The Pirate at the Glasgow Film Festival

This entry is part 6 of 8 in the series Glasgow Film Festival.

Wednesday, 22 February, 11am – The Pirate (1948)

Pat wasn’t happy with the management, something about “academic introductions” and “pains in the arse.” Related, I think. Although he did remark that our daily host, Allan Hunter, “does very well.” He does, indeed. So well, in fact, that while espousing on Gene and Judy’s onscreen partnership he mentioned Summer Stock (1950) and explained its omission from the festival for anyone moronic enough to be offended by its absence with a barely concerned “it isn’t that good a musical” and thereby submitting his own entry for ‘Understatement of the Century Award.’

If I don’t get the appeal of Joe Brady, then I am practically fumbling around in the dark trying to pick up pine needles with boxing gloves when it comes to the much-vaunted sexual chemistry between Gene Kelly and Judy Garland. Love them both. Don’t see it. Have never seen it. It doesn’t exist. Gene and Judy’s onscreen vibe is one that you might find between brother and sister, or very close, extremely platonic friends. Yet virtual oceans exist in the realms of Gene fandom devoted to this very subject:

  • mock facebook pages showing ‘Gene Kelly is in a relationship with Judy Garland’ status updates;
  • hybrid usernames incorporating both artists – Judygenefan, Jugenea, Garlandkelly, Kellygarland, Garkel, Kelgar (OK, I made the last two up, but I bet they exist somewhere); and 
  • YouTube videos of love stricken teenagers mooning over imagined trysts.

[For more on this Garland/Kelly “shipping,” see Kelli’s essay on social media’s current objectification of Gene Kelly.] I understand this is flying in the face of the general consensus of online opinion when I say that Gene and Judy are good together, but not great – they both did their best work with other partners.

Having said all that, I enjoyed The Pirate in a way I never have before. It simply HAS to be seen on the big screen; only that kind of ratio can contain the overblown spectacle of its vibrancy, colour, and Gene’s exaggerated performance. His dramatic shortcomings are exposed badly here — when he first makes his appearance, it’s impossible to take your eyes off his hands, which he throws around in affected gestures like a Marionette puppet possessed by the spirit of Peewee Herman. I confess I nearly had a seizure when he recited the line: “You should try underplaying sometimes, very effective.” Good advice for us all, Gene…

Still, as always, the moment Kelly starts dancing, nothing else matters. In the world. His ‘Niña’ routine is really all we need to be introduced to Serafin, a lithe, athletic, self-absorbed showman. Add Cole Porter’s delicious rhyming couplets to the mix and it’s impossible to resist – Niña and schizophrenia? What more do you want for your money? Well, how about ‘Be a Clown’ with Gene and The Nicholas Brothers? This number is the film’s undoubted highlight, and Gene deserve enormous credit for breaking all kinds of pre-Civil Rights Movement taboos with a dancing team who, because of their colour, never had the career they deserved. And in the eldest brother, Fayard, had, in my opinion, the finest dancer cinema has ever known. The three of them threaten to burst forth from the screen and cartwheel up and down the aisles.

The number that had the biggest effect on me was easily the ‘Pirate Ballet.’ I’ve always loved it, but in its proper setting, good God… Ladies and gay guys, I get it! Gene moves with the ferocity of a sexual panther, a testosterone-fueled force of malevolence with masculinity crackling through every rippling sinew. When Gene made his first appearance in the film, I had scrawled in my notes: ‘Douglas Fairbanks he ain’t.’ However, after the ‘Pirate Ballet,’ I put a line through that and replaced it with this: ‘More swash in his buckle than a thousand Fairbanks.’

With so much attention focussed on Gene this week, I had forgotten that I had never seen Judy on the big screen before, either. She was truly something to behold. The camera doesn’t so much love her as caress her face with an adoration and gentleness I didn’t even know existed. Judy Garland has an innate light that pulsates through every fibre of her being and you could illuminate the Eastern Seaboard with the wattage of her star quality. If ‘Mack the Black’ reveals the passion that is bubbling under the surface in Manuela, then the expression on her face prior to her ‘Pirate Ballet’ fantasy reveals a hitherto unexplored psychosexual and sadomasochistic side to her nature – she wants Macoco to ravage her completely then scoop up her withering remains with a spoon. Begs the question why she then settles for the preening, spineless Serafin? Still, Lois Lane was in love with Superman and settled for Clark Kent, so what do I know?

