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Red Garters

Red Garters
1954 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 91 min. / Street Date September 6, 2005 / 14.99
Starring Rosemary Clooney, Jack Carson, Guy Mitchell, Pat Crowley, Gene Barry, Cass Daley, Frank Faylen, Buddy Ebsen, Joanne Gilbert
Cinematography Arthur E. Arling
Art Direction Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira
Film Editor Arthur P. Schmidt
Original Music Ray Evans, Jay Livingston
Written by Michael Fessier
Produced by Pat Duggan
Directed by George Marshall

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

An interest in the graphic arts had to figure heavily in the concept behind Red Garters, a stagey parody of westerns that also may have been influenced by the dynamic designs of the Broadway hit Oklahoma! from ten years before. Despite a spirited performance by radio star Rosemary Clooney, this colorful and clever pastiche is neither funny enough nor sufficiently memorable in the music department to make much of a dent. It became a novelty item better remembered as a fresh idea than a good movie.


Singing gunslinger Reb Randall (Guy Mitchell) comes to town and upsets the plans and ego of local big wheel Jason Carberry (Jack Carson), who doesn't like the new guy hanging around his steady girlfriend Calaveras Kate (Rosemary Clooney), top singer at the Red Dog Saloon. Reb also butts heads with Rafael Moreno (Gene Barry), a suave pistolero dressed completely in black. Worse yet, Randall's outlaw brother has just been shot and buried and The Code of The West decrees that any brother-killing, no matter how justified, needs to be answered with hot lead. But who should Reb be gunning for?

The sweet, likeable and undeniably talented Rosemary Clooney was a socko radio talent equally adept at straight ballads and raucous novelty songs (C'mon-a-my house, Mambo Italiano). She tried but never quite conquered the medium of movies. Her biggest hit was the early VistaVision musical White Christmas, but most of her other film vehicles have dropped from memory, so much so that when she shows up in an unattributed clip in George Pal's Conquest of Space, only viewers of a certain age have any clue as to who she is (try George Clooney's aunt ...).

Red Garters hits us all at once with its stylized sets and costumes. All the actors have only one change of clothes that fits them as if they were action figures in a hand-painted playset. Reb's white garb contrasts with Rafael's black outfit, and Kate continually wears her corseted stage get-up even on picnics. The sets are as color-coded as the costumes and jump out like panels on a comic strip. Solid structures like buildings, walls and furniture are often only partially suggested, somewhat like the décor in the Girl Hunt Ballet in The Band Wagon, but not as refined or as existentially minimalist in design. The lack of a unifying idea behind the film's look eventually lets the film down ... we never make a connection between the design concept and the film itself.

The script by Michael Fessier makes mild fun of the western genre. The first townsperson we meet is a small kid happily blasting away at nothing with a real six-shooter. Characters lead with pronouncements of their character traits, and only slowly reveal deeper complexities. Rafael gamely admits he was born to seduce women and shoot fast. Weasley Billy Buckett (Frank Faylen) is a self-admitted coward subscribing to The Coward's Code. Blowhard bigshot Jason Carberry talks big but can't outdraw anyone. Sensible Calaveras Kate, when not singing songs, does her best to talk the boys out of shooting each other dead. The closest the film comes to mirth is in The Code of The West, an ethic that requires a deadly gun duel to follow even the most minor of social disputes. All the actors tip their hats in unison at each mention of The Code, a gag that stays amusing a lot longer than it should.

The songs by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston are peppy and amusing but not particularly memorable. Cloony joins the dance hall girls for Red Garters and does a solo on Good Intentions. Both she and Guy Mitchell, who also sings for himself, trade off on reprises of the central romantic number, Man and Woman. None of the numbers is actually bad and the dancing is quite spirited, but the score lacks a radio-quality hit that might have done a world of good.

Gene Barry of The War of the Worlds makes an amusing Mexican smoothie. Since he can sing and dance quite well, he's less ethnically objectionable than he might be. The same can't be said for Cass Daley's Minnie Redwing, a fast-talking stereotyped looney Squaw character used as a sidekick for Kate. When not sprawled out in some awkward unfeminine pose, Minnie grins as if she were the pea-brained girlfriend of Mose Harper in The Searchers.

Pat Crowley and Joanne Gilbert play local beauties for the gunfighters to woo (weally!). Each shows substantial talent but neither have extensive film credits. A happy addition to the background cast is Buddy Ebsen, who enlivens some moments with his dancing. Ebsen's career reportedly was at a low ebb at this time - perhaps this is where Walt Disney spotted him to bounce back as Davy Crockett's sidekick in the enormously popular King of the Wild Frontier show.

Somewhere in the crowd of painted dance hall ladies is 50s dream girl Marla English, Liz Taylor lookalike and star of the tawdry classic monster movie The She-Creature.

Red Garters huffs and puffs its way to a conclusion, eventually, with the real scallywag unmasked. The Code of The West is declared officially dead after all concerned see the need to abandon its antiquated (and deadly) ideas. I doubt that film studies critics will leap to their word processors at the news, but it's amusing that even in a petty 50s musical comedy, the idea of the Death of the West is already going strong.

The picture is pleasant and, Native American issues aside, inoffensive, and fans of Rosemary Clooney are going to be pleased to see it. Interestingly, a twenty-minute segment in Blake Edwards' The Great Race pretty much trumps Red Garters at its own game. It has a crazy frontier town called Borracho, a wild saloon (with Dorothy Provine at her sassy best) and some hilarious satirical by-play: "Jes' who is this Texas Jack?" Perhaps the reason it's so memorable is that it doesn't have to play longer than two reels.

My idea to give Red Garters a great spin would be to have Calaveras Kate have a terrible nightmare, where all three available gunslingers in town are slaughtered in a horrible showdown. The dream as she envisions it would be as gritty and realistic as a 1954 western could be - maybe even in B&W! Then Kate could wake up, gaze out of her oddball color-coded window at a lemon-colored dawn and say, "Whew! I'm sure glad things are back to normal!"

Paramount's DVD of Red Garters looks fine but is transferred flat full frame when the shape of the text blocks in the main titles matte off handsomely to 1:78. That matting can be accomplished on a 16:9 monitor, but the resulting degradation of the image does the show no favors. It still looks reasonable but can't compete with Paramount's eye-popping transfer on last Spring's Li'l Abner.

There are no extras. The box illustration looks as though Ms. Clooney's head has been pasted on ... afer a couple of seconds, her neck seems broken.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Red Garters rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 6, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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