Anyone who personally knows me will tell you that I am a sucker for pirate movies. Obviously, it is the “romantic notion” of a pirate that I enjoy and not the criminal element of real piracy that still exists today. The idea of a noble pirate like Sir Frances Drake, who historically was “the greatest sea dog” of all time, sailing around the world on The Golden Hind to escape capture by Phillip II of Spain is an exciting tale. Just think of it, Drake was the first Englishman to circumvent the globe in order to keep the gold “booty” he stole from the Spanish king…classically, awesome. Drake aka el Draque (The Dragon) was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I and participated in the naval battle to stop the invasion of the Spanish Armada. To the English he was a hero; to the Spanish he was a criminal. This is history; however, in the world of the arts our “Bad Boys” can do and be anything we so choose, even being chased by a crocodile with a clock in its belly.
Basically, the romanticized idea of a pirate or privateer is a talented captain who is much like a “James Bond,” but sailing the seas and not driving an Aston Martin. In reality, some of them secretly worked for a government or group of investors. The fantastical captains were strategically brilliant, expert sword fighters, charmingly witty, loved music and the spirits (Ho, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum), had a lusty libido, and were fearless in face of danger.
From movies of all genres (dramas, comedies, horror, and musicals…) and even in Disney theme parks, the pirate is a common sight. So, when I was invited to pay tribute to the beautiful and glamorous Judy Garland, I immediately chose her pirate movie. This post is part of a Blogathon celebrating the work of Judy Garland. It is graciously hosted by Crystal from In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.
Since, I admit to my pirate weaknesses, I should acknowledge that I am also a fan of television series Once Upon a Time. Of course, I am happy Emma Snow (the savior) played beautifully by Jennifer Morrison fell in love with Captain Hook played by devilish handsome Colin O’Donoghue. Who could resist?
Whatever the influence from history, movies, books, or location, pirates are part of the general population’s psyche. Now, what does this have to do with a post about Judy Garland’s The Pirate? Well it explains how I could fall (Hook, line and sinker) for the storyline of this MGM, 1948 musical. Although this film was a bust, it lost over two million dollars at the box office, I feel it had the potential to be a great movie. Okay, given it is not a great movie, it is still enjoyable and has some of the greatest dance and song scenes ever recorded.
There is a myriad of reasons why movies fail. For instance, a movie like Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (1971) is an example of a movie that failed at the box office: but, later not only becomes a children favorite, but a cult classic, and later a successful remake in 2005 with Johnny Depp. Although the The Pirate (1948) is unforgivably underrated, it is enjoyable and entertaining. This film not only stars the multi-talented actress and singing star, Judy Garland; but, also the versatile Gene Kelly. In addition, it showcases an energetic dance number by the amazing Nicholas Brothers; luscious music by the suave Cole Porter; and, all of this delivered under the artful direction of Vicente Minnelli (married to Garland at the time).
So, how did this movie become underrated?
Part of the reason is because two dance and song scenes were cut from the movie for different reasons. With these cuts, it left gaps that gave the audiences at the time a sense that something was missing. Plus, this was released only three years after World War II. Although Spain was a neutral country, it was still a fascist country under Franco. The Cold War, and the House Committee of Un-American Activities were beginning to rear their ugly heads. Many American audiences were more than cautious about being influenced by what they perceived as propaganda. This is one explanation out of many that explains why this musical failed so miserly at the box office.
Another reason, some say it failed was a result of the music. Some believe the Cole Porter Tunes didn’t match the story. I personally do not feel that way. It is true, there is not a heavy influence of Spanish rhythms or beats in the music to enhance the setting in the Spanish Caribbean Port of San Sebastian. However, the emotional lyrics matched the story very well. And, let’s face it, Garland could sing the words off a traffic ticket and people would swoon. There is one thing Cole Porter did that might have hurt this movie. He agreed to write the music if he could name the pirate after a friend, Macoco. The name sounds like a special hot drink at Starbucks. Latte, anyone? You could find a better pirate name from the following list:
If I could change anything, it would be the character development of the two main leads. Serafin’s character (Gene Kelly) trying to “sell the life of a traveling troupe” to Manuela’s character (Judy Garland) has an sound of untruthfulness or Con job. An actors life should have sounded as romantic as the life of a pirate. Plus, he speaks so quickly, he sounds too smug to be charming. Manuela is a nobleman’s daughter. The romantic side of her character should have been developed more. Manuela’s final decision of what to do with the rest of her life should not have been so obvious. The dilemma of choosing happiness over her family, reputation, duty and money is not an easy one to make. Yes, I did find the script to be lacking. There were six writers involved in this project. Only two of them were credited. So, another reason the movie might have failed could have been a simple matter of ” too many writers” spoiling the script.
Manuela Dreams of Life With The Black Macoco
Manuela (Judy Garland) is a young woman who has just come of age. Her aunt Inez (Gladys Cooper) has just told her that an arranged marriage has been negotiated on her behalf with the mayor of the city, Don Pedro Vargas (Walter Slezak). Manuela learns of her newly betrothed just after she describes, (romantically sings “Mack The Black” to her lady friends. When Judy Garland sings, you are in her world of possibilities. No one interprets a song like she does. She sings of “Mac’s” (Macoco) bravery; his heroic acts of fighting; and, his treasure and gold. She dreams of her pirate, the Black Macoco, falling desperately in love with her and sailing away with her to see the world.
