Vincente Minnelli first discussed the idea of The Pirate with Judy Garland during their honeymoon in New York. Judy read S.N. Behrmans play and loved it too. “Let's make it into a musical,” she suggested, thinking it was her idea. “Absolutely,” Minnelli said, whereupon he called Freed in Hollywood.
At first, Freed resisted the idea, but after reading the treatment, he grudgingly agreed to produce the film. The Pirate was marketed as Minnelli-Garlands next big project, after the cameo role Judy played as Marilyn Miller in Till the Clouds Roll By, a biopicture of Jerome Kern.
Though Behrmans play, written for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, was the couples only Broadway show that was not successful, Minnelli felt that its failure was due to the particular conception, which he didnt like, not to the text itself. The celeb duo played it like a farce, instead of doing it straight, the only way, Minnelli held, farce should be played.
After the success of Me and My Girl, Freed urged Minnelli to find a suitable vehicle to pair Judy with Gene Kelly. The Pirate seemed the right choice for both stars and director. Writers Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, a husband-and-wife team, were asked to adapt the story and the dialogue for the stars specific talents.
The film was to feature grand camp, an element that hadn't been used in Hollywood films up to then. Assigned to compose the score, Cole Porter was delighted. He told Minnelli that he was glad that someone in Hollywood thought he was still employable. It was Porters idea to rename the pirate Mack the Black, as homage to one of his close gay friends.
The Pirate is a comedy of mistaken identities. Set in the Caribbean Islands in the 1830s, the story concerns a young woman named Manuela who's in love with the stories she had heard about a notorious pirate, Macoco, better known as Mack the Black, a man pretending to be a pillar of the Caribbean society. Manuela has fallen in love with Mack, unaware that he is actually a middle-aged bore, chosen by her family to marry. A conceited actor, Serafin pretends to be Mack in order to win Manuela's love. Kelly's athletic style made him the obvious choice for the lead, and character actor Walter Slezak was well cast as the real Mack.
The high-style comedy needed changes to satisfy the Breen Office. As played by Lynn Fontanne onstage, Manuela was already married to Don Pedro, the West Indies's mayor, while daydreaming a romance with the notorious pirate. In the movie, Manuela is a younger woman, eager to find the love of her life.
Judy, initially enthusiastic, began rehearsals on December 2, 1946, the last day of her maternity leave. Minnelli thought that the The Pirate would be fun, a welcome change of pace for Judy and for him. For Judy, however, the real allure was playing for the second time opposite Kelly.
As was the norm, songs were pre-recorded and then lip-synched during production. However, when Judy showed up for her first day of recording, on December 27, 1946, she was frail and depressed and the session had to be cancelled. Judys frequent absences caused further delays and The Pirate didnt begin shooting until February 17, 1947.
Unfortunately, Judy's enthusiasm for the project began to decline as soon as shooting started. To reassure his vulnerable wife, Minnelli reminded her that she had also been against–and ultimately wrong about Meet Me in St. Louis. He told Judy that the critics would compare her to Lynn Fontanne, the first lady of the American theater. If only Judy could trust him, he said, the picture would flaunt the kind of sophisticated wit that would place her in the same league as Metros then dominant star, their friend Katharine Hepburn.
Judy, however, was not reassured. She felt that it was the wrong vehicle for her. Moreover, she worried that Kelly, who had a flashier part, would dominate the film. Fighting her doubts, Minnelli repeated that this would be her smartest picture to date, a showcase for her wide comedic range.
Minnelli was looking forward to another lovely collaboration, hoping Judy will not have to rely on amphetamines, or consult her psychiatrists. He was confident that Judy would not only “deliver,” but would also show her mettle and discipline to those Metro execs, who always complained about how difficult and unreliable she was.
Minnelli's worst fears materialized during rehearsals, when he witnessed Judy's anxiety about Kelly stealing the show away from her. Having liked the stage production, Kelly was glad to assist Robert Alton's choreography in whichever way he could. Kelly saw The Pirate as a chance to take dancing closer to ballet. Judy admired Kelly as a performer and liked him as a person, but his excessive enthusiasm increased her insecurities. At first flattered for being offered the role, Judy now blamed her husband for encouraging her to accept it.
Pressures started to build up on the set, as Kelly recalled: “Judy had periods when she didn't show up on the set. This was the first indication that something was wrong.” Minnelli was proud that ever since their marriage, Judy was temperate in her use of pills. But now, with her tolerance lessened, the periodic spells of illness began, and Judy turned again to the pills that had sustained her during crises in the past. Minnelli stood helplessly by, unable to neither stop Judy from taking the pills wife nor detect the pills suppliers.
