Red Garters (1954) opens with a disclaimer: ‘You are about to see a new kind of “western”. We hope you won’t take it too seriously, because our story takes place in a land that never existed, called, Limbo County, California.’
This is a limbo of a Hollywood made uneasy by the ascendency of television – where Westerns were soon to prosper – and grasping at any possible resource for spectacle; as another Western musical has it, ‘anything you can do, I can do better’.
And so, Red Garters somewhat redundantly creates a Broadway stage out of a Hollywood soundstage, a Technicolor limbo where a stranger rides over sterile sand in front of a blank yellow backdrop and into a town where the buildings are nothing but empty storefronts painted spotless white.
Another title card claims:
‘many people have said: “THE MOVIES SHOULD BE MORE LIKE LIFE”
‘and a wise man answered: “NO! LIFE SHOULD BE MORE LIKE THE MOVIES”’
Ironically, whereas backstage musicals – 42nd Street (1933) and Kiss Me Kate (1953) among them – manage to stage numbers for the camera and cinema audience (Busby Berkeley's bird's eye symmetrical compositions in the former, Hermes Pan and Bob Fosse’s 3D tricks in the latter), here the conceit of stage-like sets confines the choreography and camera to a single plane.
The film is almost scared of what might result from liberating a Western from the familiar studio backlot, afraid of the possibilities brought about by this heightened artifice, both for breaking genre norms and for tapping into the pure subconscious, as Nicholas Ray would do with the psychosexual drama masquerading as Western Johnny Guitar the same year.
Instead Red Garters settles for weak satire, lightly poking at its genres and stacking up two sets of tropes against each other.
Stranger Reb Randall (Guy Mitchell) rides into town, looking for revenge for his murdered brother, in the process falling in love with forbidden woman Susan Martinez De La Cruz (Pat Crowley), while a stuffy judge (Reginald Owen) decries Limbo County’s lawlessness.
Meanwhile saloon singer Calaveras Kate (Rosemary Clooney) is in love with Jason (Jack Carson), Susan’s guardian, but they constantly butt heads. After a battle of the sexes number with Reb, she sets in motion a plan to use him to win her man.
The film and characters broadly accept that their ‘code of the west’ – one that permits revenge killings – is nonsensical, yet all feel compelled to respect it anyway. Even the judge begrudgingly lifts his hat every time the phrase is used.
But the climactic duel between Reb Randall and his brother’s alleged murderer Rafael (Gene Berry) is all an act; Calaveras has set it up to shame Jason and the town. They’ve agreed to fire into the air. And yet when Reb falls, shot, there’s a moment of uncertainty and panic. This play-fighting, this cinematic fantasy, has somehow become tangible.
This fear, perhaps the fear that the movies have become more like life, is soon dispelled. Reb Randall lives; the man who killed his brother and shot at him is revealed as the town coward; and the main characters can be neatly paired off now that ‘law and order’ is replacing the ‘code of the west’. The violent men have been tamed and domesticated by the women around them, and the Western is whole again.
As noncommittal as Red Garters is elsewhere, the costume and set design are explosive, particularly in their use of colour. Reb first appears as part of a monotone, yellow and white frame. Blues and reds are only gradually introduced: Susan in a light blue with a matching ribbon around her hat; Calaveras with a checkered red sash across her pom-pom-adorned white dress. Costumes that are far too elegant to live in, let alone dance.
Later in the story, the backdrop swaps from yellow to blue to indicate night time, reminiscent of silent film tinting.
Really, it all signifies nothing – even Calaveras’ red garters of the title are not particularly salacious – except the tremendous amount of artistry that can go into even the most routine of Hollywood fluff.