Pirates of Penzance, 1983
Dir: Wilford Leach (Universal)
You can thank me for Pirates of Penzance. Thank me for the long-awaited DVD release of 1983 feature film adaptation of the Joseph Papp produced revival of Gilbert and Sullivan’s finest work. I signed the online petition twice; played my Betamax dub of the original television airing until the tape warped and I couldn’t even transfer it to a new one. I almost cried when a power outage erased the HBO broadcast from my TiVo. If there is a law of attraction, I brought this DVD into the world.
Brilliantly over the top as it is, Pirates languished as an underground cult favorite because it was an epic, epically undeserved flop. Lukewarm critics compared it unfavorably to the Broadway show on which it was modeled, or complained of its self-conscious staginess. Few audiences actually got to see it in theaters, because Universal Pictures tried its clumsy hand at new technology with the film, releasing Pirates on SelectTV the day of its premiere. Theaters nationwide responded with a boycott.
But kids like me watched it again and again as they got older and older. At five, my father explained who Gilbert and Sullivan were. I pretended to sing along to the tongue twisting verses of the Major General’s song. In point of fact, I did not actually “know the kings of England, [or] quote the fights historical from Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical.” After my fourth or fifth viewing, I was able to grasp my father’s patient explanation of a paradox. Mainly I just liked the funny words. One day, flabbergasted, I discovered that the star of Pirates of Penzance, Linda Ronstadt, had a pop music career! It felt like being cheated on.
Pirates spoiled me for most future movie musicals. Having logged years in front of musicals, on stage and screen, it’s clear that no other movie ever captured the love stage actors have for their plays as Pirates did. Being raised by an ensemble that could actually sing and dance, some at the same time, made the flashy edits of Chicago and the murky overdubs of Sweeney Todd infuriating. I wasn’t the only one. Rumor has it that Pirates was the most frequently requested film at many video stores (you remember video stores?).
The film opens to an overture played over a closed curtain, not entirely unlike the curtain of the Muppet Show. Before the cast appears, Pirates demands reverence of its audience. Then, when the curtain opens, barefoot pirates carouse to Graciela Daniele’s radically modern choreography until Kevin Kline appears, and Errol Flynns himself all about the ship.
One complaint about the film was that the kinesthetic joy of Kline’s athletic swashbuckling was lost—that on film it appeared too easy for him. Too easy it is. He’s beyond good as the Pirate King, beyond what any camera can capture. The cinematic eye can only follow him awestruck by the Olympic-length parries he makes and the broad humor he captures in every gigantic movement. Kline would later be called upon frequently to play the pirate in his career (even taking a turn as Douglas Fairbanks in 1992’s Chaplin). In 1982 he had only one film credit: Sophie’s Choice. But Klein proved a born movie star, and we’re lucky to have this record of it.
The camera’s (and director Wilford Leach’s) delight at Kline is central to the enthusiastic momentum of the film. Pirates is less an attempt to adapt Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 light opera to the screen as it is a chance for Leach to playfully try out all the tricks he could never use in his Tony award-winning stage production. The result is sometimes jarring, sometimes rewarding. Rather than attempt the art school moodiness and naturalistic sophistication (all ambient noise and hand-held cameras) that were considered avant-garde in film at the time, Leach views the camera through the eye of a stage director. The action occurs primarily on a lush pastel stage set, shot with a hyper-saturation not seen since the great Vincente Minnelli Technicolor musicals of the 1950s. Harking back to old Hollywood, there are Busby Berkeley-styled shots of dramatic circles of chastely Victorian dancing maidens, and there are Vaseline lensed close-ups galore of Ronstadt mooning over her pirate love. Part an homage (the British constables are pure Keystone Kops), the choices also reflect the innocent glee and greed of a person first given a camera- thrilled to capture what they always wanted to see.
Perhaps there’s even a tiny bit of a “fuck you” to the conventions of the cinema (which had by 1983 already decimated much of American theater). In an early instance of non-traditional (color blind) casting to hit the screen, one of the pirates is black, without explanation or apology. While the women in Pirates are covered head to toe in starched layers of fabric, nary a heaving bosom in sight, the men wear leggings and shirts opened all the way down to the Bee Gees button. Romantic lead Rex Smith (a former teen idol) perpetually stands in the gale of his own wind machine. Chancing upon young women for the first time (Rex was raised on a pirate ship by Angela Lansbury and she was the only female he’d laid eyes on), the young hero hops on a rock and channels a young Elvis Presley. The constables are led by Tony Azito, a modern experimental dancer once described as “Buster Keaton injected with Silly Putty,” who wears more makeup than any of the maidens fair. Every choice eroticizes the male form in a way threatening to the status quo of Hollywood, but defiantly revered in shows like A Chorus Line.
But whatever level of revenge lurks in the production, mostly there is love. Lansbury replaced Broadway performer Estelle Parsons in the role of Ruth, the fantastically manipulative governess who accidentally apprentices her charge to a gang of pirates. In 1980, when the show opened on Broadway, she was a sensation in Sweeney Todd, and unavailable for the role. Lansbury is always the first choice, no matter how good Parsons was. It makes the case for providence that Lansbury’s schedule opened up in time for her to make the film before she began shooting Murder, She Wrote. For all we know, Leach made the movie just to get a chance to work with her. Watching Lansbury is reason enough to buy the DVD. Lansbury plays Ruth like a reporter on the Daily Show, loud as hell and completely unaware of her own absurdity. Other venerable theater actors are caught at full strength as well. George Rose plays the silly-patter icon Major General Stanley in what would tragically be the actor’s last film appearance.
The film’s balance of tradition and innovation lies at the heart of Gilbert and Sullivan too. Satirical light opera had a long history by the 19th century, and composer Arthur Sullivan often lifted from and played with the popular tunes of the day. Lyricist W.S. Gilbert used conventional long-standing stock characters to create his deadpan political absurdist humor. Linda Ronstadt, who was nominated for a Tony award for her Broadway performance, tried to parlay the experience into an opera career, swinging orangutan-like from low to highbrow. Watching her showboat her coloratura soprano for the duration of the film demonstrates she’s qualified for the career change. Back then, pop stars moved to the theater to prove their own bonafides, and Ronstadt’s success may be to blame for the conveyer belt of stars doing tepid, three-month runs on Broadway nowadays. But three months isn’t long enough to midwife a classic. Pirates delivers so much nuance within its chaotic story because (with the exception of Lansbury, who’s a jobber who can do anything, anytime) the actors had lived in their parts for years. Kline is the Pirate King; no method acting required.
Part of me wants to lament the pity that the film wasn’t more popular upon its release, but perhaps it’s better suited for home (i.e. repeated) viewing. After watching the DVD, I’m walking around, again, quoting line upon line that I had missed, or forgotten. They delight me anew. I’m dazzled again by the set design that makes Willy Wonka’s factory look like a Club Monaco. And I’m looking forward to what I’ll see when I watch it again next week.
Sarahjane Blum travels to the beat of a different drum.