Monday, August 4, 2014

Author Spotlight: Earl J. Hess and Pratibha A. Dabholkar

The Cinematic Voyage of The Pirate: Kelly, Garland, and Minnelli at Work follows the model of Hess and Dabholkar’s previous study of Singin’ in the Rain. Drawing on exhaustive research in archives, memoirs, interviews, and newspaper coverage, it takes the reader from the original conception of the story in the mind of a German playwright named Ludwig Fulda, through S. N. Behrman’s Broadway production starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, to the arduous task of crafting a suitable screenplay at MGM. Behind-the-scenes issues such as Garland’s personal problems during the making of the film and the shaping of the film by Minnelli and Kelly are among the many subjects detailed here.


Among the many products of the Arthur Freed Unit at M-G-M, The Pirate has garnered a great deal of attention from viewers and critics alike as one of the most interesting film musicals of all time. Although not as universally acclaimed as Singin’ in the Rain, The Pirate is an important film musical to study for a number of reasons. It represents the start of Gene Kelly’s glory period as actor, choreographer, and dancer. It is a highlight of Vincente Minnelli’s directorial career, especially in the use of color, camera angles, and vivid depictions of sets and people. It shows Judy Garland at her best in a unique role that showcases her comedic talents. It is a superb case study of the difficult process of creating a film from a stage play and also a wonderful case study of the complexities involved in making a film under difficult circumstances. It was the first film musical to show a white man dancing with black men as equals and to show ethnically mixed crowd scenes in a natural way.

In addition, there are secondary reasons to pick The Pirate over other popular musicals as a subject deserving careful study. It is not merely a musical with an appealing story and songs such as Minnelli and Garland’s Meet Me in St. Louis or many of Garland’s other films, but it also has vibrant and superbly executed dances. Moreover, whereas other film musicals with good stories and vibrant dances, such as Kelly’s On the Town, have several weak segments that repeat viewers tend to skip in order to focus on the better parts, there is no weak segment in The Pirate—the entire film is delightfully watchable.

It is not that scholars have ignored The Pirate. It was a controversial film in several ways and has attracted considerable commentary, negative as well as positive, over the years. Arguments about its plot, acting, sets, and dances, as well as the place it holds in the creative work of director Vincente Minnelli, and stars Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, have raged since its initial release in 1948. Those arguments continue today, more than sixty-five years later, with some scholars calling the film a classic failure despite much merit and others extolling it as one of M-G-M’s brightest accomplishments. Nevertheless, we believe The Pirate has not received the acclaim it deserves in scholarly literature. The remarkable ways in which the film helped the careers of Kelly, Minnelli, and Garland, its pioneering depiction of race relations in musicals, and the mastery displayed in the staging, filming, and choreography of Kelly’s dances lead us to conclude that The Pirate is an underappreciated masterpiece.

It is often said that The Pirate became a cult classic soon after its release, rather than a general favorite among fans of film musicals, but that is only partially true. The Pirate did appeal to gay audiences soon after its release but it was appreciated by mainstream audiences as well. The film has been a hit with many college students since the 1970s, and a decade later, it began to be a popular topic of analysis for scholars who deal with gay theory and the cinema. At the same time, the film has won high praise from many viewers, critics, and scholars who savor the particular aesthetics of dance on film, with appreciation for the movie growing over the years. In fact, many fans of the film musical rank it as their favorite. In addition, devotees of the more than 300 films that have been made about pirates have often included the Kelly-Minnelli-Garland product among the top ten.

The Pirate is consistently ranked as among the best products of the Freed Unit, but there has not been an extensive study of the film to date. This book, The Cinematic Voyage of The Pirate: Kelly, Garland, and Minnelli at Work, provides a rich and detailed history of this highly acclaimed motion picture. It is a follow-up to our book entitled Singin’ in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece, which is a comprehensive history of the most famous film musical of all time. Following the model for that book, we based our study of The Pirate on definitive research, including extant interviews conducted with participants and archival material held in repositories across the United States. Moreover, similar to our approach for Singin’ in the Rain, this study offers a comprehensive look at The Pirate by discussing all aspects of the film’s history: from the development of the initial idea for the movie through preproduction, filming, initial release, and marketing to its legacy in the writings of film scholars and critics well into the twenty-first century.

