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Paul Whiteman and Orchestra
A girl is engaged to the local richman, but meanwhile she has dreams about the legendary pirate Macoco. A traveling singer falls in love with her and to impress her he poses as the pirate. Written by
R. Kessen <email@example.com>
In its classic era Hollywood was not a place where artistes could conceive and execute projects exactly to plan. Often a production would change hands, get scrapped, revived, or overhauled completely into a new genre according to changing needs and resources. That's not an admonition - it's simply the way they created quality entertainment. The Pirate was not the first straight-ahead comedy drama to receive a musical makeover halfway through production.
MGM, in the middle of what would one day be known as its golden age of musicals, probably thought they were onto an easy winner because they had all the finest musical talent of the day at their disposal. They brought in Arthur Freed to produce, Vincente Minnelli to direct, with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly as stars. They even managed to coax Cole Porter into writing the score. It couldn't fail... could it? The trouble is, such hasty talent stuffing sometimes backfires. Let's begin with the two leads. Garland, had worked continuously since childhood and was by now only being kept going with the amphetamines she would eventually become hooked on. She was running out of steam and it shows in her rather uneven performance, veering from theatrical exaggeration to bizarre, doped-up eroticism. Kelly by contrast was at the top of his game, but he looks daft in that moustache, and his performance relies more on his second-rate acrobats than his first-rate dancing. Garland and Kelly are however fantastic in the comical ornament-smashing scene. This is easily the best moment in the picture, which just goes to show how underused their musical abilities are.
Vincente Minnelli was by now established as a unique and highly effective director of musicals. He had a method of giving character and dynamics to every number, making the camera and the colours part of the choreography. A great example is the song Nina, which is shot entirely in two or three continuous takes. Minnelli leads us into the song tracking over to the "Nina" in the boldest colours, then alights on one "Nina" after another, delicately framing each in a painterly composition. He holds our interest throughout this long routine, with the camera in close to establish the premise of the number then moving out to show off Kelly's athletics, moving in again for the cigarette-kiss trick, before moving out again for the final group dance. It's just a shame that The Pirate has too few songs, and not nearly enough dance.
Minnelli was also a competent director of non-musical action, particularly crowd scenes. His expert use of camera movement provides Kelly with a fantastic entrance. We dolly back through the crowds, focus on a crate with the acting company's details on it, then pull back and up to reveal Kelly being hoisted aloft. Shortly after this comes a bit of a misfire though. Minnelli, for very good reasons, often liked to keep actors in mid-shot rather than closeup, drawing attention to them through use of framing and movement. As Kelly strolls through the crowd advertising his company, we are focused on him because he is very animated while his audience are unnaturally still. It gives what should be a lively moment a sense of emptiness, and I can't help thinking of the real world audience getting bored wondering when the first musical number will strike up.
As for Cole Porter's music, it's far from his best. The plot is, as Kelly later pointed out, a huge inside joke that it took audiences twenty years to get, although if it was at the expense of Douglas Fairbanks, wasn't it also being made twenty years too late? The MGM studio-bound look is particularly stifling for such an exotic, adventuresome setting. All in all, The Pirate has plenty of colouring, but not enough flavour, and is one of the most disappointing of MGM musicals.
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