Pirate, The: Minnelli Musical, Starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly

After the success of “Me and My Girl,” producer Arthur Freed urged Vincente Minnelli to find a suitable vehicle to pair Judy Garland 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. Minnelli conceived “The Pirate” as a totally artificial film with a frothy story. He transformed MGMs sound stages into a fanciful tropical island, drawing on his experience as an art director, and working more closely than the usual with set designers Cedric Gibbons and Jack Martin Smith and costumer Irene Sharaff.

Over the years, Minnelli had built up a huge library of books, which he used for visual inspiration. He spent months researching The Pirate in his library researching the periods look and corresponding with various experts on the region. Representing a new form of screen musical, a period burlesque, The Pirate allowed Minnelli free reign for his eclectic aesthetics. He designed exotic environments that were product of his imagination, specifically instructing cinematographer Harry Stradling to lend the films color palette a strong surreal touch.

Truth to tell, even if Judy’s performance were better, “The Pirate” would have been flawed. For starters, with few exceptions, Porter’s songs lacked his trademark wit. And Minnelli again allowed the sumptuous sets and exotic costumes overshadow the slender tale. Though visually pleasant, the picture never quite comes together. It is too static and lacking real energy.

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.

Minnelli and Kelly did not have to wait long to find out just how wrong they were about the picture. The critics charged that the story lacked the lightness of a Fairbanks plot and that the dialogue didnt have any edge to it. Minnelli was offended, particularly by one comment scrawled on a preview card: “I would have fallen asleep were it not for all the noise on screen.”

“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 are 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.

Judy’s touch with comedy is assured, but her Manuela seems too nervous, even neurotic, what with her eyes darting, and her hands restless. Defying Minnelli’s instructions to restrain her performance, Judy is 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.

In an industry given to the latest success–you are as good as your last picture–Minnelli’s triumphs with “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “The Clock” didn’t count much. And while some saw artistic merits in “Yolanda and the Thief” and “The Pirate,” it was hard not to acknowledge the commercial failure of both pictures.

Nonetheless, over the years, “The Pirate” has developed a cult status. Looking back, its one of Minnellis underestimated musicals, though its particular brand of artifice and fey eccentricity were too innovative and peculiar at the time.