If I didn’t laugh I should be very annoyed. —Manuela
On the island of Calvados in the 18th century, little orphan Manuela is all grown up and ready to be married off to a rich suitor. He is the rotund mayor, Don Pedro (Walter Slezak), but she (Judy Garland) dreams of being swept away by the handsome and dashing pirate, Mack “the Black” Macoco.
Enter an acting troupe led by the wonderfully hammy Serafin (Gene Kelly), a hoofer dolled up with a chevron mustache and a John Barrymore wig. Serafin falls for Manuela and upon learning that she desires to be Macoco’s bride pretends to be the infamous pirate to woo her. It works, but it pisses off Don Pedro, who is, in fact, Macoco in hiding, and plots to have Serafin hanged for Macoco’s crimes.
Released in 1948, The Pirate is pure pleasure. With direction by Vincent Minnelli — his third film with wife Garland — music by Cole Porter and choreography by Kelly, The Pirate zips and sings with sure footed panache. It’s a farce, complete with cheesy sets, hammy acting and ridiculous plot twists, but the players all know what material they are working with and work wonders with its silly premise.
The movie’s show-stopping song and dance number, “Be a Clown,” which features the incomparable Nicholas Brothers, might best describe the movie’s modus operandi.
If you become a doctor, folk’s face you with dread
If you become a dentist, they’ll be glad when you’re dead
You’ll get a bigger hand if you can stand on your head
Be a clown, be a clown, be a clown.
Much like John L. Sullivan’s third act realization in Sullivan’s Travels, laughter is “all some people have. It isn’t much but it’s better than nothing.”
The Pirate has plenty of laughs — particularly when Manuela gets so furious with Serafin that she starts shrieking — plenty of color and a whole lot of clowns.