“The Pirate” (1948)

by A.J. Hakari


The Pirate is every bit as uneven as you’d expect from a film with so much sophistication being yanked around by so much dated material. It’s a torch-passing for its time, handing off the reigns of the frothy, free-spirited musical to a more adventurous and artistically daring era. The trouble is that both sides are so determined to have their say, nobody wins, and the movie that comes to pass is an awkard melding of the old with the new. The Pirate can be fun at times, but it’s a slog just as often, a fairytale romance with a somewhat modern approach that doesn’t quite stick the landing.

Having grown up a sheltered orphan girl, young Manuela (Judy Garland) has always dreamed of exploring the outside world. In particular, she’s fascinated by Macoco, a legendary pirate whose stories of plundering and romancing sets her heart aflutter. Unfortunately, she’s soon due to wed the portly Don Pedro (Walter Slezak), but not if roguish performer Serafin (Gene Kelly) has anything to say about it. During a show, he uncovers Manuela’s yearning for Macoco and brings her fantasies to life by claiming to be the notorious pillager himself. Serafin is dead set on winning the fair maiden’s hand, unaware that his con game has aroused the interest of those who’d be happy to see him hang for the real Macoco’s crimes.

The Pirate isn’t so alien that you’ve no clue what it’s trying to do, but as you watch it, you get the idea that something just isn’t right. It sets us up for a basic musical romance (prim and proper heroine, fast-talking hero, blustery bad guy, etc.) and continutes on this route well after Gene Kelly arrives to liven up the joint with his toe-tapping prowess. I know that exagerration is paramount with the genre, that playing up everything (emotions, set design, archetypes) for the crowd is its lifeblood, but the story and circumstances that supply The Pirate with its tension are really thin. If you thought Grease was sketchy for saying that sacrificing purity to become a floozy is the best way to nab a guy, wait until you see Gene Kelly lie, stalk, threaten, and face imminent death for the sake of screwing around with some girl he’s known for a day.

It’s no surprise that The Pirate is so old-fashioned at heart, but it really shows and throws you off when the film tries to take a progressive step forward. Amidst the plenty pleasant Cole Porter tunes — themselves enhanced in numbers with a beautiful Technicolor sheen — is a sliver of avant-garde peering through the cracks. You can especially spot it during a sequence where Manuela hallucinates about Macoco’s feats, and there’s a smidge of self-awareness when Garland and Kelly lash at each other in a raucous shouting match. But director Vincente Minnelli is ultimately too timid to push the envelope, giving us a very simple, very shallow, and very gorgeous song-and-dance show.

Considering the cinematic heights its stars and crew would rise to, The Pirate is little more than a footnote in their respective biographies. Who knows, it probably has its share of fans, which isn’t out of the question given its theatrical gloss and mischievous spirit. The Pirate is okay stuff, but I won’t be humming along to its soundtrack anytime soon.