Manuela is well aware that her aunt and uncle took her in as an orphan with no diary of her own to attract husbands. The mayor is a self made man who is at least 20 some years her senior. She feels beholden to their care in taking care of her. Plus, it isn’t so so bad since the Mayor is rich and is a world traveler. Angela’s dream of seeing the world could come true. During a meeting is set up between her and the mayor, he assures her that although he is not cultured, he has seen the world and will tell her all about it. He has no wish to travel again because he cannot bear the sea. Instead, he enjoys just staying home since it is quite, peaceful and safe. Then, Manuela is told the mayor is paying for her new wardrobe. To seal the deal, he gives her a beautiful bejeweled extremely expensive engagement ring.
Crushed, Manuela begs her aunt to allow her to take 30 minutes by herself to look at the sea wall. They are in town to meet with the dressmaker who is making alterations to her new wardrobe from a famous Paris fashion House, Maison Worth. Just one last trip to the sea by herself, she begs. At least then she could see some corner of their world on an adventure. The aunt nervously grants her that wish. It is near the sea wall that she meets a touring actor, Serafin (Gene Kelly). He falls instantly in love with Manuela. How do we know? Because, he calls every woman he meets “Nina.” It saves him the trouble of remembering their names.
There is a great song and dance that Kelly does as he sings about all the town Ninas. During his dance routine he uses carnival poles. This might be the first pole dancing performed on screen. After a brief meeting with Manuela, he begs her to give him her name. She informs him that she will soon be married; and, he tells her that she must not marry a “pumpkin.” Before, she leaves, he invites her to his performance later that evening. Before the show begins, Sarafin sees her in the audience and decides to hypothesize her as part of his act. But, what he really wants to do is plant the idea that she might love him.
While under hypnoses and to his surprise, she reveals her infatuation with the notorious pirate. She sings about the Black Macoco. This is one of the song and dance routines taken out of the picture. It is known as the Voodoo scene. When Louis B. Meyer saw the clip of this song and dance, he became enraged and demanded all the negatives of it be destroyed. The recording of the song survived. Someone took some movie clips and pictures of the revised scene with Judy singing Mack the Black again but at a much faster tempo. This video is on YouTube; but, I added that link below. The beginning of this song is kind of creepy.
The Tale of Two Scenes (Dance and Song) Cuts: Too Much Sex or Too Much Diversity
Eventually, Serafin borrows Macoco’s identity in his pursuit of Menuela. There is a lot of fun here before Manuela has her revenge for his deception. Serafin is so convincing in his act, the mayor has him arrested as Macoco. It is during his trial that one of the best dance scenes in the history of film was cut out of the movie, Be A Clown. Gene Kelly and the Nicholas Brothers are incredible in this unbelievable routine. It was cut out of the film before it could be showed in Southern cities. This was a time of law enforced segregation. It was the first time a white and black men were filmed dancing together. Eerily, there is a part of the routine where they dance to close to the gallows and see three nooses hanging. All three of them cringe and quickly dance away as part of a joke. Unfortunately, after the Northern cities saw the film, the Nicholas Brothers were blackballed and could not find work in Hollywood. So, they left the continent to find work in Europe. They would return in 1964 during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. This great dance routine can be seen in the DVD version. Hereit is to view it now. It is not to be missed.
Not to spoil the surprise ending, Garland and Kelly will sing and dance this song again, dressed as clowns. Four years later, the song Be a Clown will be plagiarized by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed for another Kelly film, Singing In The Rain. They changed the title to Make em Laugh. Kelly did not sing the song in that movie, Donald O’Connor did. Cole Porter did not legally make a claim that the song was used without his permission.
Despite the problems with the script and the cut and piece editing of the dance scenes, I still enjoyed this Garland movie. Personally, I am happy that she had the opportunity to share her romanticized pirate in one of her movies. Honestly, regardless of the movie, Garland and Kelly are simply a joy to watch and listen to. This was the second of four projects planned for Garland and Kelly. The first was For Me and My Gal (1942), The Pirate (1948), Easter Parade (1948) and Summer Stock (1950). Kelly broke his ankle during the filming of Easter Parade and was replaced by Fred Astaire.
What is truly amazing is that Garland, the consummate performer, could make this look and sound so good, especially when you learn that she smoked four packs of cigarettes a day during the filming of this movie; and, she was also not at her best mentally or physically. She missed 99 days out of the 135 filming days for illnesses. It was during the filming of this movie that she received psychiatric treatment that was paid for by the studio. This was a first for any studio because they usually dock expenses out of their actors’ pay.
Like all Garland fans, I wish her life could have been better because she really deserved it. Who knows what may have happened if she went to nursing school and had a different life. What I do know is that she was so amazingly talented that even today, when we hear her sing, watch one of her movies or listen to her interviews, we feel warm inside because she has made a special place in our hearts. With that said, here is a clip gym from the film, For Me And My Gal. Garland and Kelly are shinning bright and at the top of their game as they “Show ’em.”
This post is part of a Blogathon celebrating the work of Judy Garland. It is graciously hosted by Krystal from In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. To read more posts on the work of Judy Garland, please use the link below.
Link list of historical Pirates: