Dancing Pirate (1936)
What we have for you today is a classic old RKO musical from 1936, full of dancing and singing and whimsy and...and, ah, you know what? Screw it, you don't really want to read a 3,000 word review of a crappy, nearly-forgotten musical from Roosevelt's second term, do you? And if you do, then, you know, really?
You do? Seriously? You know it's pre-code, right? That means no boobs, no exploding helicopters, no cussing, no drugs, no rock 'n' roll, none of the fun stuff, understand? And no color, either, despite all that hype about how this was filmed in Technicolor, any prints still existing have been washed out to various shades of gray. Did I mention no boobies? Still want to do this?
Ok, but don't say I didn't warn you.
We open in Boston in 1820 and meet our film's hero, overly chipper dancing instructor Jonathan Pride. As this is a movie from 1936, imagining what was sexy in 1820, it's no surprise that Jonathan is a super skinny dude with greasy curly hair, a pencil thin John Waters mustache, hipster sideburns, and Dorothy Gale one-strap dancing slippers.
Jonathan is teaching that newfangled European waltz to uptight Bostonian socialites, but they are aghast when he tells the men to put their hands on their partners' waists during the dance. As far as these staunchly conservative Puritans are concerned, he might as well have suggested an underage interracial orgy. I suppose I could cry foul at this oft-repeated assumption that people in the Olde Timey 1800s were too prim and proper to have sex, seeing as how figures on teenage pregnancy rates and births-per-woman were pretty astronomical back then (that's where babies come from...). Of course, corresponding rates for maternal and infant mortality were simply appalling, and did you know that life expectancy was just 36 on the US East Coast in 1800, can you believe that?
I'm guessing that pimp daddy in the middle there "put his hand on the waist of a girl" a few times, amiright?
Anyway, to get us in the mood, they have Jonathan do a little Fred Astaire-ish sorta tap dancy thingie for us. He's got some moves, I'll admit, and he's sure light on his feet, but he's just so scrawny that he looks like an 11-year old girl at cheerleader camp. As he leaves his studio, Jonathon makes a really big deal about having to return his aunt's umbrella. Remember the umbrella, ok?
He dances with chandeliers.
On his way to his aunt's, however, he's Shanghaied by pirate recruiters, who have surely marked him as easy fodder in his dandy tophat and frock coat. This should tell you that the pirate life wasn't as glamorous as Errol Flynn might have inferred if they had to kidnap crewmen from commercial ports. Months later, Jonathan's an unwilling and cowed cabin boy/powder monkey on some pirate ship in the Pacific. He still looks pretty good, though, hair still permed nicely, teeth still pearly, skin clear, he's even been shaving regularly. Befitting his label as the "dancing pirate", he's taken to wearing scarfed stripped shirts and nut-hugging pants.
He's not well liked.
Ah, pirates, the scourge of the open seas. What do I know of pirates? Well, I suspect I know as much as your average middle-class white American, which falls into three categories:
1) Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team.
2) The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
3) Somalia circa today.
To break that down further, on point one I know that the Pirates suck (again) and will always suck (forever) because they are a small-market team in a football town. And their uniforms from the 1970s were awesome.
Oh yeah, baby.
On point two, I strongly believe that the PotC franchise did a remarkably good job of showing what pirates actually looked (and smelled) like. Watch those movies again, seriously, other than the pretty-boy leads, all the "background pirates" look like real pirates; filthy, diseased, toothless, furry, and ultra violent.
And as for point three, all I can say about the piracy issue in Somalia is that anytime a couple of teenagers in a 12-foot motorboat with a rusty AK-47 can end up banking a $3millon dollar ransom for a week's worth of negotiations with some foreign containership company, then I am definitely in the wrong line of work.
This guy is a millionaire, are you?
Oh, and I'd like to think that all girl pirates look like this...
Shiver my timber, indeed!
Anyway, we're off the coast of Southern California now, as a neat hand-drawn animated map shows us. Cali was not a state until 1846, remember, it was still Mexican territory, and there were just a few pirates operating in these waters (mostly because there was little to steal). As to why they set this movie in Southern California, with all its palm trees and sandy beaches and pretty girls, I think that's fairly obvious.
Arrrgg, beware the Cape Horn winds, me ladie.
