Dancing Pirate has multiple awkward points: the omnipresent brownface, the astounding action conclusion (not astounding in a good way), or just the charmless lead performances. The film tells the tale of Bostonian Charles Collins, who—on his way to visit a relation—gets kidnapped and taken aboard a pirate ship. Hence the title.
Collins is a superb dancer and a mediocre but not incompetent singer. Unfortunately, he’s also one of the least charismatic people ever to get a close-up, certainly in a classic Hollywood production. There’s a reason he didn’t become a movie star, and it’s patently obvious from the first shot in the movie. Collins is teaching the waltz to 1820’s Boston society, complete with the lead putting their hand on the follow’s waist, which causes quite a comical stir.
That scene succeeds thanks to the general comedic timing and uncredited Ellen Lowe, a dance student infatuated with Collins (for his dancing, not his acting), rather than her old man husband.
Then Collins has a well-choreographed and well-directed tap number, which gets him some goodwill. It’s like Pirate is saying at least he can dance.
Pretty soon, he’s kidnapped and aboard the pirate ship, which sails down under South America and up to California, which is still a Spanish colony. They couldn’t take the Panama Canal because too early for it too.
When the pirates go ashore for water, Collins sees his opportunity to escape.
Intercut with the pirates’ arrival is the reaction of the nearby residents. They’re freaking out because they have nowhere to go, and they’re assuming a full invasion. The film immediately introduces Luis Alberni as the “voice” of the people. He’s great. He sort of disappears in the second half, but he’s excellent when he’s around. He’s also from Catalonia, the closest the main cast is getting to Spanish.
Alberni leads people to the mayor’s house, where they have to wake him up. Frank Morgan plays the mayor. Frank Morgan is not Mexican or Spanish but doesn’t wear brownface, so it’s hard to fault him. He’s fun. While he’s not great, primarily because of the script, he’s often a lot of fun.
One thing leads to another and the only pirate coming to invade turns out to be Collins, who thinks he’s just escaping. Luckily for him, the mayor’s beautiful daughter (Hungarian Steffi Duna) wants dancing lessons, even if they’re from a pirate.
There’s a lot of action, a couple big synchronized dance numbers, and a fair amount of comedy. Collins will eventually end up in a love triangle with Duna and Victor Varconi (also Hungarian and wearing brownface). Varconi’s a military official out of Monterey who shows up unexpectedly and messes up Collins’s hopes for escape. Though the townsfolk aren’t too sure about Collins, Varconi’s presence may keep him alive depending on the circumstances.
Besides Collins being a charisma vacuum, Duna has a similar effect. She’s got more presence than Collins, but mostly in comparison. It’s also not a very good part. Pirate’s got a slight screenplay and a short runtime (eighty-ish minutes). The film constantly leverages the comedy, either with Morgan or Alberni, to move things along. And it almost always succeeds thanks to them.
The film’s early Technicolor—with gorgeous photography from William V. Skall—but director Corrigan stages the big dance numbers at night, shot day-for-night, and so all the costume colors are muted. They’re missed opportunities.
Corrigan’s not great with the actors. They do better when they don’t need direction, like Morgan, Alberni, and, to some extent, Varconi.
Technically, there’s not much notable other than Skall’s color photography. Archie Marshek’s editing is bad, but in a way to suggest there aren’t better shots, especially not for the Collins close-ups. The music—uncredited Alfred Newman—is also disappointing. He uses Yankee Doodle Dandy as Collins’s theme, which makes the cultural appropriation, brownface, white savior smorgasbord of an action finale even trippier—but it’s also just not a good theme. It doesn’t time well for how Collins moves.
Still, Pirate’s more successful than not; Collins isn’t unlikeable in his badness, while Duna’s certainly sympathetic. Then the supporting cast is all fine. It’s incredible how far a picture can get on great color, good dancing, and solid jokes.