The Pirate (1948)

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Caribbean or Caribbean? Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

At the beginning of The Pirate we learn Manuela (Judy Garland) has a life of servitude ahead of her while she yearns for a life of adventure. She desires to be taken away by the legendary Mack the Black, swooning over dreams of stolen treasure, maidens captive, of villages destroyed; kind of twisted don’t you think? Regardless I don’t think anyone can project an innocent yearning for adventure better than Judy Garland. The Pirate was a different role for Garland; more exotic, less girl next door and more grown up. For once she plays the object of desire and I find she pulls this off perfectly as although I’ve never found Garland to be a woman of sexual appeal, I do find her one of great beauty (why she was ever referred to as an ugly duckling is beyond me). At heart however Manuela is still very much a Judy Garland character, a down to Earth girl with aspirations for greater things.

The title of The Pirate could come off as misleading. Gene Kelly isn’t a pirate but rather a performer named Serafin masquerading as one. No the pirate of The Pirate is Mack the Black, whom in a odd turn of events is actually the man Manuela is going to wed in an arranged marriage known as Don Pedro, the mayor of a small Caribbean town who has put his life of crime behind him  and kept it a secret. The Pirate is enhanced on second viewing knowing the true identity of Don Pedro as he speaks of his dislike of travelling on the sea and telling Manuela home is the perfect spot; remind you of another Judy Garland film? There is even a moment in which Manuela frantically tells Auntie Inez (Gladys Cooper) she wants to go home which feels like Wizard of Oz redux. The second half of the pirate is one huge comic, screwball like farce which doesn’t fully work for me; it’s amusing but not so much laugh out loud making me prefer the first half to the second.

The Pirate shows Gene Kelly had the ability to be a natural swashbuckler while his introductory sequence in which he gives a lengthy monologue promoting his acting troupe has to be one of his most entertaining non-musical moments on screen. However what really makes his role in The Pirate stand out among his other films is the oozing sexuality he projects on screen; more than any other film he did. Serafin is a real Don Juan with his Gable like moustache as well as with his tightly fit pirate attire and the wipe he is seen sporting in the film (plus that cigarette trick, what a play-a!) His introductory song Nina is one steamy number with Kelly flirting and dancing with oodles of women (just look at that state his hair is in by the end of the number) while the topical setting just enhances the eroticism. The Pirate is another movie in the “how did they get away with that club”. You can censor all you want but you can’t tell someone to simply stop projecting natural sexuality.

Although Judy and Gene do display affection for each other at points in the film, the romantic element of The Pirate comes off to me as secondary. Serafin pursues Manuela for reasons other than love as he can tell she is going into a life she doesn’t want due to his ability to know an entire woman through their body language. This gives his character another element and shows he isn’t totally  shallow and just out to get laid; he wants to prevent Manuela from going down a path she doesn’t want to and expose the adventuress that she is as well as her hidden performing talents. By the end it’s evident they share a more of a professional association than a romantic one, nor is there even a final kiss between the two.

Mack the Black is the musical highlight of the film and an interesting change of pace seeing Judy Garland doing a more racy number. Mack the Black was the replacement for a number titled Voodoo of which the negatives where burned at Louis B Mayer’s instance over the number’s reportedly scandalous content. Would it be considered shocking by today’s standards, was it even that shocking to begin with?  – One can only imagine. As the audio still survives, the song itself is one of the darker, more eerie songs in the MGM library but doesn’t strike me particularly memorable. Perhaps going with Mack the Black was the right decision after all. Be a Clown on the other hand is notably the basis for the song Make ‘em Laugh from Singin’ In the Rain and plagiarised it may be, Make ‘em Laugh is a far superior rendition in my view. The ballet sequence in The Pirate however is a treat with a real sense of three dimensional depth. The sequence with its many explosions and Gene Kelly’s masculine athleticism makes for one of the more primal musical numbers in film history.

The production values of The Pirate aren’t quite up to MGM’s usual standard with clear dividing lines on the sky backgrounds, visible wires holding Gene Kelly on the tight rope and even a very visible thread attached to Judy’s hat as its hoisted away by the wind. Come on MGM, you can do better than that. Ultimately The Pirate is not my favourite MGM musical but is unique enough to make it worthwhile.

Brigadoon (1954)

An American In Scotland

Brigadoon was originally conceived as a musical on the scale of a John Ford production but that didn’t come to be. Due to budget cuts the entire movie is set bound but as far as set bound movies go Brigadoon is still an impressive display of production design. The sets themselves look impressive and expansive complete with fog effects, animals, vegetation and backdrops which do appear vast; something I imagine would be more challenging to accomplish in colour and cinemascope. Brigadoon was made after the Technicolor era had ended and while it might be lacking the eye popping colour of previous MGM musicals it’s still a beauty of a film.

