Voodoo Burned Scandelously Hot
With Judy appearing more frequently on her analyst’s couch than before the cameras, Minnelli turned to Garland’s robust costar for both personal and professional support. Remembering Judy’s generosity and kindness to him when he made his ﬁrst ﬁlm (For Me and My Gal) with her, Gene Kelly was willing to do anything to help. He even played sick for a week to give Garland additional time to pull herself together.
The intimate collaboration between Kelly and Minnelli may have been so creatively harmonious because it was a meeting of polar opposites: the effete, mild-mannered director teamed with an athletic, hyper-masculine daredevil. Oftentimes their creative thinking went in completely different directions, and yet a combination of their ideas could produce stunning results. During Garland’s extended absence, Kelly’s role in the ﬁlm may have been beefed up so that the company would have something to shoot. When Judy did return, she thought she noticed some signiﬁcant changes. Didn’t it seem like Minnelli’s camera set-ups favored her costar? What’s more, Gene’s lighting was better, his costumes were sexier, and his close-ups far outnumbered her own. It wasn’t long before Judy accused Vincente of having an affair with Gene.
“Judy, in her paranoia, became jealous of the time Gene and I were spending together,” Minnelli would politely put it years later. As Garland biographer Christopher Finch noted, “Some hint of Judy’s mental state at the time can be found in the fact that she became irrationally jealous… going so far as to interrupt one work session with a violent scene, accusing [Minnelli and Kelly] of using the picture to advance themselves at her expense.”
In his autobiography, Minnelli cautiously recounts this whole episode, only obliquely referring to Judy’s “damning accusation.” Nearly thirty years after the fact, Vincente diplomatically defended his relationship with Kelly by explaining that it was all strictly business: “We’d been so concerned with getting the choreography right, that we excluded [Garland] from our discussions. I felt it wasn’t necessary for Judy to have to deal with such problems, but she felt neglected.” Although Minnelli is careful to never name the speciﬁc accusation that his wife leveled at him, one didn’t have to be Hedda or Louella to guess that in Judy’s eyes, Vincente had been doing entirely too much choreographing.
In the midst of all this behind-the-scenes intrigue, Minnelli received word that his father had died in Florida at the age of eighty-four. Vincente arranged a brief leave and attended the funeral in St. Petersburg alone. Upon his return to MGM, production of The Pirate (already countless days over schedule) resumed with the mounting of the most elaborate sequences in the picture.
Cole Porter had written a cryptic yet haunting dirge entitled “Voodoo” that included nonsensical lyrics such as “Voodoo, whisper low from above… Voodoo, what’s this mystery called love?” Although one of the weakest links in a score that was hardly Porter’s best work to begin with, “Voodoo” was called into service as the ﬁlm’s musical centerpiece, forming the basis for the inevitable Minnelli excursion into the surreal. After being hypnotized by Kelly, Garland’s demure Manuela sheds her inhibitions and suddenly reveals all of the repressed longings and erotic passions buried in the depths of her subconscious. Or, as John Fricke puts it: “Kelly sees Judy not only lasciviously but as if he were Sid Luft in training. You know, with a kind of hungry look that says ‘This is somebody who can make me a lot of money.’”
There was no end of problems with “Voodoo.” To begin with, Kay Thompson’s eerie, atonal arrangement of the song was genuinely unnerving. And the choreography by Gene Kelly and Robert Alton really pushed the envelope for an MGM musical. “We were doing a little bit of over-groping,” Gene Kelly remembered. “It was a sensual and sensuous sequence—both words are applicable.” The number was so hot, in fact, that only a god-fearing, ﬂag-waving, mother-loving studio mogul could put out the ﬁre. As John Fricke notes:
Halfway through the ﬁlming of the “Voodoo” number, Ida Koverman breaks into a board of directors meeting and drags Louis B. Mayer out and says, “You’ve got to see the rushes of the number that Garland and Kelly did yesterday.” Louis B. Mayer took one look and said, “Burn the negative! If that gets on any screen we’ll be raided by the police!” After Mayer called Gene on the carpet, they toned down the staging for “Voodoo” and the number was still in the ﬁlm when it went to preview.
When it came time to shoot the sanitized version of “Voodoo,” Vincente encountered another problem. Garland appeared on the set overmedicated, wild-eyed, and extremely agitated. After getting a look at a small ﬁre that was being prepared for the number, Judy screamed, “Somebody help me! They’re going to burn me to death!” Approaching the assembled extras, she began asking each one, “Do you have some Benzedrine?” Dissolving into hysterical sobs, Garland was carried off the set as the cast and crew looked on in stunned disbelief. When the number was reattempted several days later, Judy was once again in full command.
After The Pirate was previewed in October and November 1947, Minnelli bowed to studio pressure to shorten the ﬁlm to MGM’s preferred running time of one hour and forty-two minutes. There was also a concerted effort to recut the picture with an eye toward making it more palatable to main¬stream audiences. During this editorial overhaul, “Voodoo” was deleted, as was a portion of Kelly’s stirring “Pirate Ballet.” Retakes were ordered, and these were completed in November and December. Garland’s “Mack the Black” was restaged and presented in a more up-tempo rendition. The number became one of the most scintillating moments in the ﬁnished ﬁlm.
©Da Capo Press, 2010