Pirate: Gene Kelly's Vehicle

“The Pirate,” a comedy of mistaken identities, reunited Gene Kelly and Judy Garland.

Set in the Caribbean Islands in the 1830s, the story concerns a young woman, Manuela (Judy Garland), 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.

Gene Kelly's athletic style made him the obvious choice for the lead, and character actor Walter Slezak was well cast as the real Mack.

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.

Minnelli's worst fears materialized during rehearsals, when he witnessed Judy's anxiety about Gene 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.

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”

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 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.

Judy 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.

Nonetheless, Minnelli's directorial skills and Kellys and Garlands star appeal were not much help at the box-office. With all the talent and the millions spent on production, The Pirate was perceived as a cloddish film, no more inspired than the Broadway play.

Kelly was particularly disappointed with the results since it all looked so good in the rehearsals and shooting. Kelly thought that he looked like fake Barrymore or fake Fairbanks, but he blamed the damned elusive camera he had been trying so hard to tame. Kelly later observed: “Vincente and I honestly believed we were being so dazzlingly brilliant and clever, that everybody would fall at our feet and swoon clean away in delight and ecstasy, that they would kiss our toes in appreciation for this wondrous new musical we'd given them. Well, we were wrong. About five and a half people seemed to get the gist of what we set out to do. And in retrospect, you couldn't really blame them. We just didn't pull it off.”