The Cinematic Voyage of The Pirate (2014): Book Review

Aunt Suzy reviews Earl J. Hess’s & Pratibha A. Dabholkar’s 2014 book on The PirateThe Cinematic Voyage of The Pirate.

The PirateThe Cinematic Voyage of The Pirate.

“Don’t ask me to explain the mystery of genius.”

So said Serafin, when asked how he always managed to slide out of doing any work.

In this book, the authors have gone as far as possible in explaining the mysteries, and the effort, which went into creating the work of genius – The Pirate.

The book takes us to the port of departure, to the original stage play written by Ludwig Fulda in 1911. The ship sets sail with the performances of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in association with writer S.N. Behrmann, on the American stage in 1942.

Our next docking point is the purchase of The Pirate by MGM in 1943. This is where the voyage hits stormy waters, as it would be five years before the film launched itself on an unsuspecting public.

Okay, that’s enough of maritime references.

In their concluding thoughts, the authors write “It is time that The Pirate received its long-awaited due; we hope this unique film will continue to garner more attention and accolades with each passing generation.”

They have certainly played a huge part in making sure that it happens. The book is an amazing anthology of all things ‘Pirate’. I enjoyed it immensely, from the Preface, in which the authors set out their intentions, to the comprehensive bibliography and index. In-between, there are sections on the various screenplays; the major and minor players, including biographies; the filming challenges; postproduction including reviews and critical analyses; the legacy of the film some 66 years later, and a long list of chapter notes. As with their previous book, Singin’ In The Rain. An American Masterpiece, I enjoyed the notes almost as much as the main content of the book.

The authors manage to dispel some of the myths which have grown up around the film, and been passed on as fact from one writer to another.

For example, on my website, in the section dedicated to The Pirate, ( ‘By Golly These Are Good’) I have listed excerpts from several primary sources, mainly reviews contemporary with the release of the film. Most of them are very positive, and it has long annoyed me that the film is perceived to have been a miserable failure, both critically and at the box office.

Hess and Dabholkar set the record straight through their intensive research. At the end of a final preview in New York, in spite of a few negative comments concerning specific scenes, 92 percent of the audience said they would recommend the movie to friends. I know that Gene Kelly, in some interviews, said that no one ‘got’ the premise of the film, and that about two-and-a-half people saw it, but that was typical of Gene, who was often self-deprecating in a humorous way. He later acknowledged that The Pirate had achieved cult status and had become more popular in later years.

They also explain why the film did not recoup its costs initially – not entirely because of Judy Garland’s frequent absences, as has been stated many times, but also because of the somewhat excessive spend on costumes, sets, and the enormous length of film which was shot and then discarded.

There is a wealth of detail in the book, far too much for any meaningful discussion here. I like the fact that every member of cast and crew is named and featured. I also like the fairness and impartiality of their approach, and the reasoning they employ in putting forth their own ideas.

There is only one well-known story – well-known among Pirate fans anyway – which I am not sure about. The Voodoo dance has been commonly thought to be the one which Louis B. Mayer objected to on the grounds that it was too erotic. The authors assert that it was actually Love Of My Life, at the end of the film, which had to be changed because of its overt sexuality.

They acknowledge that there is much confusion in the naming of various scenes in the movie by those involved, but in a 2003 book on Judy Garland by her daughter Lorna Luft and film historian John Fricke, there is a comment by a dancer who was present – Dorothy Tuttle – that it was the Voodoo dance which put Mayer in a hot sweat. Gene also refers to that scene as the one in which they did some ‘over-groping.’  The authors note that preview audiences thought the revised version of Voodoo was ‘boring’ and so it was cut from the final release print. Listening to the audio outtake on the Pirate DVD, I am not surprised, it is a dreadful song and an erotic dance featuring Gene and Judy would be the only way in which it would hold interest for an audience!

The fact that the content of the book sparks discussion of this kind, and encourages further research, makes it even more interesting and relevant.

It is very readable, both for casual browsers and for more intense research students. It holds interest for movie fans in general, and for devotees of the main players, Minnelli, Gene and Judy, who all receive positive but nevertheless balanced treatment throughout.

All in all, a great triumph for the authors, whose similarly structured book on Singin’ In The Rain I would also recommend. Now, Earl and Pratibha, what about An American In Paris???


Auntsuzy runs the most extensive website on Gene Kelly that currently exists: Gene Kelly: A Creative Genius. Amidst hundreds of images as well as excerpts from fan magazines, biographies, and countless interviews, Sue "pays [her] respects to a very special man, who has brought much joy and comfort into [her] life and the lives of countless others." (We're glad she's taken a few minutes of her time to contribute here!)

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