The Pirate may not be one of MGM's best-known musicals, but for many of the genre's connoisseurs, it's one of the most beloved. Judy Garland's soaring vocals and Gene Kelly's athletic dancing combine with Vincente Minnelli's sumptuous direction to produce a stylish, sophisticated, oh-so-rollicking mix of slapstick, swashbuckling, and song. A brand new 4K restoration yields a stunning transfer, and solid audio and all the supplements from the 2007 DVD make this long-awaited Blu-ray a wonderful holiday gift for fans of Garland, Kelly, Cole Porter, and glorious Golden Age musicals. Highly Recommended.
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 become a cult favorite 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 Archive’s brand new Blu-ray is the next best thing. 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 nail not only their song and dance numbers (that’s to be expected), 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 this spirited battle of the sexes.
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 Manuela, 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 drab fate, but implores her aunt to take her to the coastal town of Port Sebastian before her nuptials so she can absorb the sea's mystical aura before surrendering to a land-locked life. 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 elan. 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” (performed 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 (the result of last-minute recutting) 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.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Pirate arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
I have seen The Pirate many, many times - in theaters and on TV, VHS, and DVD - and I have never, ever seen it like this. A brand new 4K restoration from Warner Archive yields an absolutely glorious 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that's distinguished by crystal clarity, superior contrast, perfectly balanced color, and beautifully resolved grain that lends the picture a lovely film-like feel. The enhanced sharpness brings out the sparkles, sheens, and myriad textures of all the garish costumes, highlights subtle details in the sumptuous sets and bits of bric-a-brac, and allows us to pick out individual faces in crowd scenes. On the flip side, it also betrays some of the movie's technical secrets (most notably the "invisible" strings used to yank off Garland's straw hat on the windy Port Sebastian embankment, support Kelly as he tightropes across the village square onto Garland's balcony, and wiggle Garland and Kelly's ears during the "Be a Clown" finale), but that's a small price to pay for such breathtaking imagery.
And then there's the color. Gobsmacked only begins to describe my reaction to the exquisitely modulated Technicolor hues presented here. Minnelli was an art director before he became a film director, and his peerless sense of color puts his movies in a class of their own. The Pirate assaults the senses with a barrage of bold primaries and a rainbow of finely varied pastels. Lush reds, bright yellows, deep emerald greens, striking purples, intense crimsons, blazing orange flames, and airy pinks, lavenders, and peaches keep the eye constantly engaged and darting about the frame. Inky blacks and crisp whites provide notes of contrast, and flesh tones, from Garland's alabaster complexion to Kelly's olive skin, remain true to form throughout.
No one photographed Garland as tenderly and glamorously as Minnelli, and even though their marriage began to crumble during production, his close-ups of his wife, especially the elongated one during the bridge of "Mack the Black" (see photo above) radiate with beauty. The fine facial features of Kelly, Walter Slezak, and Gladys Cooper are also razor sharp, and shadow delineation during the dark, muscular "Pirate Ballet" is top-notch. A couple of shots look a tad worn, but all the print damage from the previous DVD transfer has been erased.
Musicals fans have waited a long time for The Pirate to make its Blu-ray debut, but this exceptional rendering makes that wait totally worth it.
The robust DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track handles all the challenges The Pirate throws at it with aplomb. Excellent fidelity and a wide dynamic scale allow the lush scoring and Garland's powerhouse vocals to flourish, and such bombastic sonic accents as explosions, gunfire, deafening drums, and the crashing of crockery are crisp and distinct. All the dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend and no distortion creeps into the mix. A bit of faint surface noise, which was also present on the 2007 DVD, crops up here and there during quiet scenes, but that's the track's only age-related imperfection. While this track doesn't quite rival other musical tracks from the same period, it does its job well and produces pleasing room-filling audio.
The Blu-ray edition of The Pirate imports the entire booty of supplements from the 2007 DVD, which is fantastic news for fans of this classic musical.
Audio Commentary - Garland historian John Fricke sits down for a thoughtful, well-researched, and engaging commentary that covers a variety of topics and mixes in 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 minutiae could be dull, but Fricke's enthusiasm and bottomless well of knowledge keep the track lively and involving.
Featurette: "The Pirate: A Musical Treasure Chest" (SD, 19 minutes) - Fricke also appears on camera in this excellent retrospective piece that 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.
Vintage Short: You Can't Win (SD, 8 minutes) - This slapstick short, part of MGM's popular Pete Smith Specialty series, chronicles the hapless efforts of a "harried homeowner" (played by comic Dave O'Brien) to perform a variety of domestic tasks, such as washing his car and hanging a hammock.
Vintage Cartoon: Cat Fishin' (SD, 7 minutes) - This Tom and Jerry cartoon covers much the same territory, as it follows Tom's futile attempts to catch some crafty fish using Jerry as bait.
"Mack the Black" Stereo Remix Version (HD, 4 minutes) - This stereo remix - with video - brings even greater excitement to Garland's sizzling solo, thanks to increased fidelity.
Audio Outtakes (13 minutes) - This section shares 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 Garland succinctly termed it "insanity.") The crown jewel, however, is "Voodoo," a steamy romantic ballad sung by Garland that evolved 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 (13 minutes) - In order for stars to learn new songs composed expressly for a musical film, guide tracks were made for practice purposes. Here, long-time MGM arranger and associate producer Roger Edens (whose contributions to the Arthur Freed Unit in particular and movie musicals in general can never be overstated) 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.
Vintage Radio Interviews (9 minutes) - 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, provide a taste of their off-screen personalities. The stars only mention The Pirate in passing, but relate a couple of endearing anecdotes.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 minutes) - The film's original preview, which includes a deleted song snippet, wraps up the extras package.
If you haven't yet OD'd on Caribbean pirate movies (and even if you have), this vivacious, eye-filling musical puts a tuneful, slapstick spin on the popular genre. 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 provides a stunning showcase for the incomparable talents of Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. A beautiful, brand new 4K restoration, robust audio, and the complete bounty of extras from the 2007 DVD distinguish Warner Archive's terrific Blu-ray presentation, which brings this swashbuckling spoof, romantic romp, and melodic musical to life like never before. Highly Recommended.