Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Pirate

Vincent Minnelli's 1948 musical, The Pirate is primarily interesting for what it almost achieves:  the film is almost a witty, socially critical entertainment with a Brechtian edge.  Unfortunately, the picture doesn't achieve this status; "nearly" good isn't enough and the film is dull and poorly acted.  Broadway musicals are an inherently conservative genre and The Pirate seems curiously banal and timid -- it is always just on the edge of breaking through to something interesting but doesn't ever have the guts to reach the conclusions implied.  This is most evident in Cole Porter's songs -- they have clever rhymes, more or less, and are workmanlike, but they don't aspire to the sort of scathing lyricism that you find in Brecht's work or, even, Minnelli's later The Band Wagon (1953) with songs by Comden and Green. The songs are third-rate, forgettable, and insufficiently witty -- Porter rhymes "Nina' with "neurasthenia" and "schizophrenia."This is unfortunate because the book has a bitter and sardonic edge, mostly concealed by the broad and vapid acting and the elaborate, cotton-candy sets.  A virtuous maiden, played by Judy Garland, lusts after a virile pirate -- her desires include not-so-subtle fantasies of violent rape.  Unfortunately, she is affianced (a term the script uses repeatedly) to a fat, middle-aged government official.  A vaudeville show comes to the small Caribbean town where she lives and its principal player, an actor and dancer named Serafin, romances her.  Serafin is played broadly by Gene Kelly who leaps around a lot like Douglas Fairbanks in the silent classic, The Black Pirate.  Serafin discovers that the maiden desires to be abducted and raped by the pirate, a brigand named Macoco.  Accordingly, Serafin hypnotizes the girl into thinking that he is Serafin and, in fact, plays the role of the cruel and lecherous pirate for the entire community.  A clever, and, even, profound plot twist ensues at this moment:  the girl's dull fiancée is, in fact, Macoco, the savage pirate, who has retired from his depredations on the Seven Seas.  Masquerading as government official, the poor fat pirate merely wants to gracefully evade execution.  A series of complications that are not particularly amusing ensue and, in the end, Judy Garland's character presumably marries Serafin, having been cured, I guess, of her fantasies of rape by the piratical Macoco.  The movie features several elaborate dance numbers, all of them revolving around Gene Kelly's character -- Judy Garland doesn't seem to be able to keep up with him and, until the last minute of the film, never dances with him. (There most dramatic scene is a grotesquely over-elaborated temper tantrum in which Garland hurls dozens of knickknacks at the cowering Kelly.)  The picture is spoiled by the total absence of any erotic sizzle between Garland and Kelly -- this is best demonstrated by the last number, "Be a Clown" in which the two lovers engage in broad slapstick, cavorting acrobatically on the stage, but barely touching one another.  Garland, to put it bluntly, is homely and dressed idiotically -- the costumes seem contrived to make her look bad  It's incomprehensible that the swaggering, fantastically handsome Kelly having his choice of all the beautiful women on the island would select Garland as his inamorata.  (As Mencken memorably said once: " if a man set before a resplendent banquet would ignore the food and set about catching and eating flies.")  At every point, where this film threatens to become interesting, the picture takes the wrong turn.        

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