A local shepherd sees the pirate ship anchored offshore and alerts the residents of an old Spanish-era colonial coastal town named Las Palomas. The adobe-and-chicken town is full of old wrinkly Italians with fake Spanish accents, old wrinkly Italians with fake American Indian accents, and a surprising amount of young, athletic 20-year olds who look like studio dancers (with fake Spanish accents). And, oddly, the town's plaza seems to be a large wooden dancing platform, as if they were just waiting for an excuse to have a town-wide clogging contest or hoping a traveling troupe of fly b-bop boy band dancers would ride through one day.
It's LA, 190 years ago.
They go to get the Mayor, a doddering old white guy with a stuttering, fancy fake English accent who comes across as the very model of modern major general. He's by far the most interesting character in this film, if for no other reason than he's the only one who seems to be enjoying himself.
With the Mayor is Serafina, his hot young daughter and our film's romantic lead. She's played by some black-haired, fine-featured Slavic European chick who only slightly looks Hispanic. Surely there were any number of Latina singer/actresses working in Hollywood in 1936, couldn't they at least try and cast some authentic color? Was Gloria Estefan not available?
Jonathan escapes the pirate ship to shore, incredibly still with his aunt's umbrella and his crank music box, and wanders inland looking for refuge. At the sight of the boat, the townspeople flip out and load up their muskets and hide the women. In a rather cute bit, the Mayor finds a wee-little kitten inside the barrel of a cannon. I can only imagine what they had to do to get that cat in that cannon...
If they had a battery of KelbyGuns at the Alamo, it would have been a different story, by gum!
To a cribbed instrumental version of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (seriously), Jonathan wanders into town and is greeted by a hurricane of gunfire by the clueless residents who are sure he's a pirate despite his capri pants and fancy silk scarf. His dancing skill allows him to bend, Neo-like, around the bullets and escape to hide in, of all places, Serafina's room. They squabble, they fight, she calls him a dirty pirate and he calls her a nut job, but their eyes twinkle nonetheless. Not exactly a meet-cute, but in the end it'll work out. He's then captured by the townspeople.
If I had a nickel for every time I climbed through a window at night to meet a random girl and she threatened to stab herself if I didn't leave...
At the gallows Jonathan is seconds away from death when Serafina comes to stop it as she has learned he's a "dancing master". To prove he's a dancing pirate, Jonathan does a pretty good tap-jig to a mariachi band and I can say that this is the first time I've ever seen a bound man in a hangman's noose tap-dancing to a flamenco guitar. The men want to go ahead and hang him, but the women, swoony over his slick moves, want to save him so he can teach them the Austrian waltz.
so Jonathan teaches Serafina to waltz in the European style, which, he says, requires that you "Approach it with a degree of abandon." That's going to be my new life motto, btw. He crosses the line, however, when he tries to slip his arm around Serafina's waist during the dance, which prompts her to slap him and the townsfolk to haul him away in chains again. So, innocently touching a girl in a non-sexual way will get you hung in California in 1820? Man, how things have changed, apparently there weren't a lot of Swedish massage parlors in SoCal back then...
Cut off his hands, the foul pervert! And you, woman, stop enjoying yourself, physical contact is a sin!
In jail, he writes a letter to his aunt, lamenting that he can't return her umbrella in a timely manner (that umbrella just won't go away). Serafina realizes, by dancing with her maid, that he wasn't copping a feel after all. She gets him out of jail and they dance the forbidden waltz in the darkened courtyard to the accompaniment of a tinny string quartet. There's some real chemistry here, I have to admit, though from the looks of the townspeople Serafina has had to pick from (woof), the rail-thin, Elway-toothed Jonathan might as well be Brad Pitt circa 1996.
In their Sunday best.
He sings her a song and they sway in a beautiful waltz and then suddenly the entire town bursts into a choreographed dance routine behind them! Everyone has matching outfits and everything, it's like they were all waiting and practicing every day for this one special moment. The actual dance is a unique blend of a frilly-skirted canasta tango and an up-tempo six-beat swingy waltz and it's actually pretty cool. Since I'm unashamed to admit I enjoy a good feel-good Channing Tatum/Zac Efron dance flick every now and then, I can appreciate the beauty and grace of fifty people all moving in rhythm to the music, which has to be 100 times more difficult to choreograph than I can imagine.
Randy Jackson would approve.
