‘Red Garters’ (1954)

This film is so aggressively surreal, the opening credits warn us thrice. First, the Paramount logo is brightly miscolored, as though by painted by the color-blind. Then we’re told that the movie is set in a place that never existed: Limbo County, California. Then after the credits, we’re told that while some people say movies should be more like life, a wise man once said, “No! Life should be more like the movies!”

Perhaps all this still doesn’t prepare the average viewer for a musical western spoof where the sky and walls are color-coded in eye-popping unreality with the floor, and the sets are minimalist frames of doors and windows, as seen in Our Town. Everything is facetious and self-conscious in the tongue-in-cheek story of a yellow-clad fast-draw (Guy Mitchell) who blows into town to revenge the death of his brother according to the oft-cited Code of the West, whose mention causes everyone to doff their hat. The strangest element is that many of the numbers have the singers breaking the fourth wall and performing directly into the camera, causing the film at many points to resemble a TV variety skit. You also get Rosemary Clooney as Calaveras Kate in bright red (singing about the titular garters as she performs in the saloon), Jack Carson as the local lug she loves, Gene Barry as an amiable Mexican in black sombrero, an Indian squaw (Cass Daley in redface) who cracks jokes about scalping the paleface and shaving (meaning her own face, ha ha), and a much too brief dance from Buddy Ebsen, who trucks on down to a mean soft shoe.

The art direction and sets were deservedly nominated for an Oscar. In a way, this embodies the old warning about “you can’t hum the scenery,” meaning the sets shouldn’t be more memorable thant the songs, and yet nonsense this remarkable and lavish can’t help making an impression that has created a cult following for this oddity. Previously on a now out-of-print Paramount DVD, this film is now available on demand from Warner Archive. You could do worse, and often have.

RATING 6 / 10