The Pirate (1948) at The National Media Museum (UK)

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Gene Kelly: National Media Museum.

Helen continues her discussion of the Gene Kelly course at the National Media Museum

I was excited to see a 35mm screening of The Pirate (Vincente Minnelli, 1948) on the big screen in the Museum’s cozy Cubby Broccoli Cinema, as I’d only ever seen it on TV and VHS. From the outset I was transfixed by the bright colours, outlandish costumes, Minnelli’s camera movements, and Kelly’s general swagger and athleticism. I’d also forgotten just how funny the script is and particularly how wonderful Judy Garland is, despite her well-documented troubles offscreen.

One of the highlights was Manuela’s “Mack the Black” daydream (right): Kelly in a skimpy, sexy, black outfit brandishing swords and flying through fire – it really does take your breath away, and it’s still surprising that the sequence made it past the censors although they had removed the voodoo references! [For another scene that skirted past the censorship board, see Kelli’s “A Brush of Sorts in The Pirate.”]

Other highlights for me included the opening Kelly number “Nina” (below), in which his character captivates every woman in the village, young and old, with his overtly flamboyant, flirtatious, and athletic prowess; I also enjoyed the fight scene between Kelly’s Serafin and Garland’s Manuela – perfect comic timing from both.

“When I arrive in any town, I look the ladies up and down…”

In our class discussion of The Pirate the following week, for many it was the first viewing. Feedback was mostly positive although some felt let down by the “Be a Clown” ending without a romantic conclusion, claiming the scene somehow felt like an afterthought. This is understandable since in some ways, Garland’s character is a substitute for Kelly’s recurring male “buddy” role (discussed in my previous post), and moreover, the film’s Freudian and surrealism influences and sexual connotations within the film overshadow any romantic narrative.

A strong influence of modern dance and ballet is also evident in The Pirate as is Kelly’s swashbuckling homage to Douglas Fairbanks’s silent film The Black Pirate (1926). Kelly was certainly influenced by Agnes de Mille’s use of ballet in Broadway musicals, Martha Graham’s groundbreaking modern dance, and of course classical ballet, in which he had received training and for which he had a lifelong passion. This is evident in the fantasy-dream formats repeated in his musicals, used to expression real emotion and in this case, passion. The fantasy framework freed Kelly and his collaborators from the constraints of contemporary drama.

The Pirate‘s inclusion of the extraordinary Nicholas Brothers (below), though woefully underused, provoked a broad-ranging discussion about the stereotypical portrayals of African-Caribbean actors/dancers in Hollywood film (i.e., they were mostly relegated to speciality acts or subservient roles such as butlers, maids, and servants). This was highlighted by a clip of the hugely influential, ex-vaudeville tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple dancing together in The Littlest Colonel (1935).


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