New Series! Three Fittings celebrates costume design in the movies.
We kicked off with La La Land and Allied but after a break for Oscar madness we're back with an old classic. Or perhaps this movie is better described as a notorious curio though that doesn't have the same blurb power. Regardless, Vincent Minelli's The Pirate (1948) has to be seen to be believed.
You must watch it while sober for the movie is its own pharmaceutical enhancements. I'm still having sudden flashbacks. Which is all well and good since hallucinations and fever dreams are plotted right in.
Stay with me through this elaborate but crucial plot point. When travelling actor Serafin (Gene Kelly) hypnotizes the newly-engaged Manuela (Judy Garland) he realizes that she romantically fantasizes about the infamous pirate Macoco and promptly pretends to be him...
When Manuela learns of what happened under hypnosis and realizes that Serafin does not know that she knows the truth, she ridicules the fake pirate's true profession with overemphatic comic judgment. Acting, in her estimation, is:
Her knife-twisting faux contempt is hilarious but "utterly drab" is the very last thing anyone could call these movie stars, or The Pirate (1948) itself, and especially not its costumes!
Since we love costume design too much we limit ourselves to three looks to discuss each week though it was excruciating to narrow down. I've opted for two Kellys and and a Garland. This means we have to ignore the movie's tendency to go way overboard, and we've stuffed pounds and pounds of enormous mismatched fabrics and strange accessories back into the costume chest and are focusing on three flattering designs by Tom Keogh, who strangely only worked as chief costume designer on this one movie.
While the modern internet loves Gene Kelly's butt (did people express such things out loud in the 40s and 50s?) and the various tights here show it off aplenty, the rump was hardly his only asset, pun intended. This maroon and white costume, which comes with a sexy prop whip, also ask you to consider his triangular torso: the cut broadens his shoulders and the spray of decorative lines widens his chest.
But you'll only notice that if you can pull yourself away from the tights which Judy has trouble doing. Can you blame her?
Bonus points that this particular Serafin look while attempting to pull of his "I'm the pirate Macoco" con, echoes the cut, simplicity, and color families of Manuela's atypically simple ensemble when he fell for her in the movie's early hypnosis sequence.
While Gene Kelly was not a big man at 5'7" his body was a powerhouse. And Look One and Look Two exploit it like the movie's success is riding on it. The movie flopped which just goes to show you how ungrateful audiences can be for spectacularly delicious beefcake that Hollywood (sadly) only intermittently provides.
Because 'dream ballets' are all but mandatory in Gene Kelly movies, The Pirate goes there. For those who were just hearing about 'dream ballets' for the first time via the incessant discussions surrounding La La Land, they're exactly what they sound like. Essentially dream ballets are setpieces within musicals that are free of actual songs (just dancing) and which are imagined by a character or characters and thus disconnected to the narrative, except by way of commenting on it or reflecting it back at itself.
But I digress: COSTUMES. This pirate ballet outfit is the least Gene Kelly ever wore on screen apart from blink and you'll miss it shirtlessness in Three Musketeers (1948). Designer Tom Keogh essentially put him in the 1940s versions of Daisy Dukes, with torn fabric that's giving you legs for days. Or in Kelly's case THIGH and THIGH. This is the most bare man thigh you'll see in any 40s picture outside of a Tarzan film and also the best man thighs of multiple eras in any type of picture. We co-sign this glorious blurb from George Sidney, who directed Gene Kelly in both Anchors Aweigh (1945) and The Three Musketeers:
The prettiest pair of actor’s legs in Hollywood belong to Gene Kelly. Spindle-shanks are what most other actors use for circumambulation.
That shiny medal armband, much more practical than the contemporary ringed tattoos for accentuating the biceps, appears throughout the picture -- and when it's not there there's often a striped sleeve in its place. The clothes are pulling double duty, glorifying Kelly's easily-to-glorify physique but also, you know, his pirating. "Arrrrr!"
But to wrap up, we must give the top billed star her due.
While there are no clear figures on the overall costuming budgets for The Pirate let's just say that the movie was a money pit with total production costs nearing $4 million (it was Judy's first MGM film post Wizard of Oz to flop) and the costumes were not cheap. At one point in the movie Manuela squeals about "Maison Worth, the choicest house in Paris" and at least one of the gowns was a replica.
Here's an interesting quote from an article I read on the film:
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.
$3,462 in 1948 is surely quite a lot in today's dollars. And that's just one costume from a $3 million production with dozens and dozens of elaborate gowns. This gown seems to grow substantially in beauty every 10 seconds or so and Judy wears it for a several minutes within film. What's more, for all its intricate sensuality and grand beauty, Judy wears it rather than the reverse. The fit is utter perfection but she can still move beautifully in it and it seems to highlight every beat of the great star's nimble comic work. The dress looks too beautiful and somber for such a playful film, but Judy has her funniest moments in the film while wearing it. There's the comic dressing seen in which she frantically dolls herself up in it to sacrifice herself (quite willingly!) to the man she believes is a ruthless pirate. There's the overkill of the march through town when she's trying to play up her altruistic martyrdom but is obviously totally turned on by her fate.
The coup de grace is her comic exasperation when she discovers Serafin's ruse. Suddenly the previous exquisite hand-work of veils and shawls lose all their glamour and transform into fussy extra fabric that's only getting in the way as our heroine slumps into the couch.
There's so much more to be said about The Pirate (1948) but Manuela has lost all her patience for this particular fantasy!
I've had quite enough."