A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli
It was Judy Garland’s afﬁnity for the absurd that triggered Vincent Minelli’s idea for a ﬁlm version of The Pirate, a rakish story that would employ Garland, Gene Kelly, and a very strange song composed by Cole Porter.
Excerpt (footnotes excluded) from the ‘Voodoo’ chapter of A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli by Mark Griffin (courtesy Da Capo Press, March 2010).
As Mr. and Mrs. Vincente Minnelli made the rounds of cocktail parties and dinner parties and post-premiere parties (parties were a large part of the job in Hollywood), Judy was inevitably asked to sing. In fact, a social occasion couldn’t truly be considered a success until MGM’s resident belter took her place at the piano. Judy also ranked high on every hostess’s invitation list for another reason: She was, without question, one of the wittiest women in Hollywood. In sharp contrast to the conversationally challenged Minnelli, Garland was an extraordinary raconteur who could captivate a roomful of seasoned veterans with her outlandish anecdotes or a devastating Marlene Dietrich imitation. According to Minnelli, it was Judy’s afﬁnity for the absurd that ﬁrst triggered the idea for a ﬁlm version of The Pirate.
S. N. Behrman’s comedy had opened on Broadway in 1942 starring the great theatrical couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. The plot had been lifted from the German play Der Seerauber and concerned a rakish actor masquerading as a notorious seafarer as he attempts to win the heart of the mayor’s wife. “There was nothing subtle about it,” Hilary Knight recalled of the Lunts’ version of The Pirate. “It looked like a musical, although it wasn’t one... It was all decor and style and no more successful than the movie was.”
Scenic designer Lemuel Ayres, who had worked on the theatrical version of The Pirate, suggested to Arthur Freed that Behrman’s play might make for a blockbuster screen musical. Freed, Minnelli, and Garland were all excited by the idea—Judy, especially, as the material would allow her to display her largely untapped talent for sophisticated comedy.
A musical set in the picturesque West Indies would inspire Minnelli to conjure up the kind of lush tropical paradise that he had fantasized about as a boy back in Delaware. He would go to incredible lengths to make certain that MGM’s versions of exotic nineteenth-century Calvados and neighboring Port Sebastian were painstakingly thorough in terms of period authenticity. At the same time, this would be the kind of highly stylized Freed Unit utopia where pirates in snug buccaneer briefs, cruciﬁx-sporting señoritas, and African American circus tumblers would all blissfully coexist.
With Garland in the lead, the obvious question became... Who would play the hammy actor passing himself off as the dashing pirate? “I never thought of anyone but Gene Kelly for the part of Seraﬁn,” said Minnelli, believing that Kelly’s knock ’em dead charisma and athleticism were a perfect match for the part. Like Judy, Gene was enthusiastic about the project as it would let him display another facet of his remarkable talents: “I wanted the opportunity to do a different kind of dancing, a popular style with a lot of classic form, acrobatics and athletics.” Tongue ﬁrmly planted in cheek, Kelly would also pay tribute to the screen’s legendary swashbucklers, such as the dashing Douglas Fairbanks Sr., in what would prove to be one of his best roles. With two of Metro’s brightest stars in place, Minnelli turned his attention to the script. Although the basic framework of the Lunt-Fontanne version was retained, much of the stage material would require revamping.
On Broadway, Fontanne’s Manuela was married to the oaﬁsh mayor Don Pedro Vargas while carrying on with Seraﬁn. That scenario could never be sanctioned by either the Breen Ofﬁce or Louis B. Mayer. For MGM’s adaptation, Garland’s Manuela Alva would be engaged to the mayor, and she would be less worldly and Catholicized. However, the character would retain her wide-eyed romanticism and penchant for embarking on “mental excursions,” a facet of the story that immediately appealed to Vincente. When Manuela ﬁnally abandons her repressive surroundings to join Seraﬁn’s theatrical troupe, this seemed to refer back to Minnelli’s own story: I was saved from Delaware, Ohio, by the bright lights of show business.
