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Red Garters (DVD Review)

11 Nov, 2013 By: Mike Clark

Available at online retailers via Warner Archive
Western Musical
$21.99 DVD
Not rated
Stars Rosemary Clooney, Guy Mitchell, Jack Carson, Pat Crowley.

Back in my programming days, I mentioned to the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales that I had just gotten a hold of a mint 35mm studio print of Red Garters to run at the AFI Theater, and he replied, “Ah, Red Garters — that great Country-Western singer Red Garters.” Well no, though encyclopedic product of the 1950s that Mr. Shales was even then, he knew full well what was what.

Whatever else you want to say about this Western-motifed drug trip before its time, there has never been anything quite like it, though my obvious assumption is that George Marshall got hired to direct it because 15 years earlier he had done the comparably rowdy Destry Rides Again, which had also had musical interludes, if not as many. According to the AFI Catalog for the 1950s, it was actually Mitchell Leisen who held the Red reins for about two weeks before being replaced, and though he was more of a visual stylist than the nondescript Marshall, visuals are anything but the problem with this oddball-to-the-extreme. Which is why I harbor significant affection for it, though one does have to pick and choose carefully which friends to whom you suggest giving it a look.

Paramount had the most electric Technicolor of all studios, and I once heard Joe Dante correctly note that their color films looked like no one else’s. Put into production shortly before the onset of the studio’s nonpareil but short-lived VistaVision process (which would likely have induced heart attacks if utilized here), the picture was shot on fakey but eye-pleasing two-dimensional sets against color schemes so bold that even its traditional Western dusty street was bright gold against a gold indoor backdrop.

And in addition to a well-cast Jack Carson as a local California blowhard with a flair for double-takes, the movie features two of the era’s biggest recording stars in Mitch Miller’s Columbia Records stable: Rosemary Clooney in the third of her four starring roles at Paramount — plus Guy Mitchell, whose string of early-decade hits had begun to abate, though two Billboard No. 1’s (“Singing the Blues” and “Heartaches By the Number”) were still to come. This was the second and last of two Technicolor Paramount musicals Mitchell made in quick succession and both, oddly enough, also featured Gene Barry, who later hit it much bigger in TV. Decked out in black, Barry plays a “Rafael Moreno” — who by comparison makes the Frito Bandito look like someone a humanist organization would include in a film series devoted to positive screen images of Hispanics. Politically incorrect in equal fashion is an outlandish Native American stereotype played by predominantly ’40s curiosity Cass Daley — a performer whose buck teeth, as they say, would have enabled her to eat corn-on-the-cob through a barbed wire fence and who later died in a household accident as grisly as the one that killed actor Charles McGraw. Daley was almost in the ballpark with Liberace and Carmen Miranda as the most eccentric performers of the era.

Mitchell and Barry are in competition here for comely Pat Crowley, at least until Joanne Gilbert (whose singing gestures are funny in an exaggerated “professional show biz” kind of way) captures the latter’s attention. The men’s relationship grows even more complex when it comes out that Barry is the killer of Mitchell’s brother, which sets up a gunfight that competes with a slew of musical numbers in the second half. All but one of these are on the high side of just-OK, but saloon girl Clooney’s balladeering of “Brave Man” is sung and staged with enough follow-through and feeling that I’d have to call it one of the stronger screen vocals of the entire ’50s. By this time, the movie needs it because if you take away the visuals (which would be like, say, taking Robert Redford away from the current All Is Lost), the male-female Western bandying feels a little microwaved after Annie Get Your Gun and Calamity Jane. Did we mention that Buddy Ebsen is in this, too? Caught in a serious career dip, he shows up for a few indoor/outdoor dance steps — this about a year before Disney jump-started him via the Davy Crockett franchise and well before he presumably became richer than God courtesy of TV’s “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Barnaby Jones.” As the adolescent Jodie Foster says in Alice Doesn’t Live Here, Anymore, this movie is weird, man.

Clooney never really clicked on screen the way real-life nephew George has despite the predictions of studio patriarch Adolph Zukor in his autobiography that she would — though oddly, the last of her four leads (later the same year) was in what became the biggest box office picture of 1954: White Christmas. In addition to being played up in Life magazine, the art/set decoration here got nominated for an Oscar — and though it lost to the spectacular cosmetics of Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, it wasn’t often in those days to see a movie without much pedigree to get academy attention. If more states legalize marijuana, it may be that Warner Archive was wise to give Garters a re-issue (there was a Paramount DVD in what now seems like the old days and even a laser disc). But at the time, this one must have been a toughie for the studio marketing boys to put over. In my hometown, a 2,800-seater billed it with, of all things, the Hal Wallis black-and-white Korean War documentary Cease Fire — further testimony that my local film bookers must have been on crack. If you doubt this, just one week earlier, a rival palace a block away had paired Don Siegel’s rough-and-tough Riot in Cell Block 11 with Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall in Paris Playboys, further proof that a long time ago, the concept of “The Movies” was a lot more fun.

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