I must also mention the supporting cast here who are uniformly excellent, particularly Walter Slezak, whose snivelling Mayor scuffs the ground repeatedly with his foot to underline his pomposity, and Lester Allen as Manuela’s Uncle Capucho who has no more than a couple of lines to utter and spends the rest of the time smoking a pipe and grinning like a slightly sinister monkey.

1948 is perhaps the most important year of Gene’s career, he made giant leaps both as a choreographer and a performer with his work here and on ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue’ in Words and Music. You can see the creative genius beginning to emerge and redefine the genre; it not only heralded the beginning of Gene’s great period, but also announced that the zenith of the film musical was imminent.
Last word, as usual, to Pat: “That was remarkably good! I had never even heard of it. It was great to see him not playing an American for once…”

In case you missed them, here are my other reviews on the Glasgow Film Festival.

About 

I am a 40-something-year-old Scotsman with an obsessive nostalgia for the past, particularly the films of Hollywood's Golden Age and American music from the '40s to the '60s. My appreciation and love for Gene and the field in which he worked is something I hope to instill in future generations -- I'm currently studying towards becoming a teacher and firmly believe it is a role in which I can flourish, once I overcome a small, but stubborn, obstacle: a pathological hatred of teenagers.

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  • Now i have to go and watch this movie! Love it! Nice review. 🙂

  • Though i dont agree with the “no chemistry between Gene and Judy”. I think they have amazing chemistry, though i think it was better between them in their first picture together, For Me and My Gal. I’m one of those people though that love them together! 🙂

    • Marc

      Hi, Brianna. I know several people of otherwise sound judgement who speak of the chemistry between Gene and Judy, but I just can’t see it and I’ve been watching them both all of my life. I feel it between Gene and Cyd, Gene and Vera-Ellen and even Gene and Leslie Caron, a little. I feel a similar vibe between Gene and Judy to the one that exists between Judy and Mickey Rooney. It’s obvious within the ranks of GK fandom that fantasies abound involving a Gene and Judy coupling, but, romantically speaking, they don’t seem at all compatible.

      Enjoy watching ‘The Pirate’ again and thanks for commenting.

      Marc.

  • Krista

    I still have a serious soft spot for Summer Stock…just for the “Friendly Star” scene alone. But there’s something about “Nina” and the cigarette that gets me in The Pirate…Plus the infamous “brush” after “Mack The Black” and that kiss….

    • Marc

      Hi, Krista. Thanks for commenting. I understand the base appeal of Gene and it’s clear that he doesn’t affect me, a heterosexual male, in quite the same way that he seems to affect every woman on the planet! As for ‘Summer Stock,’ there are no words to adequately describe the depth of my vitriol for this cinematic aberration, but that’s another essay…

      Happy Harvest.

      Marc.

      • Yes, another essay — which will be ripped to shreds (by me) sometime this summer. 🙂

  • I guess its different to everybody, but i dont see it at all between Gene and Vera-Ellen and hardly between Gene and Cyd. I do see it between he and Leslie though. I see it most with he and Leslie and he and Judy most, but thats just me. I do enjoy reading ur posts tho! 🙂

    • Marc

      Yes, I think it’s different for many people and personal feelings towards any star is most definitely a contributory factor.

      Thank you.

    • Gene and Cyd had great chemistry, it’s not the “tender” chemistry that everyone talks about with Gene and Judy. Theirs was, much more adult, I don’t mean sexual (although it wouldn’t have been hard to imagine); it was steeped either in desire or in damage. (their relationship in It’s Always Fair Weather was a thing of beauty to watch – both scarred, but willing to let down their guard.

      As for Vera – I could never see it – I would have liked to see him with Betty Garrett – that would have been a blast.

      • Marc

        Gene and Betty Garrett? Not sure if I can see that, and considering how absolutely perfect she was with Frank I’d be unwilling to sacrifice that. I’m not sure Gene would have been able to keep up with Betty Garrett’s verbal pyrotechnics.

