Manuela (Judy Garland) loves to rhapsodise about what she considers the most dashing pirate on the high seas, Macocco, a buccaneer who would pillage adventurously but also sweep her off her feet: she is most taken with the idea that this brawny outlaw could swoop down at any moment and escort her away to his ship and countless exploits as the boldest of the bold. Her friends are less convinced, but it matters not really for Manuela is stuck with an engagement to the Mayor (Walter Slezak), being an orphan whose aunt and uncle wish to be off their hands from now on, mostly because his financial reserves will pay off their debts. But what if there was someone else on the horizon, someone who actually could fulfil her dreams?
The Pirate was not much of a hit when it was first released, but has since gone on to be a cult movie thanks to the fans of Judy Garland and their fascination with her combination of boundless talent and emotional fragility, which was no more apparent than during the making of this. So paranoid was Judy that she missed more working days through her illness than she was able to make to the set, leaving her husband Vincente Minnelli to try and wrestle a movie out of the material when his leading lady was absent for most of the time, and that well-known vulnerability was unavoidably put across in her performance - little wonder they never made another movie together.
As for her co-star Gene Kelly, he had worked with her before on his debut For Me and My Gal, and they made a bright screen couple though in this case as if overcompensating for his troubled co-star he tended to overdo the charm offensive, tipping the scale a little too far into the realms of the overbearing. Then there was the Cole Porter score, which few would agree featured his best songs and is now best recalled for Be a Clown, which was ripped off for the Make 'Em Laugh number in Kelly's Singin' in the Rain - so good is this tune that it is repeated for the finale. On its initial play, Kelly danced with the legendary Nicholas Brothers on his own insistence, and if they are not as athletic as they could be in their other appearances, they remained impressive.
Not least because it was the first time the black brothers had danced with a white performer, a groundbreaking move which sadly backfired when the sequence, really the best in the movie as far as dancing went, was cut out in the more racially sensitive (i.e. bigoted) screenings, another reason The Pirate suffered a poor reception with contemporary audiences. So with all that and more against it, you would expect it to be forgotten yet it is not, and that could be down to the combination of star wattage and a theme of fantasy over reality which has appeal lasting for decades. Manuela is not lost in her reveries, as she is all too aware that the real world is full of disappointments in comparison, so is resigned to her upcoming nuptials with the Mayor.
Though we know, and she probably is well aware of it too, that he is all wrong for her and when the strolling players wander into the seaside village led by Kelly's Serafin, a man with an eye for the ladies, we can tell someone ideal for her has just shown up. That said, the path to true love never ran smooth and so forth, so after a spot of hypnosis Manuela reveals her heart's desire and Serafin adopts the persona of Mococca, leaving us in the kind of dippy plot which drives some people up the wall while enchanting others. The spanner in the works is the presence of the genuine Macocco, which develops into a case of wilful mistaken identity as Serafin's try at pretending to be the pirate sees him in danger of losing his life. If nothing else, this comes across as a dry run for the brightly coloured, richly textured Arthur Freed productions to come which for many represented the apex of the Hollywood musical, but on its own with its artificial sets and artificial just about everything else, including the motifs, for most this will be a case of nice try, but we knew you could do better.