Everyone has a movie, maybe more than one, to which they are inexplicably attached. This movie probably isn’t good – not by a critical standard, anyway – but you love it without embarrassment. It does something for you, and you don’t know what, but you know it makes you feel like the world is a little bigger and maybe less tragic and more forgiving than it seems to be. where you stand. Most important: it brings you joy.
That movie, to me, is 1948’s The Pirate, a less famous Judy Garland film that still manages to show everything she’s about – everything she means to us – beautifully. Most of the stuff about it – the garish Technicolor, the limiting sets, the hats, the makeup – is ugly and off-putting, and even the song and dance numbers to which a by this point totally uninspired Cole Porter lent his talents are disappointing. (At one point, Porter rhymes “neurasthenia” with “schizophrenia.”) And yet it gets to the heart of something.
It’s a musical about what it’s like to be a weird girl in a universe that denies girls the power of sexual fantasy. It’s more than that, actually: it’s about that problem that leaps out of the private mind and into the mortifying and embarrassing realm of the public. And yet, for a movie about a kink, it’s oddly unashamed. It’s the rare Hollywood musical that sides with perversion in favor of a more traditional future for its heroine.
Originally written as a Lunt-Fontanne vehicle for the stage, the story is set in the golden age of piracy, where we meet Manuela, an upper-class girl living in the Caribbean. It is the day before her arranged marriage with the wealthy mayor of her town, Don Pedro, whom she has just seen for the first time. It doesn’t matter that Don Pedro is played by a truly unattractive Walter Slezak, because Manuela’s heart belongs to another man she’s never seen: the legendary pirate known only as Mack “The Black” Macoco, who goes looting, presumably looting and raping women at will.
The thought of this makes Manuela extremely hot, although she knows enough to be ashamed. “I realize that there is a practical world and a dream world,” she told her aunt very early on. “I will not confuse them.”
She doesn’t have to, because the world has other plans for Manuela. She convinces her aunt to take her to a port town so she can watch the sea before settling into a depressing life of never leaving home. Once there, she is beset by a group of traveling actors, foremost among them Serafin (Gene Kelly). you have ever seen in your life.
Here I have to mention that this is a movie about Gene Kelly’s butt. Most Gene Kelly movies talk about this at least a bit, but when you combine its effect with Manuela’s pro-kink developmental journey, it becomes a weirdly erotic movie where the weird but compelling sexual dynamic between its leads is fully realized. exposed. It’s an added treat that both of these leads are secret homosexuals, though neither of them were understood that way in 1948.
It’s no surprise that this musical – with the brilliance of 1955 Men prefer blondes-is part of “Queersighted”, Criterion Channel’s Pride Month spotlights queer-encoded musicals. Obviously, for me, everything is coded queer. But there’s something a little different about The pirate, something that makes it undeniably clear just how much gay people love about Gene Kelly and Judy Garland. When Serafin corners Manuela and hypnotizes her for an audience as part of his act, he asks her to unlock the secret of his true love, the thing that, if known, could derail his beautiful, socially acceptable life. In this hypnotized state, she tells him – and the crowd – that she loves pirate Mack “The Black” Macoco. He does things for her. “One day it will swoop down like a chicken hawk and take me away,” she said, her eyes wide. “And I will make his offer.”
She then launches into a song about the pirate she’s dedicated her entire spanking bank to, calling him “Macoco the Fabulous” and letting his hair down in cascading red waves, becoming the artist we recognize. This is Judy Garland’s number, in which the great performer leaves the role she plays to show us Judy with a capital J. If you’ve seen a single Judy Garland movie, you know that moment well: it’s when the uniformed expression of the male background dancers goes from boredom to total ecstasy. They cannot help themselves. It’s like saying: Judy is here, and bitch, we’re all here to see Judy. They crowd around her as she sings Macoco:
“Every night he had a date
The ladies fall apart
More pieces of eight.
