Pirate, The: Minnelli Musical, Starring Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and (Best if All?) the Nicholas Brothers

After the success of “Me and My Girl,” producer Arthur Freed urged Vincente Minnelli to find a suitable vehicle to pair again 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.

“Be a Clown” Controversy

In later years, critics noted that Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown” was plagiarized by producer-songwriter Arthur Freed four years later for his “Make ’em Laugh”, a spectacular number written for Donald O’Connor in Freed’s iconic 1952 musical Singin’ in the Rain, which also starred Gene Kelly.

In a winter 2002 interview with Betty Comden and Adolph Green.” Comden recalled, “How Arthur Freed could have written it in the first place — and not realized — is still a mystery. We have no idea, and we never brought it up with Arthur, either before or after that day … It’s fabulous, but the song is exactly like ‘Be a Clown.”

Judy’s touch with comedy is assured, but her Manuela seems too nervous, at times even neurotic–what with her eyes darting, and her hands restless. Defying Minnelli’s instructions to restrain her performance, Judy is too mannered, manifest in her nervously playing with the rings on her fingers, which both Minnelli and Kelly found distracting, but dared not say a word due to her fragile state of mind.

In later years, Kelly attributed the nervousness to Judy’s subconscious fears that the picture would not appeal to her fans. (She turned out to be right).

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, when the studio evaluated the commercial prospects of The Pirate.”

And while some saw artistic merits in “Yolanda and the Thief” (Minnelli’s first flop) and “The Pirate,” it was hard not to acknowledge the commercial failure of both pictures at the box office.

Nonetheless, over the years, “The Pirate” has developed a small cult status. The picture is often showed in retrospectives of MGM, Minnelli, Kelly, and Garland–and not least of all for containing one of the most bravura numbers of the Nicholas Brothers.  A specialty dance sequence was created for the genius of Nicholas siblings, who used it to an advantage.

Looking back, it’s one of Minnelli’s underestimated musicals. It seems that its particular brand of artifice and fey eccentricity were might have too innovative and peculiar at the times it was made.

Gene Kelly and Judy Garland


Judy Garland as Manuela
Gene Kelly as Serafin
Walter Slezak as Don Pedro Vargas, Mack “the Black” Macoco
Gladys Cooper as Aunt Inez
Reginald Owen as The Advocate
George Zucco as The Viceroy
Specialty dance sequence by The Nicholas Brothers
Lester Allen as Uncle Capucho
Lola Albright as Isabella
Ellen Ross as Mercedes
Mary Jo Ellis as Lizarda
Jean Dean as Casilda
Marion Murray as Eloise
Ben Lessy as Gumbo
Jerry Bergen as Bolo

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