If you like underappreciated films and frilly lingerie, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger suggests you try on Red Garters.
Life should be more like the movies.
Some movies are ahead of their times, and Red Garters is one such. This musical-western-satire operates on so many levels—despite its breezy, sophomoric tone—that it is easy to overlook the film's brilliance. Yet it ultimately missteps, which makes Red Garters a beloved gem in the hearts of some, but overlooked by the general movie-going public.
The tale begins with dashing ruffian Reb Randall (Guy Mitchell, Those Redheads from Seattle) ambling into "town" on his trusty horse, only to find it vacant. Seems the townsfolk are off holding a barbecue to commemorate the latest gunfight. Chief among them are Calaveras Kate (Rosemary Clooney, White Christmas), the matron of the Red Dog Saloon, and Jason Carberry (Jack Carson, Mildred Pierce), the town's nominal head honcho. Reb falls for Jason's lovely ward Susan Martinez De La Cruz (Pat Crowley, There's Always Tomorrow), which sets him against Jason immediately. Kate uses the tension to make Jason jealous. Meanwhile, local Mexican gunslinger Rafael Moreno (Gene Barry, The War of the Worlds) befriends Reb and helps him discover the scoundrel who shot his brother. Will love and The Code of the West keep them all in high spirits—or will the townspeople have another barbecue soon?
So much for the plot. The reality of Red Garters defies easy explanation, but let's give 'er a shot. Take the avant garde set design of Dogville and paint it in the Technicolor glory of Munchkinland. Saturate the film with huge musical numbers by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans while incorporating the self-satirical bent of Singin' in the Rain. Base it all on an Airplane!-like spoof of the Western genre. Finally, throw in lots of can-can dancers, gunshots, and kissing. This is Red Garters.
At its best, Red Garters works on several levels and sharply intersects them to make a point. While song-and-dance numbers dazzle our eyes and ears, garish costumes paint a surreal version of the Old West. Meanwhile, subversive lyrics are simultaneously advancing the plot, deconstructing the Western, and making a bawdy joke. In fact, you'll get lots of mileage out of Red Garters if you consider it an avant garde deconstruction of Hollywood and nothing more, or simply take it at face value as a peppy musical.
Rosemary Clooney goes a long way towards selling that interpretation. That broad sure has a set of pipes to go with her gams! Whether encapsulating the entirety of sexual politics in a perky duet with Guy Mitchell or providing an interlude of dark, sultry foreshadowing, Clooney steals the show with her voice alone.
The songs are not infectious like the ones in Singin' in the Rain, nor should they be. Singin' in the Rain featured existing songs while the satire stayed in the talking parts; it had the benefit of rousing, already popular musical numbers. Red Garters uses its songs as satirical elements, which is effective at the expense of true musical catchiness. Because Red Garters so cleanly spoofs the musical, it can pass for one itself—but the point is to make fun of the genre, not become the genre. (A trap that Shrek fell into.) Red Garters sidesteps that by keeping its edge on the back burner, holding the audience slightly at bay.
Clooney is no slouch, but she's taking top billing over a sizeable star in Jack Carson. Jack is affable in a curmudgeonly kinda way, but he never evokes the tension he achieves in other films such as Mildred Pierce. Guy Mitchell is cheesy and exhibits gamesmanship that isn't entirely based in his character. He acts like he thinks he's outacting everyone in sight. For his part, Gene Barry is saddled by an unfortunate caricature of a smarmy Mexican—a fate shared by Cass Daley dolled up in blackface and Indian headdress.
Paramount offers a crisp transfer that showcases this unimaginably gaudy palette in style. The crispness is due in part to edge enhancement, and digital noise reduction renders some skin tones a shade too smooth, but otherwise the transfer is impressive. Considering that the soundtrack is a 60-year-old mono track, the audio transfer is perhaps a greater accomplishment. It is clean, and even has some oomph that I didn't expect.
Remarkable for its time, the satirical tone and breakneck pace of Red Garters anticipates spoofs such as Airplane!. Nonetheless, the pace is not perfect, nor is the pitch. Some of the jokes go awry, leaving us checking our watches until the next gag starts. These moments of misfire are not enough to diminish Red Garters's remarkable, mostly unheralded accomplishments. The sheer spectacle alone is enough to recommend the film, to say nothing of the singular set design and prescient tone. Red Garters is an eclectic collector's dream.
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