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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