In honor of tomorrow being Halloween, I've decided to discuss and post scenes from one of the greatest (and most frequently overlooked) musicals of the so-called golden age, Vincente Minelli's "The Pirate", starring Gene Kelly and judy Garland. What has "The Pirate" to do with Halloween? Simple. My son is being a pirate for Halloween.
"The Pirate", with a score by Cole Porter, was released in 1948 and an aura of disappointment immediately descended over it, one that the film has yet in some ways to shake. Widely considered to be over-indulgent and somehow not up to MGM's highest standard, it has remained on the backburner with musical enthusiasts over the years. For my money, it is infinitely superior to the overrated "An American In Paris" (Kelly and Minelli again, this time with Gershwin music) and contains some of both the director and the stars most impressive work. It's certainly superior to the other Kelly/Garland collaborations, the pleasant but innocuous "Summer Stock" and the completely unnecessary "In The Good Old Summertime."
I think the arch nature of the material--the very sophisticated and unusually mocking tone of the screenplay--contributed to people's discomfort with the picture. It isn't "sincere" in any normal way. Much of it is blatantly artifical, self-reflexive (it is, one way or another, a paean to show-biz and the rouge actors we love to mock) and occasionally quite fantastical. The soundstagey look--you never for a moment believe you're in the Carrabean--was deliberate and perhaps somewhat unsettling to audiences (and critics) of the day.
In some ways it looks ahead to Baz Luhrman's "Moulin Rouge" in its strange fascination with itself as an object of beauty--call it the self-fetishization of musical-making. I find it's posture a charming and unusual one. Even though the below number, the delightful "Nina", goes on for twice the length that it would have in most other musicals, I find it endlessly lovely to watch--Kelly's dancing has never been better and the sequence is a veritable master class in the now-lost technique of "invisible" directing of a musical number (lost forever thanks largely to the success of Rob Marshall's bravura but exhausting technique in "Chicago"...) The below number runs seven minutes and contains no more than ten set ups, most of which run for slightly over a minute. The fluidity of the long take staging, the remarkable set and Kelly's humorously over-the-top lechery make this a gold standard number--yet you wont find it in "That's Entertainment" (at least I think you wont) or even in many of the clip reels devoted to quickie histories of dance in musical films. And who but Cole Porter could write a love song that rhymes "Nina" with "neurasthenia"?
More on "The Pirate" to come.