Like George Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett, Vincente Minnelli’s The Pirate is a personal, fey, ultimately unsuccessful movie (both were financial disasters). But it looks more interesting now than most of the successes of its time, especially if we try to peek beneath the surface of its narrative, which started out as a stage vehicle for the Lunts, and hazard some guesses on what’s really going on here. It was a troubled production, to put it mildly; Minnelli’s marriage to his star, Judy Garland, was falling apart as they made it, and she herself was in the midst of a serious breakdown related to the pills she was taking. The film was made in a mood of uncertainty, which explains its wayward structure, pedestrian stretches, and spurts of desperate invention. Because of Garland’s incapacity, Minnelli effectively hands most of the film to Gene Kelly, and he’s fairly irresistible here: hard, mocking, a dazzling dancer in complete control of his technique, a basically unlikable screen presence addicted to giving pleasure through muscular, hammy movement.
The Pirate takes place in some Caribbean of the mind, with lots of shadows and lace and high mantillas, and it’s all about the promise of sex; the film keeps tapping into a nervous, adolescent sort of fear and desire. Kelly plays an actor who masquerades as a murderous buccaneer to impress Garland’s sheltered young girl; he wears skin-tight pants in every scene, but he shows off his body in such a straightforward, cheerful way that he kills any unpleasant narcissistic residue such displays might engender, even when he’s parading around in a pair of tight leather shorts. At its best, this is a psychological musical, with Garland’s increasing neuroticism and Minnelli’s habitual fussiness counterbalanced by Kelly’s cocky exhibitionism. The film is at its most daring when Garland stares out a window and dreams a Lawrentian fantasy ballet about Kelly’s pirate. Minnelli effectively asks his wife to pretend to conjure and then witness his own carnal longings, and it begins to seem as if Garland and Minnelli are sharing a kind of erotic meltdown together, creatively, with Kelly in the middle crowing, “Get a load of my body…you’ll never have it, but you can look all you like!”
Garland is fairly neglected in the film, and she overdoes her character’s hysteria toward the end, but she does have one big number, “Mack The Black,” that deepens the movie and leads it into more dangerous territory. She literally lets her hair down, and the carefully composed shots suddenly become wilder, almost out of control. Garland’s energy, obviously fueled by drugs, is clearly based in sexual frustration and blind, undirected anger (which feed each other, of course), so that during this number, the film unleashes something self-destructive and almost Dionysian in spirit. Some later, lesser Minnelli movies seem to be all about artful placement of rather ugly, ornate furniture in his frames, so it’s telling that when Garland takes revenge on Kelly here, she does it by trashing a room. Ruining décor is perhaps the ultimate horror for this dreamy director.
Kelly’s dance toward the end of the film with the Nicholas Brothers is acrobatic fun, but it doesn’t really fit with the rest of the film. Neither does the last number, “Be A Clown,” which closes things out very abruptly. Kelly and Garland stop being their characters in “Be A Clown” and become themselves, ideally matched show biz troupers; it seems like everybody wants to forget the Freudian Pandora’s Box opened earlier in the film. Walter Slezak’s mayor, who used to be the famed pirate of the title, could be seen as analogous to a reformed, post-war Nazi, but the film doesn’t quite know how to deal with that subject either. The Pirate lacks consistency, but it’s so off-beat and subterranean that it will always be of interest as a cult film.