Friday, May 14, 2010

Destry Rides Again (1939) **1/2

It’s 1939 and things aren’t going well for Marlene Dietrich in Hollywood. Her longtime collaboration with Josef von Sternberg is over and she hasn’t made a good film since The Garden of Allah in 1936. And, then, as luck would have it, she’s cast against type as an unglamorous saloon singer in a satirical western. Who knew that all this sophisticated international star needed was a good old-fashioned non-typical American western to revamp her career?

Based on the Max Brand pulp story of the same name, this film was a remake of the 1932 Tom Mix film (and subsequently was later remade in 1954 with Audie Murphy). George Marshall directs a pair of western virgins in Dietrich and James Stewart (playing the title role) and does his very best to parody the classic Western. For example, Stewart plays a pacifistic unarmed lawman in a town where flying bullets are the norm. Released in the same year as Stagecoach, the film that set the classic western standard, Destry Rides Again sets its own unique template that other films like Cat Ballou and Blazing Saddles would later borrow from.

Dietrich,-Marlene-(Destry-Rides-Again)_03 The story take place in a town appropriately named BOTTLENECK—primarily because just about the whole movie takes place inside the Last Chance Saloon (where, yet another bit of irony here, Dietrich’s character works). Owned by a shady gambler named Kent (Brian Donlevy), the saloon is a hotbed for gunfights and cheating gamblers--most notably Kent himself. Right from the start, we see Frenchy (Dietrich) helping Kent cheat the hapless Lem Claggett (Tom Fadden) out of his $10,000 ranch by spilling hot coffee on him and allowing his cards to be switched. When Claggett complains to Sheriff Keogh (Joe King) that he was cheated, the sheriff confronts Kent and is shot and killed (off-screen).

Later, we see Frenchy doing her best Mae West impression as she sings “You’ve Got That Look That Leaves Me Weak” to a sexually charged audience. Soon after the song ends, Kent has the corrupt Mayor/Judge Slade (Samuel S. Hinds) announce the town drunk, Dimsdale (Charles Winninger), as the new sheriff. Where is the esteemed new sheriff upon this announcement? Passed out on the floor, only to be roused by a whisky to the face. Oddly enough, he decides now is a good time to become sober. It seems that before he was a souse he’d been the deputy of Marshal Destry, a famous and respected lawman. He announces he’s going to hire Destry’s son, Tom (Stewart), to help bring order to Bottleneck.

Dimsdale’s (and also the town’s) expectations that Tom Destry will strike fear into criminals are quickly obliterated when a mild-mannered Tom emerges from the stage holding a parasol for fellow passenger, Janice (Irene Harvey). r2-destry-rides-again-pdvd_009 Immediately he becomes the source of ridicule, especially after he reveals that he doesn’t carry a gun and that he drinks milk instead of whisky. Frenchy goes so far as to give him a broom and bucket as tools that he can use to clean up Bottleneck. James Stewart is priceless in these scenes, with his famous aw-shucks attitude. With this characterization, George Marshall has now established the a-typical western sheriff/hero.

However, nothing is more priceless than the catfight between Frenchy and boarding house owner Lily Belle Callahan (Una Merkel). Angry that her Russian émigré husband Boris (Mischa Auer) has lost his pants to Frenchy in a card game, Lily accuses Frenchy of cheating Dietrich and cat fight and all hell breaks lose. In yet another a-typical move, Marshall doesn’t have the obligatory barroom brawl occur between men but between two scrappy females. Perhaps one of the longest catfights ever, both women (without the aid of stand-ins) engage in punching and wrestling (among other things) one another to the ground (where they roll around for an extended amount of time) until Destry pours a bucket of water on them. Oh, no he didn’t! This enrages Frenchy and she turns her wrath on him. After engaging in the same tactics she used on Lily, she grabs a gun and aims it at him. Deciding not to shoot him, she throws everything she can get her hands on at him and even finds herself on his shoulders at one time. This scene is absolutely side-splitting hilarious—her wrath and his bewildered amazement are priceless.
After Tom escapes the saloon, Dimsdale threatens to fire him for being the town laughing-stock. Tom tries to convince him that they can restore order without using guns. Explaining that a gun didn’t do his father any good when he was shot in the back in Tombstone, Tom convinces Dimsdale to give him a chance. We soon learn that just because he doesn’t want to carry a gun it doesn’t mean he can’t handle one. When he stops a group of cowboys from shooting their guns in the air, Tom borrows a gun and puts on a clinic to the amazement of onlookers. Soon Tom learns gal_Stewart_James_4 about the trouble between Kent and Claggett and decides that Frenchy is the person to get answers from. Over coffee in her room, Tom makes mild insinuations that Frenchy purposefully dropped coffee in Claggett’s lap to distract him from his cards. Offended, Frenchy throws him out, but not before he makes a sly comment about her not wearing so much makeup because it covers up her real beauty. As time wears on, Frenchy begins to admire Destry and even offers him her lucky rabbit’s foot and advises him to stay out of dark places.