Although many viewers enjoyed The Pirate when it was first released, it was not universally appreciated by audiences at that time. Actually, musicals made shortly after World War II that emphasized fantasy and spectacle had a chance of doing very well. A likely reason The Pirate did not live up to its merit, despite its emphasis on fantasy and spectacle, is that audiences of the day simply did not get Minnelli and Kelly’s tongue-in-cheek humor underlying Kelly’s role as Serafin.

In contrast, critical reviews on the film’s initial release were mostly positive. Contrary to much commentary in books on the film musical, our extensive research in primary materials shows that The Pirate was not panned by critics when released in 1948. In fact, most critics went into raptures about the film, while others wrote negatively about only some aspects of it. Some reviewers since 1948, such as David Vaughan and Douglas McVay, have gone so far as to proclaim The Pirate the best film musical of all time. Nor was it a financial loss for M-G-M, as scholars have claimed. The movie actually made a profit, although not as great as it might have been.

The majority of commentators and critics between 1948 and 2010 have, at least, ranked it as a pivotal project in the careers of Minnelli (in terms of his use of color, boom camera work, and stylized setting) and Kelly (in terms of the development of his athletic dance choreography and the creation of “star” qualities). It also was the project where Minnelli and Kelly began their successful collaboration on films, and in which Garland began to experience the full impact of years of drug addiction and troubled relationships with her husband and mother. This book highlights the film’s role in the careers of Kelly, Minnelli, and Garland.

Kelly probably gained more than any single individual from his experience in working on The Pirate. Not only was the film the true beginning of his postwar fame as a dancer on the big screen, but he worked more intimately on choreography in this movie than on any previous film, and he played an important part in character development. His acting in an unusual role received much praise despite some criticism from those who missed or disliked the tongue-incheek quality of his portrayal. Kelly also learned a good deal about camera work and direction from Minnelli that he later employed very successfully in his own career as a director, starting with On the Town (1949) and proceeding all the way to Hello, Dolly! (1969).

For Minnelli, The Pirate was a landmark film. It exemplified his fascination with colorful locale, exotic costumes, and strongly defined characters, especially women. The director used his trademark boom camera work to full effect as cinematographer Harry Stradling shot a beautiful film. Minnelli also worked extensively to revise the final screenplay, imprinting his own vision on it. He worked closely with the Technicolor Corporation to create a richer product than the company had tended to produce. The Pirate is one of Minnelli’s most effective creations, displaying verve, irony, and a sardonic gusto that is unique among his films. It is Minnelli at his best.

Garland’s career hit a watershed with The Pirate. Her personal problems with drugs and her troubled relationship with her husband, Minnelli, came to a head during the filming of this movie. She missed many days of production, costing M-G-M a good deal of money and wasted time, but she turned in a stellar performance in a role that was unusual for her. Our history of The Pirate discusses Garland’s contributions as well as her problems.

The Pirate became, among other things, a gay cult movie, and Garland’s presence in the film helped to start that process. Gay audiences also appreciated Minnelli’s aesthetics and Kelly’s virile dancing. The book explains how The Pirate grew into an icon of gay studies scholarship.

