Lush to the point of being stultifying, but thank goodness for the Nicholas Brothers
Mar 24, 2011
Take the conceit of commedia del'arte, add the lush fussiness of Vincente Minnelli's artistic taste and then varnish on the glossy, expensive polish of the MGM style...and you have The Pirate, a film that proves the point, too much is just too much. When the actors play second fiddle to their costumes, you know there's a problem.
On a Caribbean island, young and innocent Manuela (Judy Garland) dreams her foolish dreams of the dashing, brave, romantic pirate, Mack, the black macoco. Alas, Manuela is an orphan, living with her aunt and uncle who are loving but who have suffered financial reverses. They tell Manuela that they have arranged for her to marry in a few days the powerful and wealthy mayor of their town, Don Pedro Vargas (Walter Slezak). But then some traveling players arrive, led by Serafin (Gene Kelly), juggler, conjurer, singer and dancer, a dark, curly-haired rogue who oozes macho charm. He woos, wins and leaves all the beautiful women he meets, all of whom he simply calls nina. Well, of course, Manuela and Serafin will meet. He falls in love, she resists and Don Pedro is furious. By the end of the movie we learn a great deal about Mack the Black and who he is, we learn about love and stage folks and, of course, that talent and love must have their way.
For a musical with songs by Cole Porter starring Garland and Kelly, The Pirate turns into a bit of a slog. Fifty minutes into the 101-minute movie and we've experienced only two songs. Minnelli evidently thought that the rococo-tinged acting, especially by Kelly, combined with lavish velvet dresses and Carmen Miranda turbans for the women, harlequin tights for the men, exploding purple and scarlet smoke bombs and flaming torches in every night scene would wow us groundlings. When we first meet Manuela's aunt, the woman is encased from throat to toe in deep green velvet which has been puffed and fringed to within an inch of its life. It's difficult not to keep staring at this thing while the scene is played. Everything we can see -- the costumes, the sets, the whole mise en scene -- is so overwrought with color and fussiness I wanted to open a window and let in fresh air. The Pirate, even with many of the good things it possesses, is often just plain stultifying and campy.
There are good elements, but none, in my view, are knock-outs. Kelly gives probably the most athletic performance of his career. He swings from ropes, clambers up to balconies and leaps down again, dances with a sword (with all those exploding fire bombs behind him) and stomps about in a semi-flamenco. I'm not a great fan of Kelly, either as an actor or a dancer, but he is supremely athletic and graceful in everything he does in this film. It's a pleasure just to watch him move. The Cole Porter songs, in my view, need to be heard more than once to be appreciated. Some, like Nina and Mack the Black, written to be the basis of big production numbers, depend too heavily for me on their orchestrations. But You Can Do No Wrong and Love of My Life are small-scale gems. Be a Clown is a terrific speciality number used twice. The first time is with Kelly and Fayard and Harold Nicholas. It's fast and heavy on gymnastics. I'll admit I was surprised to see that Kelly was able to keep up with the two. The second time closes the movie, with Manuela and Serafin performing in clown costume. Here's Judy the waif, all made up, clowning and singing and dancing, with Kelly by her side. It seems to take a long time to get to this point, but the number is worth waiting for...and the fast forward will make it easier the second time.
Fans of movie musicals will detect an uncanny similarity between Porter's music for Be a Clown and the Nacio Herb Brown music for Make 'Em Laugh, which Brown came up with specifically for Singin' in the Rain. In fact, the similarity is almost note for note. The story goes that when the similarity was pointed out to producer (and the writer of the lyric for Make 'Em Laugh) Arthur Freed, he contacted Porter and asked what he should do. Porter is supposed to have just laughed and told him not to worry about it. Hear the tune in your mind and match it against the two sets of words:
Be a Clown 1948, music and lyrics by Cole Porter: Be a clown, Be a clown, All the world loves a clown.
Act a fool, play the calf, And you'll always have the last laugh. Wear the cap and the bells And you'll rate with all the great swells
If you become a doctor, folks'll face you with dread, If you become a dentist, they'll be glad when you're dead, You'll get a bigger hand if you can stand on your head, Be a clown, Be a clown, Be a clown.
Make 'Em Laugh 1952, Music by Nacio Herb Brown, Lyrics by Arthur Freed: Make 'em laugh Make 'em laugh Don't you know everyone wants to laugh?
My dad said "Be an actor, my son But be a comical one They'll be standing in lines For those old honky tonk monkeyshines"
Now you could study Shakespeare and be quite elite And you can charm the critics and have nothin' to eat Just slip on a banana peel. The world's at your feet Make 'em laugh, Make 'em laugh, Make 'em laugh.