She is in love with the fantasy of the pirate’s power over women, over society, over social rules themselves. But above all, she likes him to be cruel. A little later we see a bizarre number involving a seated donkey that becomes the centerpiece of an extended dance take by Gene Kelly: he walks around the donkey with a whip in his hand, and the animal, in a quick fade, becomes Judy Garland wearing bunny ears. Her leather daddy fantasy comes to life: Kelly is now in short shorts surrounded by equally hot male dancers. He cuts off the first of his bunny ears, then the other. He screams and flies through the air, and the fantasy ends.
This is possibly one of the most evil things I’ve ever seen from this era, and I’ve seen Ecstasy.
To be clear, Hollywood is often evil, but always on the fringes, and usually to emphasize certain essentialist ideas of the genre on its romantic leads (“she’s stubborn so she needs a spanking”, etc.) But there are few movies that take the time and interest to celebrate a girl’s less wholesome love obsessions, unless it’s to point them out as “dumb” or immature. Many movies deal long and hard with the erotic inner life of men (The Seven Year Itch, Married Man’s Guide, and the James Bond franchise spring to mind.) Here, however – which is important, because it’s about Judy Garland, a leading woman with a man’s box office appeal. prominent – we can step into his fantasy without it being threatening. He can be heard talking about wanting to get swept away and abused by a pirate in short shorts, because it makes so much sense. This is Judy-of Classes she dreams of that kind of gay S&M fantasy. She doesn’t fantasize like other straight women, who in 1948 were still trained to want a life with Walter Slezak as the matron of a large estate in the middle of town. Judy Garland has always lacked incredible subversion: in almost every film, she seeks to be a star first and a wife second. She seeks to make her life bigger, not smaller. And sex, especially kinky sex, is one of them.
It’s an aspect of queer coding that viewers have attributed to the character of Garland since the days of Parker Tyler: In her films, Garland has always wanted men As a man, with the complexity and fervor reserved for men at that time. She desires men with voracity, desperation, an eye for male beauty that doesn’t seem quite appropriate for a cis woman, who usually just goes out with trash bags. Perhaps it’s the little extra agency allowed Garland in her choice of roles, in her inability to play a character without the extra zest and agonizing pain of knowing exactly What she wants. She could never be one of those great ladies who float around, her main purpose being simply to be desired by men. It’s Garland who wants, who must have. Who wills with a greatness that cannot be denied, bottled up, or ignored. “Beneath that primitive exterior there are depths of hidden emotion, a romantic longing,” Seraphin tells Manuela: he can see it so clearly, and so can we. She is the one who dares to take a look at Gene Kelly’s extraordinary ass in leggings, short shorts, cut off shorts. It is she who decides in their relationship. She’s even gay enough to see a sort of comedy in her dilemma: the exquisite torture of loving an obnoxious twink. We’ve all been there: Judy made her career there.
The plot unravels as easily as it began: after Seraphin discovers that Manuela’s fiancé, Don Pedro, is actually Mack “The Black” Macoco, long retired and now settled under the guise of respectability, Seraphin pretends to be Macoco to win Manuela’s affection. , knowing that the real Macoco will not dare expose himself (and be condemned to death) to correct this false impression. Don Pedro calls the police and almost has Seraphin executed: before Manuela intervenes, pretending to be hypnotized again, and sings a romantic ballad to Seraphin, causing Don Pedro to impersonate the legendary pirate out of jealousy. He is arrested, Manuela joins Seraphin on the road, and they become the most gay of romantic units: the double act.
Again: is it a good movie? No. It transcends petty categorizations of “good” and “bad.” Do I love him ? Obsessively. There’s something here that makes minds fly, even though nothing about it should or really works. There are a lot of movies like this from that era – movies that don’t care about fleshing out a real plot or having things that have narrative meaning or even showcasing actors in their best light, but which, by glorious error, bring certain on-screen characters to us in their essence. Unfiltered, unmixed, full of the flaws and weirdness we always love them for, never despite.