In her notorious squabbles with Metro, Judys indomitable spirit always came through. But now she resorted to counting the exact number of days that the studio could shoot around her. Judy would report at the last possible moment so that her pictures would conclude within the allotted schedule and budget. Quite shockingly, Judy was gone for 99 out of the 135 days it took to make The Pirate. For the first time, she had failed the studio, big time.
During Meet Me in St. Louis, assistant director Al Jennings was awakened in the middle of the night with the news that Judy would not turn in the next day. Now it was Wallace Worsley, The Pirate's assistant director, who got the midnight calls. At least twice a week, Minnelli would overhear his wife telling Worsley on the phone, “I don't feel well. I won't be able to come in.” Worsley finally refused to pick up the phone when Judy called after midnight with news of yet another migraine or flu.
Minnelli didn't enjoy such a luxuryhe had to go to work. And in the evenings, back at come home, Minnelli was subjected to his wifes endless barrage of complaints. Judy's troubles were now very much his own. The routine got tiresome, and Minnelli was beginning to suffer from perpetual anxiety and sleepless nights, during which Judy kept him awake with bitching about the studios mistreatment that invariably turned to bickering with him.
Occasionally, they were halfway to Culver City, when Judy forced Minnelli to return home. On other occasions, she arrived at the studio, worked for an hour, and then asked for the studio doctor. Judy quickly forgot her pledge to stay off pills and would appear on the set in a barbiturate stupor. After keeping the cast and crew for hours waiting for hours, she arrived one morning in such a daze that she appeared to be sleepwalking. Then after wandering aimlessly around the set for two hours, she would simply inform Minnelli that she needed to go home.
At other times, the amphetamines had the reverse effect, making Judy high-strung, overly anxious, tense and paranoid. In a scene that called for Judy to dance around open fires, Minnelli heard his wife shouting: “I'm going to burn to death! They want me to burn to death!” Embarrassed, Minnelli watched passively as his hysterical wife was led away, crying and laughing at the same time.
Judys feelings of betrayal were fueled by her perception of a growing intimate collaboration between Minnelli and Kelly. No longer the newcomer he had been while making For Me and My Gal, Kelly was resourceful with of ideas. Judy was hurt at being left out of their “chummy little club,” as she called it, accusing Minnelli and Kelly of having fun and ignoring her.
Retaliating against her own husband, Judy asked Kellys help in staging her numbers as well, disregarding Minnelli's instructions. The episode left a puzzled Minnelli wondering, “How had we come to this state of affairs, where suddenly I could do nothing right in Judy's eyes”
Minnelli the director tried to improve Judys performance as an actress “with judicious cutting and excision. He dropped at least two numbers that fell short of Judy's usual high standard. But from Judys perspective, the loss of those numbers, combined with Kelly's attention-grabbing, threw the movie off balance. Instead of being the center, Judy felt that her Manuela became a secondary character.
Once The Pirate's shooting schedule was extended, it was suggested to send Judy back to the psychiatrists for help. Minnelli wanted to strike out at the monster-psychiatrists (as he viewed them), who came between him and his wife, but he was persuaded to keep calm. Minnelli felt the unbearable pressure of being the one constant factor in Judys life. Looking back, Minnelli confided: If I'd loved Judy less, I could have been dispassionate enough to laugh her out of the moods that resulted in pill-taking. Sympathy that came too readily just didn't seem to help.”
Minnelli drove Judy over to the psychiatrist's every day after shooting, then waited for her in the car until the session was over. More often than not, Judy would leave these 50-minute sessions with her mood unaltered, if not worsened.
The pent-up anger found its outlet at home, and the spats and bickering became more manifest. Minnelli tried to control his own volatility, but the exchange of harsh words, the lashing out inevitably left raw scars. That much hostility couldn't be contained for too long within the same house.
The Minnellis marriage was going through vicious cycles. They would go about their business for several days in a row, then have reconciliations as stormy as their partings. Judy would be apologetic, and Minnelli would be made to feel guilty for his alleged insensitivity and lack of understanding.
Toward the end of The Pirate, Judy was gone from the set for three consecutive days, and Minnelli was caught in the middle. As director, he should have insisted that his star fulfill her obligations, but as a concerned and loving husband, he simply couldn't do it. In his typically passive manner, Minnelli made excuses for Judy, lying to his bosses that she had the flu. Then, after a few days off, Judy would be back, performing as well as before with the customary ebullient mood.
During those agonizing times, Minnelli became a total wreck. He kept asking himself the inevitable questions: How responsible was he for Judy's regression How had he failed What could be done to improve the situation Submerging personal doubts while presenting an untroubled manner to the outside became Minnellis modus operandi de facto.
