he plays a guy so game to seduce, and, with an exception in the for-a-long-time hard-to-get Manuela, good at seducing, that in moments he recalls a human Pepé Le Pew if he were actually sexy. (His frequently bodycon outfits — Kelly spends much of The Pirate in thigh-hugging tights — appreciate his athletic physique in a way the everyday-civilian clothes in his other movies can’t as much.)
The Pirate is a surprisingly sexy movie. It unexpectedly had a viral moment on Twitter recently, where, in a clip, Kelly passionately kisses a female extra. It’s hardly a regular kiss: Kelly temporarily tucks the cigarette he’d been puffing inside his mouth while their lips are locked, then delicately exhales the shared smoke back into his partner’s face once they part. (Kelly had been used, I believe, to prop up an argument that these days, movie stars rarely generate this kind of heat on screen, even though censors are more lenient than they were in 1948.) That moment happens during a protracted song-and-dance sequence where Kelly’s Serafin, with marathon-like efficiency, seduces and flirts with several women spread across the streets and buildings of Port Sebastian. (It culminates with him and several targets dancing suggestively around the poles propping up a gazebo on the town’s main square.)
As openly as they can in a film so aggrieved by censorship during the editing process that several of them were cut for their supposed unseemliness, nearly all the musical sequences are manifestations of lust. Garland frees her long, wild hair from its tight updo while full-throatedly singing and whipping her body around to externalize her long-clamped-down passion for Macoco. In another scene, her character imagines herself as a donkey being dominated by Serafin, who, after doing some damage to her with his sword, roams around a daydreamily hellish Port Sebastian wreaking feverish havoc on the streets in skintight black shorts. One of The Pirate’s most famous sequences — though not musical — involves Manuela angrily throwing nearly an entire living room’s worth of decoration at Serafin when she discovers something he’d rather she not know. It climaxes with her whipping his ass with a sword ripped from its mounted hoister.
The Pirate is a failure as a satire of the movies it’s indirectly lampooning. Kelly, though otherwise proud of the film, has spoken regretfully of it not being arch or mocking enough. But its sense of fun is so pronounced that it doesn’t matter whether its humor might have benefitted from some sharpening. Given some of what was going on behind the scenes, that’s a practically miraculous impression to walk away with. Minnelli and Garland’s marriage was disintegrating during the film’s shoot. Garland, reaching her wits’ end after decades’ worth of being overworked, regularly had to be shot around because she couldn’t always be relied on to simply show up. MGM head Louis B. Mayer was a censorious nuisance.
Not all of The Pirate goes down easy. In an ugly bit of history, the centerpiece dance sequence where Kelly moves around in harmony with The Nicholas Brothers, who are Black, was removed by some Southern theater owners because they feared racist ticketbuyers couldn’t handle seeing dancers of color treated equally to their white co-star. (Even still, their presence in the finished product encapsulates how the few people of color are treated in The Pirate writ large: with none given dialogue, they are merely decorative.)
The romance between Serafin and Manuela, as it’s developed, also has a dated prickliness. It’s rife with deceit and, especially by Serafin, the kind of willingness to play mind games that suggests a happily ever after does not await their characters but a lifetime of continued manipulation by Serafin to keep Manuela in his orbit whenever she seems poised to possibly slip away. (There comes a point, late in the film, where he threatens the well-being of the town if unable to successfully claim Manuela for himself.) Yet when inside The Pirate, you might get brainwashed by Kelly’s extreme charm, the film’s overall lack of real seriousness. (Plus, consequences come more quickly than rewards for those manipulations.) In another movie, this all might feel like an unsettling game of pursuit. In The Pirate, romance is not an earnest endeavor but a game whose grand prize only can be seized by proving how much you want it. When Serafin is knocked out late in the movie, the only way to wake him is assuring him that he’s a wonderful actor. A-