With his newly sworn-in deputy’s, Boris, help, Destry tricks Kent into believing that he knows where Sheriff Keogh’s body is. When Kent sends one of his thugs to check on the body, Boris and Dimsdale tail him and arrest him when he leads them to the body. To avoid the corrupt Mayor Slade presiding over the case, Destry sends for a federal judge. This causes Kent to plan a jailbreak for his man. Fearing that Destry will be killed in the jailbreak, Frenchy sends for him and tries to distract him by telling him she’s leaving town and wants him to go to New Orleans with her. When shots ring out, Destry rushes back to the jail to see the prisoner has escaped and that Dimsdale has been fatally shot. Having had enough, Destry arms himself with his father’s guns and with the help of the fed-up decent townspeople, storms the saloon. Frenchy even tells all the ladies (with pitchforks and rolling pins, nonetheless) they should help their men. Annex%20-%20Stewart,%20James%20(Destry%20Rides%20Again)_02 While the townsfolk are taking care of Kent’s men in the bar, Destry climbs up to the second floor in search of Kent. Just as Kent is about to shoot Destry, Frenchy throws herself in front of him and is mortally wounded. After shooting Kent, Destry holds Frenchy in his arms and honors her last request for a kiss. The way Frenchy rubs away her lipstick at this moment is heartbreaking. In the end, order is restored to the town, but not before Destry has lost another two people he loved to guns.

Before he became the serious cowboy/hero in such westerns as Winchester ‘73 and Broken Arrow, Stewart got to play the a-typical western hero. His easy-mannered performance is not a surprise, as it was his calling card on just about every film he ever made, but it is interesting to watch his Destry spin yarns into valuable lessons. His Destry reminds me of a Wild West Aesop.

Dietrich, of course, had her career revived by this film. She would go on to make two other westerns, The Spoilers and Rancho Notorious, but neither topped her performance here. She shows so many sides to her character it’s difficult to keep up: sassy, sexy, fierce, humorous, fearful, and loving. The bawdiness she puts into her musical numbers, most notably “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have”, is wickedly enjoyable. She took a big risk playing against type here, but in the end it worked in her favor, as she started to play more diverse characters.

Hilariously entertaining on several levels, this is a true classic.


  1. Hey Kim,
    Super blog as always I saw this about a month ago and was pleasently suprised at Marlene Dietrichs and Jimmy Stewarts performances.As you said it is hilariously entertaining on several levels and I enjoyed them all.Thanks for the great review!

  2. Kim, this is another great review and a perfect choice for the CMBA's Classic Movies of 1939 Blogathon. Marlene is fabulous in DESTRY (I'm not a huge fans of hers, but think she's excellent in this, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, and RANCHO NOTORIOUS). However, DESTRY RIDES AGAIN is a James Stewart movie for me. He gives a low-key, charming performance...a stark contrast to the kind of characters he would play in the Anthony Mann Westerns. Interestingly, though, he has a relationship with a character very similar to Frenchy in Mann
    s THE FAR COUNTRY and the result is the same.

  3. Marlene is fabulous in this movie - she's one of my favorites, and I love her raunchy good humor here, so different from her glamorous von Sternberg look. It's interesting to look at DRA & its pacifistic views in terms of its historical context, w/Europe on the brink of WW2. Thanks for your excellent review!

  4. I just recently saw this one and enjoyed your detailed review. Some great illustrations too, especially that still of Stewart and Dietrich drinking coffee. Must say I think this is Stewart's movie all the way and falls off a bit in the scenes where he isn't present - for me Dietrich gives a better and warmer acting performance in 'The Spoilers', though, having said that, her songs in this are great.

  5. I never think of myself as a big Dietrich fan, but then you remind me of "Destry Rides Again" and I find the admiration. I enjoyed your take on a classic.

  6. Kim,
    I'm not a big western fan but I watched this because Stewart and Dietrich are good enough to see in just about anything. I found it really enjoyable.

    I love any film where Dietrich sings and her costumes in this one were great.
    A fun review!

