The Pirate (1948) w/ Judy Garland [A CMBA Nominated-Post]

An actor pretends to be a pirate to slake a woman's thirst for adventure. Then the real pirate makes his presence known.

Gene Kelly is Serafin, the traveling performer who comes to a tiny town on a Caribbean island. He instantly likes a random woman named Manuela (Judy Garland). Serafin discovers her interest in travel,  an interest which she excitedly associates with the dread pirate Macoco.

Serafin pretends to be Macoco to woo the woman. Complications ensue as Manuela's fiance (Walter Slezak), the mayor, seeks to rid his town of this thieving vagabond. To complicate matters further, the real Macoco is in town.


Many films are remakes of popular Broadway plays. The Pirate is no exception. According to the Internet Broadway Database, this comedy ran for 177 performances, starting on November 25, 1942 at the Martin Beck Theatre. It starred famed husband and wife team Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

The filmed version is somewhat similar, only the rough edges were smoothed over for the production code. In the play, Manuela is already married. Running off with a pirate under those circumstances wouldn't get past the film censors. In the film, Manuela is engaged to a much older and cruder man, meaning Serafin thinks he is saving her from a fate worse than death before it's too late. Somehow, this was more palatable to the decency league.

According to Hugh Fordin (author of MGM's Greatest Musicals: Arthur Freed Unit), Joseph Than and Anita Loos were hired to adapt the screenplay. They came up with reversing the central idea. Instead of the actor playing a pirate, the pirate should play an actor. Producer Arthur Freed found this unacceptable as the pirate wouldn't be convincing as an actor. He instead hired husband-and-wife writing team Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich to finish the adaptation.

Cole Porter was called in to turn the straight play into a musical for the film. He served up such hits as "Be a Clown" and "Mack the Black." According to Billboard Magazine, songs for the film were rushed out for purchase on albums in the spring before the movie was released in the summer of 1948. They were quite popular fare.


American ex-patriot in Paris, Tom Keogh, designed Judy Garland's wardrobe; costumier Madame Barbara Karinska executed the designs.The Parisian influences in Garland's garments are throughout the film, which is perfect for her character of Manuela.

Manuela dreams of visiting the city of lights. She practically squeals when she discovers her trousseau is made "by Maison Worth - the choicest house in Paris." It's anachronistic as the movie is set about 30 years before that fashion house was created. However, the idea is there, that Manuela cannot get off the island and go to France, but France would met her in her clothes.
According to Fordin, Keogh created a replica of a Worth gown for Judy costing $3,462.23.  Keogh doesn't say which gown it is, but one guesses it could be the chocolate satin dress with intricate beading and multiple petticoats and a veil that Manuela chooses to wear during her "funeral march" through the streets. She plans to sacrifice herself (with great excitement and anticipation) to the dread pirate Macoco in order to save her town from his wrath.

Keogh mentions the wedding gown as well, which cost $3,313.12. It is "a white satin wedding dress, with handmade antique lace from France and embroidered with a thousand pearls," says the designer.

Even before Manuela receives her trousseau, the designer gives her a hint of Paris. Manuela's first costume is a copy of a 19th century Charles Philipon painting of a Parisian hat maker in a red plaid tam-o-shanter, yellow print dress with puffed sleeves, crucifix and black apron.

Judy Garland dressed as Charles Philipon's painting of the hat maker

(Read the story of how Java's Journey discovered this painting/costume connection here: At Last! The Artist Who Inspired Judy Garland's First Costume in The Pirate.)

There is no explanation in the film as to why Manuela wears a copy of the hatmaker's outfit; it's just an extravagant reference to 19th century Paris.

The excess doesn't end there. All embroidery for each of the female costumes was done by hand; each female wears yards of skirts. According to Fordin, $141,595.30  of the $3 million dollar budget was spent on wardrobe alone.


You have Broadway pedigree, witty songs by Cole Porter, the acting talents and fame of Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, you have glorious Technicolor, an amazing MGM musical and detailed costumes. What's not to love? Why do people call it a flop?

The problem is not poor content. Part of the problem is overproduction. According to Fordin, the budget for The Pirate was about $3,000,000; they overspent by more than half a million.

Had they stayed around their original budget, they might have broken even, but with the half million more, the filmmakers gave themselves quite the hurdle to surmount to make a profit.

About the film, director Vincente Minnelli stated, "I was very pleased [with] the way the film turned out. Judy gave one of her best performances and the Cole Porter songs were excellent. Unfortunately, the merchandising on the film was bad, and it failed to go over when it was released."

They made millions of dollars at a time when the average movie ticket was $0.36. Unfortunately, the filmmakers had given themselves too much of a hole to dig out of with this production. It just wasn't enough.

Even though the filmmakers  didn't see a return on the investment at the time, the inestimable talent, the attention to detail, the fine performances are what make The Pirate  a  film worth watching.

Have you seen The Pirate? What did you think of it?
Update 09/2016
This post is nominated for the 2016 Classic Movie Blog Association Awards for BEST FILM REVIEW (MUSICAL OR COMEDY).


  1. Gorgeous and witty, spectacular performances from some of the best character actors in Hollywood (Glades Cooper, Regina Owens eg.) and....the Nicholas Brothers!I watch it everytime it's on. Certainly one of the finest bespoke Hollywood musicals.

  2. This was the first Judy Garland movie I saw in the theater, in about 1975, while in HS. Loved it then, and love it still. I am mystified why it is not thought of more highly.


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