Thursday, November 5, 2020

Gene Kelly and Judy Garland shine in "The Pirate" (1948)

I wrote this article for With Glamour and Panache: A Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly Musicals Blogathon hosted by Heidi at Along the Brandywine

Gene Kelly was one of my very first introductions to Classic Hollywood when I was a teen. I tried to get my hands on as many of his films as I possibly could, and probably watched at least 10 of his movies the first year I "found" him. Thank you, public library! 

I remember disliking his first pairing with Judy Garland, For Me and My Gal, and so I was reluctant to try The Pirate, but I am SO GLAD I DID. This has literally been one of my favorite Gene Kelly movies for at least two decades, although I do have a confession to make, which I'll get to later.

Go to my Classic Hollywood page to find all my Classic Hollywood reviews!

First, on to the story!

In the heart of the Spanish Main, young and sheltered Manuela (Judy Garland) dreams of adventure and romance. The pirate, Mack the Black Mococo, the scourge of the sea, is her ideal man, and she daydreams of him swooping down on her like a chickenhawk and carrying her away. Instead, she finds herself engaged to be married to the newly elected mayor Don Pedro Vargas (Walter Slezak) of their small town, a man at least twice her age and, if we may confess it, a bit on the soft and chubby side. An obedient girl, she acquiesces to the wishes of her Aunt Inez (Gladys Cooper) and agrees to the match. Not that she had much choice, but still, it's the thought that counts.

Manuela's single request now is that she be allowed to travel with her aunt to Port Sebastian to fetch her trousseau. Her desperation to see the ocean moves her aunt, and Inez agrees. After all, Inez will be with her, so what could possibly happen?

Apparently, lots and lots of things can happen!

Because at almost the exact same moment that Manuela and Inez pull into Port Sebastian so too arrives a troupe of performers, headed by the flamboyant and flirtatious Serafin (Gene Kelly, as if anyone else could play this role!). A ladies' man to the core, Serafin calls all the girls he meets niña, that is, until he bumps into Manuela. He falls for her in an instant (or as Michael Crawford says in Hello, Dolly!, "it only took a moment"). For her, well, it takes a bit longer because all she sees is a rake accosting her while she's simply standing by the railing admiring the sea.

That night, Manuela sneaks out to watch Serafin and his troupe perform. He spots her in the audience and brings out his mesmerizing mirror with he proceeds to hypnotize her. He thinks to get her to confess to her love for him (ummm, remember, they literally just met a few hours before so that's pretty ambitious of him). Instead, Manuela confesses her undying love for the pirate, Mack the Black Mococo, all while performing a sensual and intense dance number, of which she remembers nothing when she wakes up in Serafin's arms to him kissing her (snapping his fingers didn't work).

But an idea has been planted in Serafin's mind. Manuela refuses to love him as himself, but maybe, just maybe he can pull of the performance of a lifetime as Mack the Black Mococo. After all, she doesn't remember that she confessed her love for the pirate, and he's willing to try anything to win her. Can it work!?

This is a crazy movie, start to finish, no questions asked.

Judy Garland's costumes are stunning, absolutely marvelous and so vibrantly colorful. It would not have had the same effect in black and white. The Pirate absolutely REQUIRED technicolor. Gene Kelly never looked so suave and debonair. I usually don't go for the mustached man, but it so seriously worked for him in this film. He successfully channeled a bit of Tyronne Power and Douglas Fairbanks.

The music is upbeat and peppy thanks to the skills of Cole Porter, one of my favorite composers of Classic Hollywood. 

Now, on to my confession. Despite The Pirate being a musical, and my loving Cole Porter, the musical numbers are NOT my favorite thing because they just didn't FIT.

The musical numbers are a bit gaudy and ostentatious, if I'm to be honest, which sometimes works, but didn't quite do it for me here. Original audiences must have felt the same because The Pirate lost money at the box office. Gene Kelly's song Niña when he first arrives in Port Sebastian is fun, and matches the character, and it lets Kelly's dancing really shine. Unfortunately, the pirate ballet is a bit of a mess, an imaginary muddle that Manuela dreams up while watching Serafin playfully challenge a donkey with a sword. If you've spent your whole life wanting to see Kelly in shorts, then this is your musical number, me, not so much. And let's not forget Be a Clown. WHAT?! I mean, what . . . the . . . heck. I'm afraid that even Cole Porter ended up hating this film so something went sadly wrong somewhere on the musical side of things.

However, Love of My Life and You Can Do No Wrong play to Garland's strengths, lovely, sensual ballads meant to woo Serafin, and woo him she does. But I think the best is probably the main song Mack the Black, sung by Garland when her character is under Serafin's hypnosis. It's powerful and wild and allows Garland's chaotic energy to shine. Apparently, there was also a number filmed called Voodoo between Kelly and Garland. I'm thinking that Love of My Life took its place. Louis B. Mayer saw the footage of Voodoo, about had a heart attack, and demanded that even the negatives be burned. WOW, that must have been some number! Something like The Point of No Return in The Phantom of the Opera perhaps.

