The Sensuality of The Pirate (1948)
The Pirate may not have been appreciated when it was first released, but over the years, the film has become vindicated in its blend of lush production values, delightfully madcap performances from Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, and a charming Cole Porter score. The Pirate isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, though. It's much too stylized and the characterizations are sure to be called "over-the-top." However, there is a subtlety that works with the louder moments to convey a sensuality that seems to go unnoticed. You might be thinking What are you talking about? This is the movie that gave us Gene Kelly in hot pants! Well, yeah. But there are other things bubbling beneath the surface that make The Pirate a film about sex.
Manuela is told she is silly for wishing for whimsy and love. She is a testament to the idea that you can be sensible and still have an imagination. As she tells her aunt, "I realize that there's a practical world and a dream world. I know which is which. I shan't mix them." Aunt Inez scolds her for being ungrateful about her engagement to Don Pedro, especially when Manuela asks to go to Port Sebastian when her trousseau comes in so she can see the sea one last time. Aunt Inez reluctantly agrees to this, but as the film goes on, she lives to regret it.
For Manuela, the sea is magical -- unruly and wild, it can't be told what to do or who to be. The joy on her face as she watches the waves crash combines with the mounting music to mimic the dizzying adoration that Manuela feels.
neurasthenia into the tune! Making the number even more memorable is Kelly's dancing. He saw the film's time period as a welcome challenge because tap dance hadn't been invented yet, forcing him to rely on ballet and Latin dances like the tango. Some people actually cite "Nina" as the first instance of pole dancing on film. I'm not sure if what he does qualifies, so you'll have to watch the scene for yourself here.
The moment when Manuela and Serafin meet is fascinating to me because of the way Vincente Minnelli staged it. (Minnelli always did a stellar job of this.) Manuela enters the frame, pausing to catch her breath when she first sees the Caribbean Sea. When she walks forward and out of the frame, the camera stays to reveal that Serafin was right behind her, stunned by her beauty. It's also the precise second when he exhales cigarette smoke, as if Manuela makes him literally hot under the collar.
That night, her hotel room is unbearably hot. Opening the window, it's almost like Manuela has located the cause of the heat when she hears Serafin's show happening below. She decides to join the rapt audience, which pleases a smug Serafin to no end. Determined to demonstrate to her that she is attracted to him, he presents a spinning mirror that is described as an experiment in animal magnetism. The hyponitism works, but instead of declaring Serafin to be her object of affection, she lets loose her adoration of Macoco. "Someday he'll swoop down on me like a chicken hawk and carry me away!" she exclaims. When Serafin tries to regain control
"Mack the Black," illustrating that Serafin was right about what lies behind her rigidity. With her hair loose and her skirt swirling around to show off her legs, Manuela only endears herself more to Serafin. Originally, this number was supposed to be far more sexual, but MGM was horrified at the results. It has
"Voodoo." "Mack the Black" is still suggestive, though. The sexiest part of it might be the ending, when Serafin kisses Manuela to bring her out of the trance. Her body slowly gives in, making the kiss even steamier. Now awake, Manuela is horrified and runs back to her hotel to beg Aunt Inez to return home as soon as possible.
Realizing that Don Pedro is Macoco, Serafin gets the idea to masquerade as the pirate to win Manuela's affection. Unaware that his fiancee is enamored with his alter ego, Don Pedro goes along with the scheme to keep his respectability intact. As Macoco, Serafin becomes calm, cool, and collected. His manic energy is brought down to a simmer, allowing Manuela to believe that he is the fierce, fearsome pirate she loves. It is hilarious to see Don Pedro watch in desperation as Serafin and Manuela make eyes at each other ("Do you two realize I'm in the room?!").
Her enchantment is soon broken, however, when one of the troupers lets the truth slip out. Brimming with anger, Manuela gets her revenge by first playing along with Serafin. Echoing the way he kept circling her with wandering eyes by the sea, she walks around him and purrs "I want to gaze my full at you." The reversal makes Serafin fidget... and he hasn't even gotten the worst of it yet. Luring him into a room full of delicate treasures, Manuela unleashes her wild side, but it doesn't enthrall Serafin this time -- probably because it involves throwing anything and everything right at his head. It's such a magnificent scene. After knocking him out with a painting, Manuela feels remorse and realizes that she may just love the crazy actor after all. Singing "You Can Do No Wrong," she sweetly cradles Serafin's head in her lap and they embrace.
Furious with the liberties Serafin is taking as Macoco, Don Pedro is able to frame him for his crimes and gets him arrested. At his execution, Serafin convinces the viceroy (George Zucco) to let him put on one final show. After mystifying everyone with the jaw-dropping acrobatics of "Be a Clown," Serafin brings out his spinning mirror to hypnotize Don Pedro into admitting that he is the real Macoco. When Aunt Inez breaks the mirror, Manuela is forced to improvise and pretends to be under the mirror's spell.
"Love of My Life" as Don Pedro becomes increasingly jealous. Garland and Kelly drape themselves over each other, making the number incredibly tender and erotic. When the song ends with Manuela and Serafin sharing a kiss, Don Pedro can stand it no longer. He loudly shouts that he is the true Macoco, telling Manuela "If you want to worship Macoco, worship me!" As you can probably guess, Don Pedro doesn't quite get the happy ending he wants -- but Serafin and Manuela do!
It isn't hard to see why. The number may be ridiculous and slightly cheesy, but Kelly sells the hell out of it. Channeling heroes Douglas Fairbanks and John Barrymore, Kelly is graceful, attractive, and captivating. One second he is swinging in the air, the next he is whipping around a sword with abandon. I would love to know what audiences back then thought of this number. Was it too
here and tell me you didn't find yourself grinning.
The Pirate is a giddy, crazy film. I can't guarantee that you'll love it, but you can at least appreciate the craftsmanship that went into it. Everything about it is top of the line. You're not liable to see anything else quite like it. Simply put, to me The Pirate can do no wrong.