        You say the adult chemistry between Gene and Cyd isn’t sexual, then go on to say it’s steeped in desire… What’s desire if it isn’t sexual? I agree with what you say about their relationship in It’s Always Fair Weather, though, even if the conceit that those characters could find any kind of redemption in each other requires an enormous leap of faith. Still, it is refreshingly dark and, as you say, ‘damaged.’

        • My definition of desire here meant not purely sexual, but a combination of love and sex – perhaps the better word would have been lust? Who knows. It’s the romantic in me that believes no one is beyond redemption, so I’d give a break to the two characters in IAFW.

          I wouldn’t exchange Frank for Gene either, but would have loved to see them in something together that wasn’t TMOTTB or OTT.

          • Marc

            That could have happened if Gene didn’t waste his time with Summer Stock and the tax-break trip to London after Singin’ in the Rain. His great period is a thing of majesty, but it’s infuriatingly brief.

          • Agreed, I’d have to say that was the epitome of bad decisions. The more I read, the more I think that had roots in things other than tax breaks, but it unnecessarily put the breaks on a great career.

  • Jennifer

    Now this is interesting. You’re saying that Gene and Judy have chemistry, but not sexual chemistry? Maybe we do agree on this score. I think they have buckets of chemistry. Gigantic billowing maelstroms of chemistry… but I acknowledge that it isn’t all that sexual (it is indeed more friendly or brotherly/sisterly) – except for in this film. I think they’re both so goofy and caricatured here that they play off of each other perfectly. But I don’t want to say too much because this is content for my next promised contribution to this site.

    I have many, many favorite lines from this film, and you hit on what is arguably my most favorite: the “underplaying” line. I think Gene is terrific in this film, because Serafin is a part that begs to be overacted. He’s playing an egotistical yet insecure actor! Not much of a stretch for our boy… 🙂 (“Senorita, don’t marry that pumpkin!”)

    Interesting to hear what you say about seeing Judy up there on the screen. I believe this was her first truly adult role and she obviously made the most of it. (“He asked for me.”) I love Uncle Capucho and Aunt Inez as well. Uncle Capucho doesn’t have to say anything to be hilarious (and henpecked), and Gladys Cooper is the perfect foil with her constant clucking and fussing. (If you’ve seen her in NOW, VOYAGER you really get a sense of how impressive her acting range is.) Another of my favorite minor characters in this film is the Viceroy (the guy who gets to determine Serafin’s fate). (“I must say Macoco, you’re very satisfying! The other members of your profession whom I’ve met officially looked more like bookkeepers than pirates, but you – ooh hoo hoo – you fill the eye!”)

    This had a one night showing at my local “vintage” movie house and I didn’t get to see it. I really regret it after hearing your review of seeing it on the big screen.

    Oh, and another thing: have you been watching 35mm prints of these films, or are they mere digital transfers? Not sure if I put that right – I’m not much of a technician, but I daresay you know what I mean.

    • Marc

      Firstly, on the print vs digital question I was wondering that same thing throughout the week. Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris were definitely digital transfers, as for the rest I’m really not sure as a couple of them were jumping in that way 35mm does, but the picture was digitally pristine. Brigadoon was a dvd, but that was due to the venue.

      No matter which film I see Gladys Cooper in I always think of the scene from Now, Voyager where she’s trying to break the new and improved Bette Davis and bully her into fulfilling her ‘duty as a daughter.’ Her performance is so cold as to be almost glacial, and I think she’s one of cinema’s most chilling matriarchs. The Viceroy has a wonderful voice, both mellifluous and slightly pompous.

      One last thing, you know how tanned Gene’s legs are in the ‘Pirate Ballet?’ Have you noticed the pasty white leg he sticks up in the air during the ‘Be a Clown’ reprise? I don’t know why I never noticed that before, or if it’s even worth mentioning, but have a goosy if you have the time and can be bothered.

      • “Pasty white leg” — ha!

      • Kelly

        Look here! I’m commenting!

        I’ve noticed that pasty white leg. It bothers me to no end. It just ain’t right that Serafin should have pale skin.

        • marcorr

          I see!

          I’m guessing maybe they shot that number first? You know, before all the spray-tanning sessions?

          • Krista

            Huh…I always thought it was a white stocking he was wearing for comic effect. I mean, otherwise that limb was VERY pale..

          • Kelly

            You mean Gene didn’t laze around outside and develop that tan naturally? Darn.