  7. Kim, your write-up on DESTRY RIDES AGAIN is excellent, with such stellar attention to detail that it could be a movie treatment. Our family loves Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart, and it's always nice when people remember what impressive range both of these fine actors have. Thanks to your terrific blog post (and the whole CMBA 1939 Blogathon! :-)), DESTRY RIDES AGAIN is another classic film that I loved long ago and realize I must revisit very soon!

  8. Destry Rides Again was probably one of the earliest classic films I remember watching and I loved it then--a recent re-viewing of it on Encore Westerns just confirmed my affair. It's the movie I always point to when any of my fellow cineastes dismiss director George Marshall as a hack because he really knew his way around a comedy and is able in Destry to blend it so well with the Western elements.

    It's the cast in this movie that makes it one of my very favorites, though--you have Stewart and Dietrich, of course, but there's also longtime faves like Una Merkel (love that catfight!), Mischa Auer and the peerless Billy Gilbert as bartender. I seriously considered doing this one for the blogathon before I was distracted by shiny objects so kudos on a job well done.

  9. Great piece, Kim. An absolute classic, even groundbreaking – and I wonder if Destry's reputation for launching Dietrich’s comeback has overshadowed the movie itself. At the time Dietrich, Garbo and Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford and others had been labeled “box office poison” (turned out not to be true about any of them). When producer Joe Pasternak approached her about the role, she was inclined to turn it down because it was, after all, “a Western.” It was her mentor and friend Josef von Sternberg who advised her to take it. Some have called hers the greatest comeback in Hollywood history. I don’t know about that, but Dietrich was back on top and on her way to becoming a legend.

  10. Kim, one of my favorite James Stewart performances and one of my all-time favorite Westerns, even if it is more or less a send-up of the genre. Besides Una Merkel, it has quite a few other character greats, but I especially like Charles Winninger as the tipsy sheriff who sends for Destry to be his deputy.

  11. Thanks for a spot-on review! While this was a great film for Stewart, it was a most important one for Dietrich. Count me among those who always say they are not crazy for her until I see her in a movie!

  12. The Frank Skinner score is one of the best for a western. Its main title was used in other Universal westerns throughout the 1940s.

  13. Kim, I feel a little more comfortable about saying this since others have preceded me, but I never really liked Dietrich (please, don't hurt me!) In feeling that way, I never saw what sounds like a fabulous movie, one in which I think I would like her. I may know all about the plot now, but that won't hinder my eagerness to see this. The cast is great, the catfight and saloon songs must be a sight to see, and I love Stewart. I also have to mention one of my favorite villains, Brian Donlevy. With your really wonderful review, you may have made a Dietrich fan out of me!

  14. The older I get, the more I find to like about Dietrich. With that said, this film has always been a favorite of mine because of the offbeat casting that turned out to be brilliant. So many classic scenes -- the catfight scene is rousing and funny, and I love Stewart's amused reactions to it. Thanks for the review!

  15. I really enjoyed reading your post on this movie. I've never been a particular fan of Westerns, but this one is less "dusty" (for lack of a better term) than some of the others I've tried to sit through before--I think it's the elements of humor and Dietrich's fiery performance that make it more palatable to non-Western fans.

  16. Excellent review. Haven't seen this one yet but as soon as I learned that Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich had starred in a Western together it immediately went on my must-see list. I'm not a big fan of the Western genre, but if any film can change my mind, I'm sure this is it. Your review only reinforced my belief. Great contribution to the blogathon!


  17. Have you noticed the similarity between the characters of Dusty and Lola in Der Blaue Engel? Maybe it was Dietrichs real calling to be a showgirl of seedy bars.
    I think you liked this movie better than me, but it was still a good movie to see. It cannot be all bad with Jim Stewart. Nice review.

  18. This review needs some clarification and expansion.

    Why Thomas Jefferson Destry is called a "pacifist" is beyond my understanding. It isn't just his recognition that a gun won't protect him from being shot in the back, but realizing that the law has to stand on something other than the threat of force. At the end, he has no trouble strapping on guns to protect innocent people from those who do not respect the law.

    Jimmy Stewart largely abandoned his "Aw, Shucks" persona in his later career, particularly in the Anthony Mann films where he often played complext, conflicted, and not-always-likable characters.

    By the way, the ONLY thing Max Brand's novel has in common with this film is the name of the saloon. The stories couldn't be more different. I'm currently reading the novel, mostly to see what the original is like, and partly with the thought of writing a screenplay, as it has never been filmed. (Correction. The 1932 Tom Mix version does seem to follow the novel.)

    1. Okay on the expansion and clarification. I think he's called a pacifist in the begging because he doesn't proscribe to violence. His character obviously evolves on this point by the end of the film.