Minnelli failed to reach out toward Judy, tell her how much he did care for her. Judy treated her upheavals as solitary battles. One anxious look or an awkward inflection would give Minnelli's thoughts away. Judy's darker side resented Minnelli's lack of faith in her. He felt that she was storing up mental ammunition against him.
As usual in times of crisis, Minnelli threw himself into work with excessive determination. He observed with admiration how Kelly was putting together the musical numbers with choreographer Alton. Minnelli was developing the most intense professional association he had ever had with any actor. Their talents complemented each other's well, with one idea melding into another. My approach is less esoteric and more gutsy,” Kelly told Minnelli, “Yours is evanescent and ethereal.”
As shooting progressed, Kelly, who at first only staged his numbers, became involved in all facets of the production. An increasingly paranoid Judy became jealous of the time Minnelli and Kelly were spending together. She feared that Minnelli was expanding Kelly's role at her expense, while also excluding her from any discussion. For his part, Minnelli felt that it was not necessary for Judy to have a voice on Kelly's role.
“You and Vincente are having a lot of fun,” Judy pouted at Kelly. “You're both ignoring me. Well, how about doing something for me Will you stage my numbers” “How about Vincente” Kelly asked. “No, I want you to do it,” Judy said. Kelly was stunned with silence.
Caught up in the midst of intense domestic squabbles, Kelly tried to help without offending either side. Minnelli hoped that the problem would work itself out, that Judy would realize how unreasonable she was. He was wrong: Judy became more paranoid and resentful. Judy felt that Kelly didnt need Minnelli's care as much as she did. She was jealous of Minnelli's efforts to make Kelly shine at her expense.
The unspoken barrier between husband and wife got deeper and deeper. Minnelli wondered how they had come to a state where suddenly he could do nothing right for Judy How could he leave the limbo to which he was assigned by Judy Minnelli was too much in turmoil and too hurt to talk it out with his close friends, which made things worse since he was isolated socially.
The close relationship between Minnelli and Kelly would come to fruition three years later with An American in Paris. With Judy's mental state unstable, she became irrationally jealous of their professional and personal intimacy. One day, she interrupted their session with a violent public scene, accusing them in front of the entire crew of using the picture to advance themselves at her expense.
Judy's addiction to drugs made her paranoid. The slightest word or glance was seen as conspiracy against her. Judy's paranoia was not an isolated incident. When Hedda Hopper visited the set, she found Judy in her trailer shaking hysterically. Judy declared that everyone had turned against her and that she had no friends. She claimed that her mother was tapping her telephone. “She is doing everything in her power to destroy me,” Judy said. In fact, Judy became so agitated that she had to be carried from the trailer in costume and makeup from the studio in a limo.
Judy might have been paranoid but, other members of the crew noticed too the crush that Minnelli was having on Kelly. This was evident by their behavior at parties given by the Kellys. Judy felt that Minnelli was standing too close to Kelly, always embracing him when they talked and looking straight into his eyes. Judy began to worry that her husband was having an affair with Kelly, even though the latter was presumably straight and happily married to actress Betsy Blair.
Minnelli saw a rough cut of The Pirate on August 29 1947, a week after Judy returned from Stockbridge's health center, at a special screening held for Freed,, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin. Porter's reaction was reserved, but Freed and Berlin reassured the composer that The Pirate was a special picture. Judy, however, shared Porter's doubts. She felt that the film elevated Minnelli's stature as an artist and displayed Kelly's athletic dancing, but it was not the career milestone that Minnelli the director and husband had promised her. Judy became slightly more encouraged when Berlin liked the film since she trusted his instincts.
The Pirate was the only picture Judy ever made at Metro that failed to yield a profit. What made it worse for Judy was that most critics praised Kelly's performance as good parody of Fairbanks-Barrymore. The musical numbers were inventively staged and Kelly had some good moments. Unfortunately, with the exception of Judys rendition of “Be a Clown,” the songs were not among Porter's best, and even Judy could not improve on them.
Judys touch with comedy was assured, but her Manuela seemed too nervous, even neurotic, what with her eyes darting, and her hands restless. Defying Minnelli's instructions to restrain her performance, Judy was too mannered, always nervously playing with the rings on her fingers, which Minneli found distracting. Kelly attributed the nervousness to Judys unconscious fear that the picture would not appeal to her fans.
After The Pirate, the studio offered Minnelli no new assignment, and he did not force the issue. To maintain his emotional balance, Minnelli read scripts and again accepted the chores of screen tests. He was deeply annoyed that Metro blamed him for ruining Judys career. All of a sudden, even Arthur Freed was distant with him when they met on the lot.