The Pirate (Photo: Mubi.com)

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Vincente Minnelli’s famous musicals—among them Meet Me In St. Louis and An American In Paris—tend to eclipse his 1948 Technicolor flop The Pirate, one of his richest and strangest works. One of his kinkiest, too. Minnelli himself considered it a surrealist film. Judy Garland, to whom he was married at the time, plays Manuela, a virginal orphan who has been arranged to marry the middle-aged Don Pedro (Walter Slezak) but fantasizes about being kidnapped and ravished by the legendary murderous pirate Macoco. Gene Kelly plays Serafin, a horny, vain actor who gets the hots for Manuela, learns of her unladylike desires by way of a hypnosis-induced song-and-dance number, and proceeds to masquerade as the infamous criminal by blackmailing Don Pedro, whom he recognizes as the real Macoco. That’s the bare-bones version of the plot, in which the question of who is performing what role for whom fluctuates from scene to scene. Let’s say Manuela catches on before long; that her attraction to Serafin, based on his ability to perform the role of the swashbuckling killer, is directly contrasted with her dislike of the sweaty-palmed, overbearing Don Pedro; and that the plot itself is resolved by Manuela taking control of a climactic scene by playing the role of a helpless victim.

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Screenshots: The Pirate

I hadn’t seen The Pirate in about a decade when I braved some cold and ugly rain to catch a 35-mm screening of the movie on Wednesday night, organized by the invaluable Chicago-area film guide Cine-File for its 10th birthday. (I was part of its original group of writers.) It’s always remarkable how classic American studio films could make a subject of sex while almost never acknowledging its existence—though The Pirate nearly steps over the line into outright smut in its most notorious number, an infernal, balletic fantasy sequence (inspired, in a surreal touch, by the sight of a white donkey) in which Kelly prances around in short-shorts, surrounded by fireballs, faceless maidens, and a growing pile of dead bodies. Here, in this urbane, late-’40s MGM musical with songs by Cole Porter, one finds a sophisticated statement on the difference between erotic fantasy and sexual violence. To put it in cruder terms: Just because Manuela gets off on the idea of screwing a pirate (read: rapist) doesn’t mean she wants the real thing. The theme of fantasy-as-agency fits an aesthete like Minnelli, but it remains a challenging idea. When Serafin plays the role of Macoco, Manuela, as the audience, has the reins.