Saturday, October 11, 2014

Q & A: The Cinematic Voyage of THE PIRATE by Earl J. Hess & Pratibha A. Dabholkar

The Cinematic Voyage of The Pirate: Kelly, Garland, and Minnelli at Work follows the model of Earl J. Hess and Pratibha A. 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.

Why was it important to write a book about the MGM film, The Pirate?
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. It was a controversial film in several ways and has attracted considerable commentary over the years. Arguments about its plot, acting, sets, and dances, as well as the place it holds in the creative work of its director and its stars have raged since its initial release in 1948. Those arguments continue today, more than six decades later. And yet, The Pirate had not received the acclaim it deserves in scholarly literature. Among other things, the remarkable ways that 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 led us to conclude that The Pirate is an underappreciated masterpiece. In writing this book, we set about to correct that situation and give the film its due.

What can we learn about film production from this book?
Readers can get an idea of the complex process of writing screen plays based on stage plays. They can appreciate how songs and dances are created to fit into the plot and learn about repeated rehearsals to get everything right. Readers can understand how shooting has to be planned to make efficient use of resources rather than chronologically according to the story. They can also find out how moviemakers have to deal with personal problems of the players and keep up morale. It is also interesting to learn that changes are made in plot and dialogue after shooting has started and even after the previews, and that the colors one sees on the screen are often adjusted in a lab after making the film.

You write that early audiences did not always understand the tongue-in-cheek humor in the film. Can you elaborate on the mixed reviews of the film musical?

Although movie audiences were less enthusiastic than film critics when The Pirate was released in 1948, it was mainly because they were not sophisticated enough to understand that the film was made tongue-in-cheek and that the imitations of Barrymore and Fairbanks by Kelly were done with affection to delight audiences. Some early audience members did get it, however, as seen from the excellent ratings when the film was previewed. As audiences became more sophisticated, enthusiasm for the film grew. It appears that this motion picture was at least twenty years ahead of its time. 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.

Is The Pirate a cult film?
Strange as it may seem, it is both a cult film and one that appeals to mainstream audiences, especially those who love musicals. The Pirate did appeal to gay audiences soon after its release. Garland’s presence in the film and her camp performance started that process, but gay audiences also appreciated Minnelli’s aesthetics and Kelly’s virile dancing. Also, 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 was appreciated by mainstream audiences all along. It 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 absolute favorite.

What effect did the film have on the careers of the major players?
For Gene Kelly, the film was the true beginning of his postwar fame as a dancer on the big screen. He worked more intimately on choreography in this movie than on any previous film and also played an important part in character development. 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. For Vincent Minnelli, the movie exemplified his fascination with colorful locale, exotic costumes, and strongly defined characters. The director used his trademark boom camera work to full effect and also worked extensively to revise the final screenplay. He worked closely with the Technicolor Corporation to create a rich visual product. The Pirate is one of Minnelli’s most effective creations, displaying verve, irony, and a sardonic gusto. For Judy Garland, her personal problems with drugs and her troubled relationship with her husband came to a head with Minnelli 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. Her pairing with Gene Kelly was phenomenal, as always.

The history behind the production of The Pirate seems awfully complicated. What challenges did you face while writing this book?
We had to get access to the stage plays and all the versions of the screen plays to see how the story evolved and why it took such a long time and so many writers to produce an acceptable script for the screen. We had to research all possible primary sources (including archival material, interviews, and so on) as well as secondary sources, and piece together the history of making this film, including its production, marketing, and legacy. Very often, there were divergent accounts and we had to evaluate which versions were based on fact and which were not. Also, scholarly accounts had misrepresented some facts, stating that the film was panned by critics on its release and made a loss over its lifetime. Researching original documents, we found that neither was true. Our book corrects the errors others have propagated.  

Despite the challenges, was it fun to write the book?
We had as much fun researching and writing this book as we do when watching this great movie musical. Everything we discovered about The Pirate is in this book, presented in a way that helps us understand and enjoy the film even more. Each time we watch the film, it offers more layers of meaning and enjoyment, tied closely to everything discussed in our book.

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