In offering readers many opportunities to examine important aspects of filmmaking, this book starts with the development of the plot and script. The Pirate was based on a successful Broadway comedy of the same name that ran for 177 performances beginning in November 1942. It was written by Samuel N. Behrman and starred the famous Broadway actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. That production in turn was based on the 1911 play by German author Ludwig Fulda. After M-G-M purchased the rights to the Behrman play, the studio had some difficulty turning it into a film. Eight writers worked on the screenplay from 1943 to 1946 before Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett were assigned to it and came up with a suitable script, with help from Minnelli and Freed. But even this was not the final version of the screenplay. Minnelli and Freed, with the help of three assistants, heavily revised the screenplay during preproduction, making a total of thirteen writers, not counting the director and producer. This complex genealogy of the movie offers many opportunities to understand how film scripts evolved from previous works during M-G-M’s golden era and who among the many people working for the studio played a role in shaping the scripts.

The topic of plot and character development becomes even more complex when discussing a dance film, because the numbers are the highlights of the screen experience and their development takes place in the studio or in the mind of the choreographer, rather than on paper. The dance numbers may appear in places other than where the screenplay indicates, and the way the dances develop characters or plot can significantly modify the script. Although scholars tend to think of The Pirate as Minnelli’s project, Kelly played a huge role in planning and executing the film. As mentioned earlier, this was the start of their wonderful collaboration, and in his memoirs, Minnelli gave full credit to Kelly for his contributions. The Pirate was anything but an example of the auteur in action; it was a highly collaborative project, not only for Minnelli and Kelly but stretching from Ludwig Fulda to the most obscure technician on the sound
stage of M-G-M.

Another contribution of this study to film history involves a detailed analysis of the movie’s “film ballet,” an extended dance number with balletic aspects. The Pirate contains one of the most elaborate and impressive examples of film ballet in the genre. The purpose of this ballet was to represent important emotions and character developments portrayed thus far in the film. Dance director Robert Alton initially proposed a pedantic, literal scheme for the ballet in an extensive scenario that we found in the Vincente Minnelli Collection. But Minnelli and Kelly preferred a psychologically charged, surrealistic framework for the ballet that worked much better than Alton’s idea in extending the storyline and the characterizations. Ballets had become all the rage in dance films by the later 1940s, and both Minnelli and Kelly worked hard on this one. It involved impressive pyrotechnic displays and feats of dancing by Kelly that are noted by even those who do not particularly like the overall film. In subsequent movies, Kelly elaborated on the ballet concept, building on his work in The Pirate to produce classic examples of this type of dance in On the Town (1949), An American in Paris (1951), and Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

The creation of the songs in this musical and Cole Porter’s contributions are also discussed in detail. However, Porter took little interest in the film itself and did not work to shape the movie. Arthur Freed, however, did play a prominent role as producer, not just in casting but in authorizing complex sets and costumes as well as in working with Minnelli to guide script revision and editing.

Our book also discusses the role of The Pirate in depicting race relations on film. Minnelli staged crowd scenes that were ethnically and racially mixed in ways that were unusual for the time. Kelly insisted on dancing with the Nicholas Brothers, a black dancing team, in a spectacular number. This is something no other film musical had done to date. Dances in films were segregated by race, and many musicals of that era even showed white dancers in blackface. Kelly’s dancing with the Nicholas Brothers as equals was a daring challenge to the segregated world of America in the late 1940s. Theater managers in many southern cities refused to show the film or requested the deletion of “Be a Clown,” the brothers’ dance number with Kelly, from the release prints. The Lunt-Fontanne stage version of The Pirate also included racial mixing, but it had no dancing in it, and the play was booked only in northern cities.

As a study in filmmaking, this book deals with the many goofs and gaffes to be seen in the release print of The Pirate, which the movie’s fans tend to find endearing rather than targets for criticism. We also discuss the censorship issues involving the script and lyrics in The Pirate, explaining why they arose and how they were resolved. Thematic, stylistic, and other types of links between this film and others are highlighted, so the reader can appreciate such connections.

