Though Gene Kelly is superb as the athletic strolling player Serafin, and is given some of the best dancing opportunities of his career, this is Miss Garland's film all the way. And what a film! How strange that it isn't better known.
In one of their rare moments of scenic largesse, Metro released Garland from the small town confinements of Hardy--ville, and/or the sweet girl who makes it to Broadway with the corn stalks still in her suitcase, and gave her something of genuine wit and sophistication.
For here, she is Manuela Alvarez, of the colonial Virgin Islands, a well born, cloistered 19th century maiden, (presumably convent educated, i.e., Gladys Cooper to Judy, "...we'll take refuge in the church!") whose only psychic escape from her self enclosure consists in fantasizing about the notorious pirate, "Mack the Black Macoco." That she is tricked into believing a dashing actor, Serafin (Kelly) is the real Macoco, while in fact he is none other than her lumpy affianced, Mayor Dom Pedro (Walter Slezak) is the spindle upon which this cinematic yarn spins its glories.
And what phantasmagoric glories they are! This ranks with "Yolanda and the Thief," (sorry "American in Paris" fans) as Mr. Minnelli's most accomplished Technicolor visual achievement. For working with Jack Martin Smith, he concocts a Caribbean sea port a swirl with color and characters--one can almost smell the salt air a waft with spice and languor, and including as well: a quay brimming with turbanned negroe vendors, a village of Salmon and off white stucco walls, and black filagreed wrought iron against a cerulean sky, and bevys of extras dressed in a fortune worth of rainbow colored moire, velvet and brocade flounces, furbellows, snoods, and gauntlets. The shaded interiors are replete with empire furniture, carved ebony, and bamboo blinds and palmettos.
The effect is dreamlike in an operetta sort of way and deliberately so. A storybook come to life but one which successfully combines the conventions of 19th century aristocratic propriety, (in which young women of quality do not walk out without their duennas) against 20th century show biz colloquialisms to great effect, (one thinks here of Mr. Kelly's delightful reference to a review in the "Trinidad Clarion comparing him to David Garrick","No Noose is Good Noose," and "You should try underplaying sometime."
The players are at the top of their form: Mr. Kelly is in full command of his powers here: his partnering with the Nicholas Brothers in "Be a Clown," as well as the "Pirate Ballet" (in which he pivots with a javelin against a cinnabar sky lit with explosions) almost literally take ones breath away.
But it is in "Ninia" that he achieves the most felicitous display of solo Terpsichore, with Robert Alton's choreography, Harry Stradling's fluid boom camera following his cat like moves over up and through the town, and the delightful Cole Porter lyric and melody, culminating in flamenco steps with torrid and tempting MGM contract dancers in and through the striped poles of a circular gazebo.
Of Miss Garland enough cannot be said. No more Betsy Booth! Manuela offers her a chance to broaden her range in a direction in which (sadly) she would never venture again.
Here her exasperated intonations wring humor out of every line and situation, "Oh Casilda I do wish you were a little more spiritual!" or "Do you call it fun to live in a tent? to go hungry ?, to be looked down on by all decent people?!" give full vent to the drollery the script affords. Indeed, she channels her trademarked nervous energy into her character in such a way, that she, (as "Parent's Magazine" noted in its review) gently spoofs some of her earlier film characterizations. Thus we get the Dorothy like: ("I know it, something dreadful is going to happen, something dreadful...") It's a performance that one cannot simply imagine any other actress playing. Thus, she claims the role and makes it her own.
And who can forget the scene where she pretends to believe Serafin is Macoco once she has discovered the deception, "I can see us now, you with your cutlass in one hand and your compass in the other, shouting orders to your pirate crew, and I, I spurring you on to greater and greater achievements, won't that be magnificent?!" to which she pounds her fist against the table with sugar dipped venom.
Musically she is also a delight from start to finish.
Moreover, she has never been seen to such pictorial advantage in the post war period as she is here, gowned by Tom Keogh and Madame Karinska in one of the most arresting (and beaded!) wardrobes she ever wore on screen, and just as importantly, effectively coiffed throughout, (most particularly in the "Love of My Life" sequence where she is adorned with a coral diadem and matching earrings.)
Similarly, her close-ups are meltingly lovely, such as the nightgown clad scene wherein she begs Gladys Cooper to take her to Port Sebastian, "I'll make him a good wife Aunt Inez--really." (what a vision in feminine charm she is here!) or slightly later when, clad in a broad brimmed straw hat she gazes upon the Caribbean, or perhaps best of all, with a conch shell at her ear, and under hypnosis, she whispers of Macoco to dazzled interlocutors.
Supporting players are top of the mark, and it is interesting to see Garland interact with Gladys Cooper and horror veteran George Zucco.
After it was completed, MGM relegated Garland back to formula vaudeville hokum, but thankfully "The Pirate" was already in the can. Musical film scholar Douglas McVay has declared it to be the best musical film of 1948. He's right. See it to find out why.