This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's stars are The Nicholas Brothers.
Can you be so clever with your production that you end up making it look worse instead of better? The Pirate, while with some great production value and songs, may be too clever by half.
Out in the Caribbean, Manuela (Judy Garland) dreams not just of adventure and romance. She dreams of Macoco the Black Pirate, the scourge of the sea whose tales of wickedness sends her heart aflutter. Unfortunately, her Aunt Inez (Glady Cooper) sets her niece to marry the local mayor Don Pedro (Walter Slezak).
Manuela's one chance of adventure comes when she talks Aunt Inez to take her to the port city of Port Sebastian under the guise of receiving her trousseau and to make wedding dress alterations. As Manuela wanders through Port Sebastian, she makes the acquaintance of rakish ham actor Serafin (Gene Kelly). He is instantly taken with Manuela, but the feeling is not mutual. Nevertheless, he is able to hypnotize her during a performance, where she reveals her passion for Macoco the Dred Pirate.
Serafin is so taken with Manuela that he and his troupe go to her hometown in an effort to win her over and steal her away from Don Pedro. It is here that we get a wild turn: Don Pedro is really Macoco, having taken on a false name and identity. Serafin just happens to recognize Don Pedro as Macoco, blackmailing him to both stay in town and keep pursuing Manuela.
More confusion erupts when Serafin claims to be Macoco to further his schemes at seduction. Manuela is appalled at first, excited later, then enraged when she discovers the deception. Don Pedro is angered at first, then thrilled to find a patsy to take the blame for his own past. Will Serafin hang for his crimes as the notorious Macoco? Will he and his troupe, including his dancing partners (the Nicholas Brothers) be able to expose the real Macoco and live happily ever after?
It is one thing to be farce. It is another to be so obvious about it.
Throughout all of The Pirate save for one number, Kelly's performance comes across as bizarre, highly exaggerated to deliberately silly. When wooing women in his Nina number, his vocal delivery and non-singing parts just looked as if Kelly decided there simply could not be too much ham. It is played so broadly that it ironically takes the joy out of it. How can you enjoy the joke when you are too fully aware of it.
His one big moment when the broadness of The Pirate works for him is in the Pirate Ballet number. This sequence, a fantasy Manuela has when imagining Serafin as Macoco, is massive and grandiose. Visually splendid, it is a showcase for Kelly's dancing and the visual style of The Pirate's director, Vincente Minnelli.
As a side note, it is also a showcase for Kelly's massive legs. His costume leaves almost nothing to the imagination, and the viewer is almost shocked at how muscular Gene Kelly is. Anyone who imagines male dancers as lithe and delicate would be wise to see the Pirate Ballet number to see the tree trunks Kelly carries.
The Pirate Ballet number is a highlight of the film, but because everything is played up to the Nth degree, the performances come across almost as desperate.
This is not just on Kelly. Garland too went at times so broad that again, it looks too forced and fake. In her Mack the Black number, she ends up looking slightly crazed. Slezak and Cooper were also deliberately broad, but over and over, this intentional cartoonish manner makes things look more desperate than winking at the audience.
The Pirate does have some positives. It has a great Cole Porter songbook, and while Be a Clown is probably the best-known number, I would make a case that Nina is a song that should be better-known. As mentioned, the Pirate Ballet is big and bombastic but visually arresting. The first version of Be a Clown also features the Nicholas Brothers sharing the screen with Kelly, and it is fascinating to see these three dancing greats work together. It was quite daring to have an interracial trio on screen for the time. Performers like the Nicholas Brothers tended to be featured in sections that could easily be cut, but that would be impossible in The Pirate.
The Be a Clown reprise that ends The Pirate shows a lighter, more joyful Garland without her being ridiculous. She and Kelly work well together in this number, though the broadness of the project hampers when they work together through the rest of the film. For better or worse, Be a Clown is very similar to Singin' in the Rain's Make 'Em Laugh. Enough people have commented on the similarities, and all I will say is that I do not think it was intentional.
The Pirate is perhaps maligned for being over-the-top. I get that that was the intention. However, that broadness does weaken it into being more farcical than those involved intended.