The Pirate is a 1948 musical romantic comedy starring Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, and Walter Slezak, and was directed by Vincente Minnelli (who was married to Judy Garland at the time). It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, but did not win (the musical score Oscar that year went to Easter Parade, another Judy Garland film, with co-star Fred Astaire).
The movie takes place on a small Caribbean island in the town of Calvados. Judy Garland plays Manuela, a naive young woman who, despite living on an island, has never even seen the sea. She has, however, heard the tales of the dread pirate Macoco, also known as Mack the Black. She dreams of what it would be like to sail the seas of adventure with the likes of Macoco. Unfortunately, her conservative family has arranged for her to be married to the mayor, Don Pedro (Walter Slezak). She acquiesces, as it would bring favor to her family, and a comfortable life, though she does not love him.
Enter Serafin, played by Gene Kelly, the smooth-talking leader of a ragtag group of entertainers who tour the Caribbean performing their variety show, which consists of witty banter, plays, singing, dancing, and occasional demonstrations of mesmerism (hypnosis). Being that this film is a romantic comedy, Serafin is of course instantly smitten by Manuela, and pursues her, even after being told that she is engaged to the mayor. Despite all her protests, Manuela is inexorably drawn to the touring troupe’s evening entertainment, where she becomes inadvertently hypnotized. While in a trance it is revealed that not only is she an amazing singer and a fiery dancer, but secretly harbors a love for the rogue Macoco! Serafin is now even more drawn to her and her talents, and her strange fascination with the Pirate King. Can he persuade her to not marry the mayor, to join his band of performers, and, most importantly, to fall in love with him?
It’s difficult to not see Judy Garland as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz; there are enough similarities between the two characters that it’s hard not to make the connection (or maybe it’s just me). Both characters are innocent and “lost” in a much bigger world than they are used to, yet demonstrate an inner strength that sees them through. While Judy Garland does do some dancing in the film, it is primarily her singing that is highlighted. Of course, her voice is still beautiful, and you will find yourself with a small smile on your face as you listen. Her portrayal of the innocent Manuela is convincing and her strength in later scenes is compelling; her comedic timing is excellent.
It is Gene Kelly, however, who I feel really makes the movie. He appears amazingly fit and trim, and his dancing is acrobatic, showing strength and dexterity. The pirate aspect of the film allows him to shine in scenes where he is literally leaping up walls (early parkour?), swinging on ropes, and jumping from balcony to balcony. In one dream sequence (apparently Minnelli is famous for dream sequences), Kelly is seen as a pirate barbarian in a frenetic dance with drawn saber while fire rages and explodes. The effect is almost demonic, and will have you watching wide-eyed. Of course, Kelly loves to play the witty, sparkling-eyed charmer with a heart of gold, and he plays it to the (saber) hilt in this film.
Because musicals of this era were expected to double as stage shows, there is a performance by Kelly’s troupe within the movie. One of the acts features Kelly and the Nicholas Brothers, a famous dancing duo known for bit parts in Hollywood musicals. Their act introduces us to the classic song “Be a Clown,” as Kelly and the Brothers Nicholas cartwheel and fling each other all around the stage. As an encore at the end of the film, Kelly and Garland also perform a comedic skit version of the song. Speaking of the stage, it’s fairly obvious that all the scenes in the film are shot on stage. The scenery, while enticing, looks more like stage scenery than elaborate movie scenery. There is nothing wrong with that, it fulfills its purpose, while not drawing attention away from the performers.
In summary, The Pirate is an entertaining romantic comedy and musical. There is beautiful song and amazing dance sequences, with the energetic Kelly in top form. Not mentioned in this review are some plot twists that build a fair amount of suspense; you’ve been warned.