Brigadoon was Vincente Minnelli’s first musical in cinemascope and while the widescreen technology allows for more space for the dancers I couldn’t help but notice there is not a single close up shot in the entire film. As it turns out Minnelli actually had disliked the use of close ups in cinemascope. It’s not a major issue but I do find it to be somewhat of a mild irritance.

The fantasy set of Brigadoon doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and requires the old suspension of disbelief. The village of Brigadoon rises out of the mist every 100 years for just one day thus the village will never be changed or destroyed by the outside world. Travelling through time at this rate the village will have gone 3,650,000 years into the future after only one year Brigadoon time. What happens if the location of Brigadoon has something constructed on it or succumbs to natural geographical change? Regardless the movie still works despite its illogical concept plus it is fun trying to theorise how it would play out. The Scottish setting of Brigadoon on the other hand is how the rest of the world imagines Scotland is like with its tartan layered aesthetic and I love it. The Scottish accents however do feel right and are not exaggerated as you would expect a Hollywood movie to do.

Gene Kelly and Van Johnson make an entertaining duo with Johnson playing the grumpy and sarcastic comic relief. But the real jewel pairing is between Kelly and Cyd Charisse as the romantic love interests. Just look at the Heather on the Hill number for a better expression of falling in love through dance. The soundtrack is no Singin’ in the Rain (but then again so few musicals are) but still a fine selection of gems and lush orchestrations, many of which help make Brigadoon a very relaxing film to watch and as pleasant a musical excursion as you could ask for.

An American In Paris (1951)

We’ll Always Have Paris

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

An American In Paris is a very different beast of a movie than Singin’ in the Rain. It’s not as fun as other MGM musicals (although there is fun to be had) but it’s better described as a more intellectual viewing experience. The film is light on plot like other classic Hollywood musicals but there is much going on internally between and within the characters. Simply put, this movie musical is dark. Gene Kelly’s role of Jerry Mulligan is a cynical loser who is not a very successful painter (although I do like when he tells of the pretentious art student, telling it like it is!). Likewise the romance between Jerry and Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron) is a hopeful but not entirely a happy one. Even with Kelly and Caron ending up together at the end, the character relationships in the film are never resolved. During the film I kept thinking is she not better off with Henri Baurel (Georges Guetary)? The guy who is a successful actor and saved your life during the war or the loser whom you only recently met? Likewise in Milo Robert’s (Nina Foch) final appearance she states “I think I need some champagne” and is never heard or seen again. Even though her character denies wanting more with Kelly than championship and only wants to help him professionally in a surprising prostitution reference (“If you’re hard up for companionship there are guys in town who do this kind of thing for a living, call one of them”), I never felt convinced by this. Who says classic Hollywood is all just happy endings?

An American In Paris is the perfect display of the artistry of director Vincente Minnelli. He found French painting an inspiration for his own style; a skill he would incorporate into other productions such as Lust for Life. There couldn’t be a better or more obvious choice of director for An American In Paris than Minnelli. Not many other directors can use space as effective as Minnelli and display such a fluid motion of the camera. Just look as the film’s introductory sequence to Gene Kelly and his chums or the shot of Kelly walking down several flights of stairs in his apartment building; thus I can forgive the very visible camera shake 47 minutes into the movie during the Tra-la-la number. Even though he was a contract director (he made 33 films, only three made outside of MGM) he rose above these constraints and formed his own style whereas contract directors where usually assigned to conform to the studio’s standard and aesthetic. Whether or not he can be classified as an auteur there has been no other filmmaker like him in Hollywood history.

The film’s sets themselves look like they’ve been lived in instead of coming off as totally shiny and glossy with frames still looking like Paris as the impressionists saw it. Have neighbourhoods in Paris ever looked like this or is it just movie fantasy? Likewise take in the appearance of the Beatnick nightclub and observe the early incarnation to the modern day world of the hipster.

Kelly’s ability to dance alongside children and interact with them is something no one could do better than him which is evident from the genuine reactions from the on looking kids during the I Got Rhythm number; truly the dancing figure for the everyman. Leslie Caron’s introductory ballet sequence on the other hand is a Technicolor assault on the senses; the backgrounds are one solid colour while she wears dresses which totally contrasts them. Could you ask for a more memorable first ever screen appearance; complete with a sexual chair dance and one flexible body. Likewise the contradictory humour from the sequence’s narration always makes me laugh. Another major musical highlight is Oscar Levant’s dream sequence which reminds of the Buster Keaton short The Playhouse in which every member of the theatre is played by Keaton; likewise here he have an army of Oscar Levant. The sequence was actually his idea and along with the character he portrays in the film reflects his real life personality as a neurotic. The appearance and the colours of the sequence definitely remind me of Powell and Pressburger; surely the filmmakers must have taken inspiration.

