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Three Fittings: Haute Couture Hallucinations in "The Pirate"

New Series! Three Fittings celebrates costume design in the movies.

The whitest Caribbean ladies of all time! And why is Judy wearing a kilt balled up on her head?

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!

Gene Kelly and the Nicholas Brothers because vaudeville is soooo Caribbean Islands in the 1830s

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. 

Judy, his eyes are up there!Look One
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.


Look Two
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.

Look Three.
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."


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Reader Comments (8)

Gene Kelly in those shorts must have inspired some interesting dreams

March 9, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterjaragon

This is such a strange all over the place film that is a minor masterpiece of weirdness with much entertainment value looking at it today but I can see audiences of the day walking out saying "What the HELL was that?"

The costumes are amazing, Judy's dress would cost about 36,000 to make now. So I can see how the budget escalated with each exotic creation. Add into that the fact that Judy was in rough shape during the filming adding delays and no wonder it was a money pit.

Still Gene's wild ballet alone is worth watching the film for but there is much more to it.

March 10, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Oh man, those legs on Gene Kelly. Who needs costumes...

March 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Every time I see this movie I feel like a reel is missing, or I'm watching some strangely edited version of what they must have intended. This couldn't be the actual movie right?

I would never dare to wear anything approaching that Gene Kelly pirate costume, even in my heyday, but I would wear that white shirt with the stripes on it today. In fact, someone needs to make a version of it ASAP.

PS Judy was dressed so poorly in her later non MGM movies. It's nice to see her getting the full star treatment here.

March 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Hollywood

Vincente Minelli always made Judy look great and obviously it must have been his idea to get Gene into those shorts

March 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Jaragon -- he really did! I understand why they divorced of course but it's kind of shocking to know that this movie was the beginning of Judy's end (because she was such a mess on it, nervous breakdown, and it lost money) because you'd never know it from what's onscreen because she's so confident and enchanting and beautiful in it. I love her stretch with Minnelli with all of me.

March 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Thank you for sharing such nice information

Firstly, let's get one fact straight: The Pirate was not a flop and it didn't lose money. The problem is that it was so sophisticated that it was a hit only with audiences on the coasts. When it hit the MidWest, no one understood it, and it was a flop THERE.
Secondly, the film is a Farce, very much like any Moliere farce, and it is intended to be "over the top". Kelly and Garland--and the entire supporting cast, for that matter--give two of the greatest comic performances ever put on film.
Thirdly, the clashing costumes on Garland at the beginning of the film were done on purpose to highlight how "out of place" her character felt until she meets Serafin. As she begins to come into her sexual awakening during her Mack the Black number, her costume is a simple white blouse with that red skirt with the dramatic black lacy scarf tied around her waist. Then when she is "sacraficed" to Macoco (approaching her transformation from innocent bride-in-white to the more sophisticated and mature woman who finds out the truth about Serafin/Macoco (the truth being that she has fallen in love)) she is dressed in the elegant and sophisticated brown dress. When she finally saves Serafin from death and claims her love for all to see, she is dressed in toned down red in an even less elaborate, but more sophisticated red dress.
Fourthly, Kelly's costume in the Nina dance may cover up those gorgeous thighs revealed in the Pirate ballet, but the costume is skin tight and shows off those spectacular glutes more than the short pirate cutoffs because the Nina dance is far more sensual and sexual than the Priate ballet, which Kelly dances as the "dangerous fantasy" that is the less sophisticated Manuela's libidinous, but adolescent, imaginary deflowerer. As Jeanine Basinger wrote in her bio of Kelly, Gene Kelly was the deflowerer-in-chief in those musicals of the 1940s.
The costumes were well thought out, and they reveal the growing awareness of each of the lovers. The very last scene, the two have become so intimate with one another, so comfortable in their love for one another, that they relinquish all pretense and dress as silly clowns.
The Priate remains to this day one of the most misunderstood, misinterpreted, most controversial films ever made. It was so far ahead of its time that three-quarters-of-a=century after its release, it still goes over the head of many people. But it has found its rightful place as one of the most important films to come out of the 1940s, and is considered by many the greatest musical of all. Singin' in the Rain is accessible to all, but The Pirate demands a quite a lot of its audience.

June 17, 2018 | Unregistered Commentertally.reed

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