The Pirate

(Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1948)


Although The Pirate is unquestionably one of the best and brightest Hollywood musicals and a commercial success in its time, these days it is a film that probably belongs more to critics, scholars and students than it does to any mass mainstream audience. Those who now hold it in high esteem, however, have rather diverse reasons for doing so.

To buffs of an auteurist persuasion enamoured of director Vincente Minnelli, The Pirate tells a story familiar from most of his movies. Manuela (Judy Garland), about to be stifled within a loveless marriage, entertains fantasies about the mythic pirate Macoco. When hypnotised by the travelling player Serafin (Gene Kelly), her repressed passions explode in song and dance.

For aficionados of the musical genre, this story is just a scaffolding on which to hang a typical Hollywood homily about the sterling role of spectacle and entertainment in our society – a distinctly populist homily, as immortalised in the film's two versions of the rousing "Be a Clown" number.

For the theorists who gathered in 1976 for the famous "Psychoanalysis and Cinema" event at the Edinburgh Film Festival, the essential interest of The Pirate lay somewhere else again, in its twisting narrative of desire and masquerade – which character of the film is really Macoco, that ideal hero who (as Serafin sings) "leaves a flaming trail of masculinity"?

And finally, the film has always been a camp classic, not only because of Garland at her histrionic best and Cole Porter's saucy lyrics, but because the whole affair sends up gender roles and shop-worn movie clichés with a rare gusto.

MORE Minnelli: The Band Wagon, Brigadoon, Madame Bovary, Some Came Running, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Meet Me in St Louis

© Adrian Martin August 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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