As in Singin’ in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece, we draw on a wide range of primary and secondary research sources. Archival and published primary materials are at the heart of our study. Reactions to The Pirate in the secondary literature are used to offer insights about the film’s long-range reception. We recognize that many online sources might not be fully reliable. Therefore, we use information from online sites in a sparing and critical way, and if no other source is available. For example, factual information from the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) is used in compiling the list of technical crew members who worked on the film. For that matter, we have critically evaluated the reliability of all material used in the preparation of this study, including archival and scholarly sources. Having studied the film and its history in great detail, we include our own analysis and scholarly opinions wherever relevant.

Although movie audiences were less enthusiastic than film critics when The Pirate was first released, enthusiasm for the film certainly grew with the passage of time. Freed may well have been right when he said this motion picture was at least twenty years ahead of its time when it was released in 1948. Our book includes a full discussion of critical and scholarly commentary over the years (including commentary by gay studies scholars) to help readers appreciate diverse views about the film as well as how perspectives changed over time.

British commentator John Cutts called The Pirate “a masterpiece of extravagant entertainment, a boisterous rococo romp” that continued to grow in stature as “a rich and rare musical experiment.” “There is no denying that this is a weird movie,” Victoria Large wrote nearly sixty years after its release, “one that comes by its status as a cult classic honestly. It’s loopy, knowingly camp, brightly colored, ambitious, and absolutely unique.” Adherents of the cult built around the film had all along proclaimed it a masterpiece, but the appeal of The Pirate extends beyond cult boundaries. David Vaughan thought the movie had come “very near to achieving one’s ideal of a dance film—that is, a film which dances all the time, and not merely in its spectacular set-pieces.” As Douglas McVay put it, bringing all the elements together accounted for Minnelli’s success in The Pirate. “If one is going to try to blend words, music, movement, dance sets, costumes, props, color photography and camera fluency into a total, effortless harmony, then this, surely, is the way to do it.” And yet, as film historians John Russell Taylor and Arthur Jackson have bemoaned, The Pirate “has never really had its due.”

Our book sets out to correct this situation and give this classic film its full credit. In addition to discussing all the issues mentioned in this preface, Appendix A includes our synopses and analyses of all the discarded screenplays so that interested readers can follow the twists and turns in creating the perfect screenplay for The Pirate. Appendix B catalogs something that scholars have missed in consistently praising the Goodrich-Hackett script over Behrman’s—namely, the huge number of lines from Behrman’s stage play that appear in the Goodrich-Hackett screenplay. Finally, we include short biographies of the major players wherever relevant in the book and also include Appendix C, which contains mini-biographies of everyone involved in the making of The Pirate—in order to give some credit to all the people who were part of this underappreciated masterpiece.

1 comment:

auntsuzy said...

In their concluding thoughts, the authors write “It is time that The Pirate received its long-awaited due; we hope this unique film will continue to garner more attention and accolades with each passing generation.”
They have certainly played a huge part in making sure that it happens. The book is an amazing anthology of all things ‘Pirate’. I enjoyed it immensely, from the Preface, in which the authors set out their intentions, to the comprehensive bibliography and index. In-between, there are sections on the various screenplays; the major and minor players, including biographies; the filming challenges; postproduction including reviews and critical analyses; the legacy of the film some 66 years later, and a long list of chapter notes. As with their previous book, Singin’ In The Rain. An American Masterpiece, I enjoyed the notes almost as much as the main content of the book.
There is a wealth of detail in the book, far too much for any meaningful discussion here. I like the fact that every member of cast and crew is named and featured. I also like the fairness and impartiality of their approach, and the reasoning they employ in putting forth their own ideas.
It is very readable, both for casual browsers and for more intense research students. It holds interest for movie fans in general, and for devotees of the main players, Minnelli, Gene and Judy, all of whom receive positive but nevertheless balanced treatment throughout.
All in all, a great triumph for the authors, whose similarly structured book on Singin’ In The Rain I would also recommend. Now, Earl and Pratibha, what about An American In Paris???
(A more comprehensive review can be found on my website What's In The Book section)
Sue Cadman

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