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Warner Home Video presents
The Pirate (1948)

"Don't call me 'pure soul.' It irritates me."
- Manuela (Judy Garland)

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: July 30, 2007

Stars: Judy Garland, Gene Kelly
Other Stars: Walter Slezak, Gladys Cooper, Reginald Owen, Lester Allen, The Nicholas Brothers
Director: Vincente Minnelli

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:41m:31s
Release Date: July 24, 2007
UPC: 012569795228
Genre: musical


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A A-A-B- A

DVD Review

Some films are instantly popular; others, like The Pirate, Vincente Minnelli's garish, riotous musical romp, take a little longer to strike a chord and find an audience. Spurned by the public at the time of its release and a big money-loser for MGM, the movie has since achieved cult status among musical aficionados, who relish its raucous humor, stylized performances, and sumptuous visuals. Though at first glance it resembles a lowbrow comedy, The Pirate is really quite a sophisticated dish, and demands repeat viewings to fully appreciate both its audacity and subtleties. Film fans will forever debate the movie's merit, but on one point, almost everyone agrees: In the crowded realm of 1940s musicals, The Pirate is definitely unique.

Nothing can match viewing this tuneful farce in a theater with an enthusiastic audience that "gets it," but Warner's DVD—the flagship entry in the studio's impressive seven-disc box set, Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory, Volume 2—is the next best thing. For even in solitude, The Pirate sparkles, thanks to Minnelli's peerless panache, Cole Porter's catchy melodies, and—most of all—the combustible talent of Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, who not only nail their song and dance numbers, but also their tricky screwball roles, and produce a healthy quotient of sexual chemistry along the way. The film's sultry Caribbean setting fuels their on-screen romance, which adds welcome tension to the slapstick tale.

Much like an adult version of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, the lovely, orphaned Manuela (Garland) lives a quiet existence in a drab West Indies village with her flighty Aunt Inez (Gladys Cooper)—whose name sounds suspiciously like Auntie Em when voiced by Garland—and oblivious Uncle Capucho (Lester Allen). A vivid fantasy life sustains her, yet she dreams not of going over the rainbow, but rather out to sea, where she longs to be wooed by the rugged, dangerous pirate, Macoco. Aunt Inez, however, dashes those hopes when she arranges for her niece to marry the wealthy Don Pedro Vargas (Walter Slezak), the town's oily, tubby mayor.

Manuela stoically accepts her fate, but implores her aunt to take her to the coast before her nuptials, so she can absorb the sea's mystical aura. There, she encounters the flashy, cocksure actor, Serafin (Kelly), who falls instantly in love with her. Manuela scoffs at his effrontery, but still attends one of his shows, and when he craftily hypnotizes her during his act, Serafin discovers her secret admiration for Macoco, and soon decides to masquerade as the pirate to win her affection.

A notable twist spices up the proceedings, but the story itself isn't what revs The Pirate's engine. On the contrary, it's the tongue-in-cheek line deliveries and exaggerated reactions by Kelly and especially Garland that infuse the film with infectious glee. Those who dismiss The Pirate as a campy mess don't realize the performers' posturing is carefully calculated to satirize both the swashbuckling genre and overdone theatrics of yore. Achieving the proper tone is difficult, but the cast rises to the challenge, filing captivating, often uproarious portrayals. As the quintessential ham actor, Kelly beautifully hams it up, while Garland (whose performance feels far less labored) uses her nervous energy to terrific advantage as she juggles manic outbursts with deft deceptions. Her flawless timing and comic acumen enliven almost every scene in which she appears, yet somehow, amid all the broad gesturing and madcap lunacy, she keeps Manuela real—a testament to both her superior acting talent and unrivaled capacity to connect on a human level with her material and audiences.

As always, her vocals provide plenty of thrills. Garland's exuberant (and underrated) rendition of Mack the Black ranks up there with her finest numbers, while two ballads—the lilting You Can Do No Wrong and passion-laced Love of My Life—showcase her mellifluous lower register. Although Porter's score ranks a notch or two below his best work, he nevertheless captures the film's tone and island flavor with his customary élan. Who else could pen such clever patter as "But since I've seen ya, Niña, Niña, Niña, I'll be having schizophrenia 'til I make you mine," not to mention all the inspired wordplay gracing the movie's signature tune, Be A Clown?

For Kelly, The Pirate would be a defining musical, allowing him at last to immerse himself in the athletic, masculine style of dance that would become his trademark. By combining awe-inspiring acrobatics with balletic grace, he fully integrates his numbers into the story, and puts on the type of gymnastic display audiences would demand from then on. Many cite The Pirate Ballet—a noisy mix of pageantry and pyrotechnics—as his pièce de résistance, but I prefer the sleek, Spanish-flavored Niña and rough-and-tumble Be A Clown (with the fabulous Nicholas Brothers), both of which display the full gamut of his abilities. Kelly reprises the latter song with Garland (in full clown regalia), and their joyous interpretation has become a classic.

The Pirate is far from perfect; occasionally, its narrative sputters, and a few crude edits disrupt its flow, but Minnelli's colorful, quirky film never fails to surprise and delight. Contrary to popular belief, not all Golden Age musicals were cut from the same cloth, and The Pirate is glorious proof. It may have taken a few decades, but we've finally evolved enough to appreciate its artistry and embrace its charms. Glory hallelujah!

