The Pirate remains a great favorite of mine, the sophisticated musical Judy Garland had desperately wanted to make for so long and the perfect Garland movie for those people Aljean Harmetz interviewed outside the Castro Theatre in San Francisco who said they loved everything about The Wizard of Oz except the “There’s no place like home!” theme. In The Pirate, Judy plays a young woman who’s desperate to get out of the Caribbean village of Calvados (while the Spanish were still in charge in the early 19th century) and is in love with her fantasy image of Macoco the Pirate, little knowing that the fat old town mayor her aunt (Gladys Cooper) wants her to marry (Walter Slezak) is Macoco, retired but still with a price on his head. The love interest is supplied by Serafin (Gene Kelly), actor, director, hypnotist, acrobat and all-around dashing romantic figure, who impersonates Macoco the Pirate (after finding out who Macoco really is!) to try to seduce Our Heroine. Judy was in particularly parlous shape when she was filming The Pirate — after a development process that began as early as 1943, shooting in fact started in 1946, a rough cut was made and shelved in 1947 and she actually made a whole other film, Easter Parade, before retakes on The Pirate were made and the film actually got finished and released in 1948 — and I’ve always felt the reason she was particularly difficult to work with (and visibly strung out through much of the footage) is that The Pirate strongly mirrored her own plight at the time, with her own Calvados being MGM; the character of her aunt being her mother in real life; the Walter Slezak character being Minnelli (or perhaps Louis B. Mayer — Judy’s therapist actually insisted Minnelli give up the job of directing Easter Parade because in her mind he had become the personification of MGM and their work together was no longer bolstering their marriage, but threatening it); and the Gene Kelly character being the dream man she hoped would come along and take her away from all this, who finally (life imitating art) turned out to be her third husband, Sid Luft.
As it stands, The Pirate is a magnificent movie: vividly staged, photographed (Harry Stradling’s cinematography is an all-out exploitation of the vividness and garishness of three-strip Technicolor), directed (Minnelli’s penchant for artsiness and stylization exactly fit the story, for once), written (by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who also wrote the Thin Man films and It’s a Wonderful Life) and acted (notably by Garland, Kelly, Cooper, Slezak and George Zucco, playing the viceroy and getting one of his rare chances to act in a big-budget movie). It’s one of those rare musicals, like Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight 16 years earlier, that actually revels in the artificiality of the form and plays with it. It’s also a surprisingly dark movie, full of meditations on repression and fantasy, with a good deal more depth than your typical musical of the period — I can see why Minnelli, looking back on it 20 years later, said “the marketing of the film was bad”; the trailer, which Turner Classic Movies showed ahead of the film, made it seem like just another nice, emptily entertaining Judy Garland musical, sort of like The Harvey Girls with a Spanish accent, and gave no impression of what the movie really was like. — 3/8/98
TCM is doing pirate movies every Friday this month and last night they concentrated for at least part of the evening on pirate spoofs — and I got to re-watch most of the magnificent 1948 MGM release The Pirate, starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly in a vivid and brilliant musical directed by Garland’s then-husband, Vincente Minnelli, from a script that had gone through various incarnations. It was originally a German play called Der Seeraüber by Ludwig Fulda, about a sheltered rich girl on a Caribbean island who has romantic dreams about a legendary pirate. S. N. Behrman bought the American rights and wrote a whole new script around the central premise, which was produced on Broadway in 1942 as a vehicle for the husband-and-wife acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne. MGM bought the movie rights, intending to make it as Behrman had written it — a non-musical comedy — with Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson in the leads. But the project stalled, and so in 1946 MGM’s ace musical producer, Arthur Freed, asked Louis B. Mayer for permission to develop it as a musical. Once he got the green light, Freed assigned Judy Garland and Gene Kelly for the leads and hired Cole Porter to do the songs. Porter had just come off a colossal Broadway flop, Orson Welles’ production of Around the World in 80 Days, and reports were that he had lost his mojo. Freed believed them and rejected Porter’s first four songs, but eventually got a score that more or less satisfied him. He also spent over $140,000 of MGM’s money on a fabulous wardrobe for Garland, designed by Tom Keogh and executed by Barbara Karinska, who had worked on ballets with Picasso. Freed also assigned Anita Loos and Joseph Than to adapt Behrman’s play into a script, then rejected their work after he found that they’d flipped the central premise of the plot — they’d changed the male lead from an actor impersonating a pirate to a pirate impersonating an actor. So he brought a new screenwriting team, the married couple Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (just coming off It’s a Wonderful Life), to whip out a script that stuck to Behrman’s (and Fulda’s) original concept.