One writer after another (including Judy’s former ﬂame Joseph L. Mankiewicz) would take a crack at the screenplay, but none of these scripts were judged correct. Freed then turned to Anita Loos and Joseph Than, but their version of The Pirate would prove to be the most unacceptable by far. In the Loos-Than treatment, the original premise was turned upside down, with the Kelly character becoming a singing-dancing pirate pretending to be an entertainer. This would never do. It was husband-and-wife writing team Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich who came to the rescue. Within two months, they had cranked out a zesty, witty screenplay that achieved the right balance between sophisticated farce and whimsical fantasy.
In terms of the score, Freed had initially thought of Hugh Martin, who had come through with three of the ﬁnest movie songs ever written for Meet Me in St. Louis. “When I came out of the army, I was so anxious to get back to Hollywood that I didn’t go see Arthur, which was really wicked of me be¬cause he had given me the best opportunity of my life,” Martin recalls. “He said, ‘I’m really sorry you didn’t come to see me because I wanted you to write The Pirate and when I thought you were still in the army, I got Cole Porter.’ I would have loved to have done it and I felt awful. And I’ve been feeling awful for about ﬁfty years.”
Even for those only casually acquainted with the world of musical comedy, the name Cole Porter was synonymous with unmatched lyrics, sparkling wit, and the best double entendres in the business. Coming off the failure of his Broadway musical Around the World in Eighty Days, Porter was also eager to take on The Pirate. The composer admired Garland and marveled at what he described as her “prodigal voice.” However, Porter seemed to start off on the wrong foot when the ﬁrst few songs he submitted were deemed unsuitable by Freed, who sent the composer back to his piano. “Cole wasn’t happy with his contributions,” Minnelli remembered. Though the score would eventually include such lyrical acrobatics as rhyming “schizophrenia” and “neurasthenia” (in Kelly’s “Nina”) and the raucous show-business anthem “Be a Clown,” Porter prophesized correctly that the score would not yield a single commercial hit.
The long, strange, and at times torturous production of The Pirate began in February 1947. What originally seemed like a Freed Unit dream project soon morphed into the kind of nightmare that only legitimately talented people can create. On a good day, Garland would arrive promptly at 11:45 -- for an 8:00 call. On other days, she wouldn’t show up at all. For those who had worked with Judy through the years, this was almost expected. They knew that when she did appear, she would be letter perfect and have everyone breaking up between takes. But during the making of The Pirate, a number of unresolved conﬂicts and psychological torments began to overwhelm the fragile star.
Garland had recently renewed her contract with MGM and she was already having second thoughts. The idea of being locked into another ﬁve years of back-to-back ﬁlm projects, seemingly unrelenting demands, and studio politics dampened her usually exuberant spirits. With her uncanny theatrical instincts, Garland may have been the ﬁrst to realize that The Pirate, for all its stylishness and sophistication, would probably not appeal to the average moviegoer—the kind that had been thoroughly enchanted by her simple, unaffected Esther Smith in turn of the century St. Louis.
According to Minnelli, it was while shooting The Pirate that Garland “began to feel that she wasn’t functioning and turned again to the pills that had sustained her during past crises.” Almost before she realized it had happened, Judy was once again caught up in the self-destructive pattern she had valiantly tried to break free from. Now she was back on the treadmill, which meant day after day of having to be that girl up on the screen that everybody loved. There was the constant pressure of having to please studio chiefs, stockholders, producers, costars, cameramen, choreographers, and, most importantly, her ﬁercely devoted legions of fans. Through it all, America’s sweetheart was permanently switched to one setting: on. Nobody ever had as much riding on stardom as Garland did. As a toddler, it had been ingrained in Baby Gumm that her net worth was calculated by how well she had put over a number, how completely she had pleased her audiences—how much love she had managed to summon up for an hour or two.
At times, just the thought of getting out of bed (after yet another angst-ridden, sleepless night) and starting the whole process over again was debilitating. She couldn’t even face the day. “For Judy, her talent was like breathing, and I think that was also part of her great insecurity,” says Gar¬land historian John Fricke. “She’d wake up in the morning and think, ‘Oh, God... I’ve got to do it again. I don’t know how I’m doing this. How can I do it?’ She would psych herself into sheer terror about not being able to be Judy Garland.”