Tuesday, July 24, 2007

THE PIRATE (MGM 1948) Warner Home Video

Love it or hate it, Vincente Minnelli’s The Pirate (1948) remains a fascinating experiment that attempted to expand the boundaries of the musical comedy. That it failed to find its audience in 1948 speaks more to our collective expectations than any actual artistic failing. In retrospect, the chief problem with many MGM movies coming out of the war years is that they had become too formulaic, too frothy and too escapist for the increasingly cynical tastes of a postwar America. Musicals were particularly notorious for maintaining the threadbare 'boy meets girl' scenarios with few, if any deviations. Thus, audiences became secure and increasingly rigid in their expectations of movie musicals. It's one of the reasons the genre steadily fell out of favor from the mid-1950s onward. 

Yet The Pirate attempted something different; a lavishly mounted spoof of the Douglas Fairbanks Sr. swashbucklers from the silent era updated for the post war generation. It is a film of immeasurable spirit, but limited musical appeal. And its screenplay by Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich is awkwardly battling the more adroit sophistication of S.N. Behrman's original play - never a good place to be in from a narrative standpoint.

Judy Garland is cast as the naïve Manuela, a girl guarded from outside influences by her Aunt Inez (Gladys Cooper). Manuela’s marriage has been arranged to the wealthy governor, Don Pedro Vargas (Walter Sleazak). But the portly Vargas is no match for Manuela’s lurid dreams about the dastardly and dashing rogue of her imagination, gleaned from tales of Mococco the Pirate.

Enter Serafin (Gene Kelly), a traveling clown and acrobat touring the seaside with his theatrical troop. Recognizing that he will win Manuela’s heart if he can convince her that he is, in fact, ‘Mack the Black’ Mococco – Serafin dons his best disguise and trips the light fantastic in her honor. But will Manuela be enough of an innocent to fall for both the act and him?

At first, yes - particularly after Serafin manages to hypnotize the girl. She breaks free of his mind-controlling constraints, however, and later learns the truth. Determined to make him pay for his lies, Manuela allows Serafin to believe he is still her lord and master, then lowers the boom and all but demolishes half the house in the process. 

Angered by Manuela's obvious affections toward Serafin, Vargas exposes the truth to her and the town's folk; that he was indeed Mack the Black Mococco in his youth. Since the days of his piracy he has been a wanted man, living off his fabulous wealth in general obscurity. Since he is still a wanted man, Vargas is arrested, leaving Manuela to pursue Serafin. But before she can, Serafin interrupts the show. We fast track to a moment in the not so distant future to learn that Manuela has joined Serafin's travelling show as just another stooge; the two indulging in a spirited rendition of 'Be A Clown' that closes out the show. 

The artistic crisis – if one can call it that - of The Pirate is that it does not look or behave like a typical MGM musical. Critics of the day were quick to suggest that both Garland and Kelly were lampooning their roles all out of proportion but actually the two seem a perfect pair in this bizarre hybrid of the classic Hollywood swashbuckler. 

Given that Garland's chronic addiction to drugs was getting the better of her throughout the film's lengthy shoot, she cavorts attractively enough – her best bit being ‘Mack the Black’, staged with fire and brimstone and sung to gaudy dispatch while under hypnosis. Made up as the sexy paragon of every woman's fantasy Kelly too is in fine form, delivering the penetrating stare of a swarthy swashbuckler, but with the garish aplomb and amiable theatrics of a true ham. 

The Pirate is a potpourri for Minnelli who is at his most flamboyant in a setting befitting his penchant for visual extravagances. He floods the screen with a captivating darkness; an autumn harvest of deep sinister oranges, violent shades of red and magenta and a blaze of flame enriched yellows. But in the end, The Pirate is a flop because it can never rise above this stylized backdrop to offer the viewer anything more tangibly engaging by way of its plot. 

The boy meets girl scenario isn't enough for this musical, particularly when the musical portion of the program is so threadbare. Apart from the aforementioned numbers, Kelly warbles and dances to Cole Porter's Nina, an infectiously athletic top-tapping song in which his Serafin attempts to seduce the various eligible maidens in town. He also does a buck n' wing with The Nicholas Brothers to an instrumental version of 'Be A Clown'. Garland sings 'Love of My Life' - a rather turgid ballad that fails to captivate and seems even more strained, considering that by the time she decides to sing it her character has already discovered that Serafin is a fraud. 

Otherwise, the film remains short on music and long on sustaining its amusing premise of misrepresented identities. In the final analysis, The Pirate is noble in its pursuits, but utterly flawed in its execution. It's still worthy of a glance, but it doesn't hold a candle to the more memorable musicals in MGM's extensive backlog of classics.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is a travesty, excessively marred by edge enhancement, shimmering of fine details and extreme pixelization that breaks apart virtually all of the background information. This is by far one of the most unattractive offerings Warner has ever released and I cannot understand what went wrong, except to say that the results are sloppy and unworthy of Warner's usual stellar commitment to home video. 

Colors are pale, muddy and unrefined. Contrast levels are much too low. Whites are either a dirty gray, slightly blue or overly yellow. The image contains so much glaring digital noise that the film is virtually unwatchable by virtue (or vice) of its visual distractions.  The audio is mono but adequate for this presentation. 

Extras include an audio commentary by Garland biographer, John Fricke, a new featurette on the making of the film and audio bonuses. If only someone at Warner’s had cared more about the general quality of the film presentation.

Not recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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