They do save the best for last however in the form of the American In Paris Ballet; among one of the greatest things ever committed to film. A sequence which takes full advantage of cinema as an art form; could the entire thing be recreated on the stage? Watch French impressionism come to life in a 17 minutes feast for the senses which is artful without being artsy. There’s chorography and then there’s this with so many people moving, dancing and doing their own thing; with Gene Kelly’s graceful yet masculine dancing still being at the centre of it. Fred Astaire once said he didn’t want the camera to dance for him but rather stay stationary with as few cuts as possible. Kelly’s style is very much the opposite of this in that the camera movement is integral to the dance but doesn’t take away from his talent, not one bit. Yet I haven’t I even mentioned the music of Gershwin; could it be more lush and rich?

The Band Wagon (1953)

Fred Astaire 1953!

The Band Wagon is the film Fred Astaire’s career was culminating to: his best film in my view. Like Ninotchka with Greta Garbo or A Star Is Born with Judy Garland, this was the role he was born to play; one catered to his on screen persona. Fred Astaire is Tony Hunter! An ageing hoofer who no longer is the star he once was. The Band Wagon contains little references to Astaire’s past: from Bill Bojangles Robinson to the opening credits feature an image of a top hat and cane, to the mentioning of a fictional movie “Swinging Down to Panama” perhaps a reference to Swing Time and Flying Down to Rio (although I do wish there could have been a little reference to Ginger Rogers herself in there).

The Band Wagon provides Astaire with some of the best musical numbers of his career. However the film also allows him to showcase other avenues of his talent, such as his outburst scene over his dissatisfaction over rehearsals – a fine example of the acting prowess he possessed. While Ginger Rogers is obviously Astaire’s greatest partner Cyd Charisse is his most accomplished; could there be a more graceful figure?

Was I gullible that when I first watched The Band Wagon that the movie manipulated me into thinking the pretentious and egotistical stage director Jeffrey Cordova’s (Jack Buchanan) idea of a musical inspired by the Faust legend was a good idea? This isn’t the same old backstage musical plot; The Band Wagon is a thinking person’s musical. Likewise Charisse’s Gabrielle Gerard has a mature sub plot of her own involving her trying to deal with her dominating boyfriend and her feeling towards Tony; giving the film that extra mature edge.

Not only is there a great story, there is also great comedy with a cast gels so well together. Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray as a bickering couple and their hysterical fanboy reactions to meting Tony Hunter, to Jack Bunchanan’s over the top histrionics and his terrible ideas for a stage musical. My favourite moment in comedy in The Bandwagon is the scene in which Jeffrey Cordova manipulates Gabrielle’s boyfriend from being dead set against allowing her to being cast in his stage production to then begging him to allow her to be in the show. It’s like a Bugs Bunny-Yosemite Sam type moment but on a much more subtle level and made even more impressive by occurring in an uncut shot. Likewise the sets in The Band Wagon have an astounding level of detail that scenes near the beginning of the film taking place on the street had me wondering where they sets or real world locations.

Up until The Band Wagon it was uncommon for a film musical to have a soundtrack entirely composed for it rather than having songs and compositions taken from other sources; which makes it all the more impressive that the entire soundtrack to The Bandwagon is superb. If I was to choose my three favourite musical numbers of all time, in terms of epic scope they would be The Broadway Melody Ballet from Singin’ In the Rain, The Lullaby of Broadway from Gold Diggers of 1935 and The Girl Hunt Ballet from The Band Wagon in all its 13 minute glory. Here noir meets musical, with Astaire at his most badass. His line delivery could be in an actual crime film itself, plus it inspired the music video for Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal. There’s also the Shine on Your Shoes number, one which I could watch again and again just to look at all those gizmos in the background and the genuine reactions on people’s faces at seeing Fred Astaire dance; while That’s Entertainment has become a semi-official anthem for Hollywood. Oh and there’s the Triplets number; one of the weirdest musical numbers ever filmed and they’re actually dancing on their knees!

The early to mid-1950’s where a phenomenal period for the musical genre. Hollywood produced some of its finest musicals in these years before television brought this era of film musicals to an end. Films like The Band Wagon elevated the genre to new heights. A Fred Astaire musical which has everything and more!