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August 03, 2010

Red Garters

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George Marshall - 1954
Paramount Region 1 DVD

Depending on your point of view, Red Garters could be best appreciated as either being ahead of its time, or simply out of its time. Originally filmed in 3-D, the film was probably intended to give movie audiences something of a Broadway show experience, something along the lines of Oklahoma with smaller artistic ambitions, and a smaller budget. Simply being a genre buster combining the western with a musical comedy would have been enough. The stylized sets and color are what will grab the attention. Filmed inside a studio, the sky and land are a sun bright yellow, while the interior of the Red Dog Saloon is a shade somewhere between pink and red. All of the sets would be the kind found in a theater, enough to be recognizable, but relatively abstract, especially for a mainstream Hollywood production. Red Garters was hardly a commercial or critical success in its day, but in retrospect almost looks like a mash-up anticipating a cross between the wild pastels of Wisit Sasanatieng's Tears of the Black Tiger and the Brechtian distancing devices of Lars von Trier's Dogville.

Who's responsible for what, I don't know. According to IMDb, George Marshall replaced Mitchell Leisen, while Frank Tashlin had an uncredited hand in the screenplay signed by Michael Fessier. What I do know is that a musical made at a time when making a musical wasn't such a big deal. Based on what Frank Capra wrote about his time at Paramount during the early Fifties, the budget would have been no more than two million dollars and was probably much less than that. More importantly, even when the best known actor for most contemporary viewers is probably supporting player Buddy Ebsen, and the top billed star is primarily known as George Clooney's once famous aunt, Red Garters is still a hoot.

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The whiff of a story concerns the proverbial stranger in town who has come to avenge the death of his brother. The town's leading citizen, Jason Carberry, is protective of his young female ward, almost coming to blows with the stranger, Reb Randall. In the meantime, the star of the Red Dog Saloon, Calaveras Kate, pines in secret over Jason, who seems to have eyes for all the other women in town. The judge who has come to town to bring law and order, has also brought along his neice, attracting the attention of vaquero Rafael Moreno. There's a bunch of talk about "the code of the West", but in its heart of hearts, Red Garters is another version of men and women arguing, or being coy with each other until they finally admit their love for each other.

The only time the film seems obviously made for 3-D viewing is during a line dance, with the men and women rushing to the camera, men high kicking, and the women rustling their skirts. Guy Mitchell and Rosemary Clooney do most of the singing, and most of the time face the audience. Clooney never had much of a film career, with her two starring roles being in this film and White Christmas, also in 1954. As Calaveras Kate, Clooney mugs a bit in a role that probably would have been better served by Betty Hutton. Still, nothing prepared me for hearing Rosemary Clooney sing a cappella for a few minutes, a reminder of her vocal ability. Guy Mitchell, playing Red, spent even less time as a movie star than Rosemary Clooney, with a pleasant voice and appearance, but little lasting impression. Jack Carson is his usual dependable self, full of bluster and self-importance as Jason Carberry, literally the big man in town. Briefly on can see Buddy Ebsen show off his own dancing skills. Even though he had starred in War of the Worlds just the year before, a very skinny Gene Barry has fun as Rafael.

There are eleven songs by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. Nothing particularly memorable like "Que Sera Sera" or "Mona Lisa", but nothing awful either. If some of the songs hadn't made it for this film, they might have shown up in something Bob Hope would have made at the time. The sets were nominated for an Oscar, and Red Garters certainly doesn't look like any other film from 1954. Without putting too fine a point on it, a comic American Indian character might be interpreted as being a borderline racist creation, yet one could also enjoy the film as being almost proto multi-culti with population of whites, native Americans, and Mexicans drinking and dancing together.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 3, 2010 09:56 AM