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Quality control has recently (and shockingly) become an issue for Warner concerning its classic releases, but I'm pleased to report the studio is back on track with The Pirate. Though a few specks occasionally dot the print, the folks at Warner provide the type of sleek, lush transfer a meticulously designed film like The Pirate requires. Clarity is superb, but a bit of grain adds marvelous texture to the pristine image (restored from the original elements) and heightens the film's lavish feel. Colors are beautifully saturated—Garland's red lipstick gleams, while various costume accoutrements, like Kelly's lilac sash, supply welcome visual accents—but on the whole, the palette on the source print seems a tad muted, and lacks that patented Technicolor pop. Still, the transfer possesses fine contrast; Garland's alabaster white skin and Kelly's olive complexion are well rendered; blacks are rich and solid; and shadow detail during the dark, explosive Pirate Ballet is quite good. Of course, no one photographed Garland as tenderly and glamorously as Minnelli, and even though their marriage began to crumble during production, Minnelli's close-ups of his wife—especially during the "Evening star..." section of Mack the Black—radiate with beauty.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishno


Audio Transfer Review: The original mono track is often plagued by slight but annoying surface noise that becomes especially noticeable during pauses and quiet dialogue scenes. The score and vocals enjoy fine presence and depth of tone, but not the fidelity one craves. The frenzied instrumentals of The Pirate Ballet and Garland's full-throttle climax to Mack the Black resist distortion, and conversations are always crystal clear, but a cleaner track would heighten one's enjoyment of this boisterous musical.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 26 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Garland historian John Fricke
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 01h:08m:12s

Extra Extras:
  1. Vintage short, You Can't Win
  2. Classic cartoon, Cat Fishin'
  3. Mack the Black stereo remix version
  4. Audio outtakes and special guide tracks
  5. Promotional radio interviews with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly
Extras Review: Warner continues to provide top-flight supplements on its classic releases, and The Pirate's booty opens with another fine commentary by Garland historian John Fricke. The thoughtful, well-researched discussion covers a variety of topics, and mixes Fricke's perspective with frequent quotes from Kelly, chorus dancer Dorothy Tuttle, and other creative personnel. Fricke touches on the film's turbulent production history, lauds Garland's talent as a comedienne, examines Minnelli's distinctive style, and chats briefly about almost every bit player who appears in the film. He also sets the record straight regarding several misconceptions, half-truths, and falsities regarding Garland, and—best of all—provides extensive information about previous script incarnations, deleted scenes, rearranged songs, and retakes inspired by negative preview reactions. In the hands of others, such minutia could be dull, but Fricke's enthusiasm and bottomless well of knowledge keeps the track lively and involving.

Fricke also appears on camera in the excellent 19-minute documentary, The Pirate: A Musical Treasure Chest, which also includes reminiscences and analysis from Liza Minnelli, dancer Fayard Nicholas, and Kelly's widow, Patricia Ward, who reveals Kelly, like Garland, ingested a steady diet of studio prescribed "medication" to meet the rigors of the film's shooting schedule. In addition to a comprehensive production chronicle, the featurette addresses the disintegrating Garland-Minnelli marriage, Cole Porter's crisis of confidence, and the contributions of choreographer Robert Alton. Anecdotes abound, and the cogent comments of all involved greatly enhance one's enjoyment and appreciation of the picture.

For a change of pace, the slapstick short, You Can't Win, part of MGM's popular Pete Smith Specialty series, runs eight minutes and chronicles the hapless efforts of a "harried homeowner" (played by comic Dave O'Brien) to perform a variety of domestic tasks, like washing his car and hanging a hammock. The seven-and-a-half-minute Tom and Jerry cartoon, Cat Fishin', covers much the same territory, as it follows Tom's futile attempts to catch some crafty fish using Jerry as bait.

Next comes a stereo remix (with video) of Mack the Black (which lets us revel in Garland's solo with increased fidelity), followed by an Audio Outtakes section offering some rare musical gems that were either modified or abandoned during production. The complete Love of My Life (originally slated for a different point in the picture) gives Garland the opportunity to sing Porter's verse, while the overwrought Kay Thompson arrangement of Mack the Black often descends into a choral cacophony. (It's no wonder Judy termed the entire enterprise "insanity.") The crown jewel, however, is Voodoo, a steamy romantic ballad sung by Garland and evolving into a dance with Kelly. As legend has it, the filmed number was so sensual, MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer ordered the sequence cut and the negative burned! Musical fans still rue its excision, but at least the audio survives—the rest is up to our imagination.

Roger Edens' Guide Tracks spotlights the long-time MGM arranger and associate producer, whose contributions to the Arthur Freed Unit in particular and movie musicals in general can never be underestimated. Here, he performs a handful of Porter's Pirate tunes to familiarize Garland and Kelly with the melodies. Of special interest is one song that never made it into the finished film: a sprightly ditty entitled Manuela that Freed deemed not up to Porter's usual high standards.

Radio Interviews presents two very scripted promotional chats with Garland and Kelly, both of whom try their best to sound natural, but can't avoid a bit of affectation. The stars only mention The Pirate in passing during the four-and-a-half-minute pieces, but relate a couple of endearing anecdotes, which give us a taste of their off-screen personalities.

The film's original theatrical trailer, which includes a deleted song snippet, wraps up the extras package.

Extras Grade: A

 

Final Comments

If you haven't yet OD'd on Caribbean pirate movies, I highly recommend this vivacious, eye-filling musical. Deliciously over-the-top and sprinkled with fine singing and spectacular dancing, The Pirate cements Vincente Minnelli's reputation as one of Hollywood's most creative directors, and proves a stunning showcase for the incomparable talents of Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. Warner ups the ante with a slick transfer and a bounty of absorbing extras, all of which make this swashbuckling spoof a must-own for both musical and comic connoisseurs.

 


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