One of my favorite dance numbers, ironically, is one of the craziest but was also groundbreaking for the era. Dressed as clowns, Kelly dances with the Nicholas Brothers, two skilled African American dancers. Just watching that dance is incredible because it places all three men on equal footing. They wear the same costume and dance in sync with each other, with no one playing back-up. It's brilliant and makes The Pirate memorable for that reason alone.

Okay, I've mentioned that the musical numbers don't realllllly work for me. So you're probably wondering why I love this movie. It's because of Kelly and Garland, of course! Their chemistry is GENIOUS! 

There is pure snark radiating between them. I know Garland was struggling when making this film, but the audience would never know it. She sparkled like the richest ruby and Kelly in his masterful way brought just the right tinge of comedic humor to the role of Serafin. Vincente Minnelli did a terrific job directing this one, and I really do wish it had been more popular. I guess it was just a tad too silly, which I can understand, I do, but I still love it anyway.

I love the rip-roaring fight between Manuela and Serafin. It's HILARIOUS, I almost choke laughing every time I watch the movie. I especially love it because Garland actually hits Kelly a time or two when she's chucking brick-a-brack at him, to say nothing of swatting his behind with the flat of a fencing sword. It's the perfect comedic scene and from the very first time I watched The Pirate until now, for their chemistry alone, I love this movie.

The Pirate has a ridiculous ending and some ridiculous musical numbers, but Kelly and Garland are MAGIC.

Remember, I wrote this article for With Glamour and Panache: A Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly Musicals Blogathon hosted by Heidi at Along the Brandywine. So if you get a chance, head on over to her blog to read the other entries as they come trickling in over the next couple of days!


  1. Oh, I'm so glad you wrote this up... What fun!! :) It helps knowing beforehand, but stories that don't take themselves too seriously can be so delightful. Plus I love swirling, hot blooded Spanish settings etc (and your review is excellent), so this is definitely going on my watch list. Thank you and I'm so happy you were able to join the blogathon! <3

    1. This one definitely doesn't take itself it too seriously, which is a huge part of why I love it, that's for sure! I loved participating in your blogathon, thanks so much for hosting. It was fun getting to write about one of my favorite movies. I hope you love it when you get a chance to watch it!

  2. How creative and love the video effects!

  3. I love this one too! I agree that you would never know how much Judy was struggling. She was so dazzling and funny! I worry for Gene when she's throwing stuff at him! Her aim is so good. I agree that the pirate ballet thing is totally weird. Maybe it was just to show off Gene's sexy thighs in those short shorts? Phew! Haha

    1. I know, right! Like when she clocks him in the knee with that little statue and he falls into the table and it collapses! Epic scene of hilarity, but yikes, he could have gotten hurt! It probably was the purpose of those shorts, yes. I don't think I realized until this movie how very much muscle he had on his legs. Which is silly since he was a dancer, but still, I'd never though of it until I saw him in those shorts.

  4. Now I REALLY want to see this one!! Ridiculous musical numbers? Yes please!!! I really do love Gene Kelly, he's an amazing dancer and has such comedic potential!! Great review Carissa!

    1. Yes, you don't get much more ridiculous than this one! But it is mighty fun and shows off Gene Kelly to delightful advantage.

  5. I'd love to see this movie - Grace showed me the trailer for this awhile back and we've laughed and quoted just from seeing that let along the entire film! It looks like so much fun! You've just spurred me on to try and watch this, Carissa!

    1. I hope when you do watch it, that you enjoy it! This is one of those movies that folks either love or hate, which amuses me. Your library might have it, or even YouTube, although I haven't looked.

    2. Yes, I hope to watch it soon! It looks like a load of fun! I'll have to check out our library.

  6. It's funny, because I'm the opposite of you! I loved For Me and My Gal (my sisters didn't at all) and didn't like The Pirate. Maybe watching them back to back wasn't the best idea... But, I think that you are perfectly right! The music feels very off, and it might've been better without it, with just the good songs sprinkled throughout. Actually, you're making me want to watch this and reassess my opinion!

    1. I think I was a teen when I saw For Me and My Gal so I really should give it another chance. It's been a long time. I can't even remember why I didn't like it, just that I didn't, and that's indicator enough that I need to try it again.

      I do feel that if The Pirate had been approached differently then it might have been a rousing success. It just needed a couple of things chopped and rearranged and I think audiences would have loved it. I might, I still love it, but that is with seeing all of its flaws and loving it anyway. ;)


Thank you for your kind comments, which I adore!