By the way, in amongst the large group of dancer chicks is a young, totally unknown Rita Hayworth. I only mention this because once she became famous and popular later, all the reissues of this movie feature her prominently on the cover, she even gets top billing over any other named cast member on a lot of them. Yes, the same way Jennifer Anniston still shows up on reissued DVD covers of Troll 2, which she made years before she became famous. The difference is that, while Anniston had a large, visible role in Troll 2, Rita Hayworth isn't even recognizable in her cameo in Dancing Pirate (I couldn't even find her in the crowd of buxom dancers on slo-mo, and trust me, I know what Rita Hayworth's boobs look like...).
Rita can handle my wheel any day...
Just then a squad of Mexican Army soldiers arrive from Monterey, led by a Captain who is a major loserjerkface. Since they are in the neighborhood, they take Jonathan into custody over the complaints of the citizens. Serafina, seeking to save him, starts hitting on the Captain, using her considerable feminine charms to get him to stay a while. And because we men are powerless to resist a hot girl in a low-cut dress, it works.
Mexican soldiers (in the dark).
Two weeks pass and the soldiers are busy not paying for food at the cantina and not paying for quartering from the citizenry (they need a constitution!). The Captain, when he's not pawing Serafina, seems to spend most of his time getting soapy baths from his male attendant (really). The Mayor also seems to spend a lot of time getting naked back rubs from a teenage Mexican boy (swear to god) while complaining about the lack of civility in the world these days. Not sure what any of these time-filler insert scenes have to do with the movie, but I'm really wishing the pirates would return and rape the livestock and burn the barns and stuff.
"Down a little further, my boy, oh yes..."
(actual line of dialogue).
While Jonathan has been forced to do hard labor at the grist mill on starvation rations, Serafina seems to have been working just as hard to "distract and confuse" the Captain by giving him two solid weeks of sexyfuntime. Eventually, she manages to arrange Jonathan's escape from the mill and they make to sneak off and be together (he's going to have to just agree to forget the last two weeks of her slobbering on the Captain). Meanwhile, Serafina's clueless father the Mayor has given his blessing for the Captain to marry her (helped by numerous bottles of rum) in exchange for 60 head of cattle (nice). Personally, I think she's worth at least 120 head, plus some goats.
Talking about hair gel.
They are caught before they can escape, however, and Serafina has to fall back on her emergency plan, marry the Captain in exchange for Jonathan avoiding the noose again. This, of course, is the plot of 98% of movies ever made. So the wedding day arrives and Serafina walks down the aisle looking like she's going to her funeral. The Captain doesn't care if she's happy, he's just horny.
My ex-wife also looked like this. Zing!
Jonathan isn't taking all this lying down, of course, and we see him go out to the loincloth-wearing Italian guys of the local American Indian tribe and talk them into joining him in attacking the town and saving the fair girl. Because he's awesome, he even teaches the Indians how to do a better war dance, as their's is severely lacking in tap-dancing and pirouettes. As to why Indians would risk their lives to help a white guy defeat a bunch of Mexicans to win the heart of a Hungarian girl when they clearly don't have a dog in this fight, who knows? I guess movie producers in 1936 didn't know much about Native Americans. Then again, all I know about Indians is what I learned by watching the Twilight movies...
What do you mean he's not a real Indian?
Just look at his hair!
Sneaking into town, the Indians lasso-up all the soldiers and Jonathan challenges the Captain to a duel for the lady. The Captain has his razor-sharp saber and professional military training, but Jonathan has his aunt's umbrella and the power of dance, so they're pretty evenly matched. Now all movie long Jonathan hasn't exactly been spraying the deck with manly testosterone, but movie audiences do expect their heroes to act all big and bad in the climax, so our fey dancer suddenly becomes Toshiro Mifune and finishes off the fight with a right cross to the Captain's jaw to the thunderous applause of the crowd (he put all his 110 pounds into it...).
"My name is Iago Montoya..."
And since everyone's already all dressed up, they might as well have another choreographed dance number in the plaza. This one is a fusion of swirling bolero capes and modern jazz steps, finished off by a tap-dance to an 18-piece orchestra. Jonathan and Serafina go ahead and get married after the dance, since they already paid for the photographer and their cousins flew all the way in from Duluth. Everyone is happy, except for his aunt, who probably isn't going to get her umbrella back now.
Sooo...seriously, where were my damn pirates? I was (sorta) promised pirates by the title and the poster, ok, so I don't think I'm being unreasonable here. They can be dancing and singing for all I care, I just want pirates doing piratey things out of a movie with "pirate" in the title, is that too much to ask for?
She can walk my plank any day...
Written in April 2011 by Nathan Decker and edited by Pam Burda.
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