He also assigned Minnelli to direct — his third and last film with Garland, whose psychiatrist advised her that if she wanted to keep her marriage together, she could no longer have him as her boss at work as well because then he would come to personify MGM, which by then she had come to regard as a gilded prison. Garland went to pieces almost as soon as she started work on The Pirate, making pre-recordings of Porter’s songs “Love of My Life” and “Mack the Black” (the theme song of the famous pirate Macoco). According to Freed’s biographer Hugh Fordin, Jr., “The songs needed the intense, exultant delivery for which she was famous. That day it simply wasn’t there.” Freed had the Hacketts fatten Kelly’s part in case Garland proved too weak to carry the film on her own, and Kelly enjoyed that because he was interested in broadening his range; he wanted to become an action hero in the mold of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (right after The Pirate he’d remake one of Fairbanks’ most famous roles, D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers, and like Fairbanks he’d do all his own stunts) and saw in the mountebank character of traveling actor Serafin a chance to break free of his image as just another song-and-dance man. Throughout 1947 production on The Pirate progressed sporadically as Garland repeatedly broke down, unable to work, and when she did show up she embarrassed herself, her co-stars and her crew — many of whom had known and worked with her since she was a child star — by pathetically going up to each of them and demanding drugs. Eventually a rough cut was previewed and met with audience hostility, so The Pirate was shelved and its stars were reassigned to other films — Kelly to a comedy called In a Great Big Way and Garland to Easter Parade, on which, playing a far simpler character in a less sophisticated film for a director she wasn’t married to, she had a much easier time and worked efficiently and effectively. But with so much of the studio’s money and prestige invested in The Pirate, neither Mayer nor Freed was going to scrap it completely, so they brought back Garland and Kelly for retakes and finally pieced together a version that was released in 1948, whereupon it was a resounding commercial flop.
“The diary of The Pirate does not present a pretty picture, and the accusing finger points at Judy Garland,” Hugh Fordin, Jr. wrote. “But Judy was not temperamental; she was not a spoiled star, as those with only a superficial view propound with malice in their hearts. Judy was at war with herself. She was very bright and very sensitive and constantly aware of her shortcomings. Paired with her physical frailty, this produced extreme highs and extreme lows. The well of nervous energy on which she fed was dry. It needed replenishing.” After previous viewings of The Pirate I’ve formed the theory that the film’s plot was, unwittingly, a strikingly exact parallel of Judy Garland’s actual life when she made it. Her character, Manuela, lives as a virtual prisoner on the island of Calvados, dominated by her aunt (Gladys Cooper) who’s raised her as a single parent, as the real Judy was dominated by a mother she couldn’t stand and who’d raised her as a single parent after the death of her dad when Judy was 12. The aunt has promised Manuela in marriage to the town’s mayor, Don Pedro Vargas (Walter Slezak), a repulsive middle-aged man she can’t stand but feels trapped with — in my reading, Calvados represents MGM and Don Pedro is Judy’s ultimate boss, Louis B. Mayer, who wasn’t interested in her physically but did have her trapped in a contract from which she longed to be free. And Serafin represents a character whom Judy hadn’t encountered yet in real life — the person who would break her out of MGM and free her to be a live entertainer, free to work or not work depending on how much she wanted to and how capable she felt instead of having her act turned into a nine-to-five day job as the studio system did with everyone it signed — but who came later (or at least she thought he had until that relationship soured, too) in the person of her third husband, producer and entrepreneur Sid Luft. What’s more, I think Judy Garland was aware of the parallels between the plot of The Pirate and the psychodrama of her actual life when she made the film, and it was that which sent her off the rails and made her even more troublesome and difficult to work with than she usually was by 1946-48. The edgy tension between The Pirate’s plot, as silly as it is in synopsis, and what Judy was really going through bursts through on the screen; as Gary Carey described her in his book on MGM, in The Pirate “she’s visibly strung out, barely in control of her voice and movements, almost anorexic in appearance.” (Charles caught on to the anorexia when he watched The Pirate with me; he said the film made him wish he could walk into the screen, take her aside and say, “Judy — eat something!”)
And yet it becomes a great film precisely because Judy’s real-life traumas add depth and power to her characterization; Manuela becomes, not a cardboard character in a farce, but a desperate woman, visibly trapped among powerful people controlling her and trying to keep her trapped in a life she can’t stand, and expressing her rage even at the man who can free her from it all. As Fordin noted, the fight between Judy’s and Kelly’s characters that precedes the song “You Can Do No Wrong” “was intended to be played in a tongue-in-cheek rage, in the mood of a farce. Instead it became a frantic, hysterical outburst, making Judy’s condition painfully apparent.” Frankly, I think it works better that way; Judy’s rages are all too real — and so is Kelly’s shock at seeing this woman who had helped sponsor his career (she had insisted on him as the male lead in his first film, For Me and My Gal) turn so vicious and almost uncontrollable. The Pirate is a surprisingly dark film, transcending its farce plot and touching on deep issues of class, social position, image (the film’s big switcheroo is that the seemingly respectable mayor Manuela is being forced to marry is in fact the pirate Macoco she’s been dreaming of) and the whole impossible situation people are placed in when others try to dictate what’s best for them and how they should live their lives. It’s also a film I have an affection for because the viceroy who’s summoned at the end to preside over the trial of Serafin for being the pirate Macoco (which he isn’t, and Serafin — who narrowly escaped one of Macoco’s massacres — knows who Macoco really is before anyone else in the film does) is played by George Zucco, making a welcome reappearance in a big production with “A”-list stars a few years after his career seemed to be stuck playing mad-scientist leads in movies like The Mad Monster, Dead Men Walk and The Flying Serpent at PRC. I regard The Pirate as one of Judy Garland’s greatest films — along with The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Clock, A Star Is Born and her final film, the underrated I Could Go On Singing — all of which turned Judy Garland’s real emotions into powerful, indelible screen portrayals and broke the frame between life and art in ways that would become common only after other, similarly tortured stars — Montgomery Clift and Marilyn Monroe in particular — dared to show their real-life vulnerabilities on screen. — 6/14/14