Directed by George Marshall
Written by Felix Jackson & Gertrude Purcell & Henry Myers
1939 is one of those famous years for cinema. A year where there are a handful of films that could have easily won Best Picture in a different year, or could easily make their way onto a Top 100 films of all-time list. Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Young Mr. Lincoln, the list goes on and on and on. Destry Rides Again is usually on that list as well, but never near the top. It certainly ranked as one of my more anticipated films from the Westerns marathon for that very reason. It has a tremendous reputation, and of course also stars James Stewart, perhaps my favorite actor of all time (as I am sure he is the favorite of many), in his very first Western.
Destry Rides Again, as popular as it is within the genre, also gets billed as both a comedy and a musical at times, though in my opinion it’s not really either, but that’s neither here nor there. The town of Bottleneck is a rough and ready frontier town, where shooting, cheating at cards, and other lawless activities are darn near encouraged. It’s the design of boss Kent (Brian Donlevy) to cheat local ranchers out of their land for profit. With the mayor in his pocket, along with the local entertainment (Marlene Dietrich), Frenchy, to help with the cheating, Kent gets rid of the local sheriff and replaces him with a drunk (Charles Winninger), thinking him the easiest pushover to promote to the position. But when Washington, the drunk, calls on Tom Destry Jr. (James Stewart), the son of a famed lawman, to be his deputy, Kent feels even more comfortable in his plan, as Destry prefers to enforce the law without guns. Soon enough the town of Bottleneck sees just what Destry’s style of law enforcement can do.
Let me get right back to my comment about this not being either a comedy or a musical, so as to clear that up before anyone gets any other ideas. There are songs here, sung by Dietrich, it’s true, but that hardly constitutes a musical. There are also laughs here, often provided by the likable character of Boris and some other laughable situations, but that hardly constitutes a comedy. At its core, Destry Rides Again is just another Western. By introducing the gunless Destry, it is definitely a movie that is playing with the traditional tropes of the genre, but everything else feels familiar. Again, this is beginning to sound uncomplimentary, which is not the perception I was hoping for with this review. Ugh. Words are hard sometimes.
James Stewart is a national treasure, and inserting him into the landscape of the Wild West is perfect in every single way. His unassuming, and in this case literally disarming, personality is everything when set to the backdrop of the outlaws and lawlessness of the setting. He is a step above even Errol Flynn in his peerless principles. Destry Rides Again is indeed a great movie. While much of it’s elements are familiar (the drunk sheriff, the evil boss, the conspiring female, the hero deputy), the film is so seemlessly put together, so beautifully performed by the whole cast. It’s a narrative tour de force from beginning to end. It’s easily the most polished narrative of the marathon, just behind Stagecoach.
There are classic moments in the film. The famed cat fight between Marlene Dietrich and Una Merkel seems very risque for its time. And there are tons of laughs to be had as well. Boris losing his pants in a game of cards to Dietrich’s Frenchy. But my favorite moments were actually the more dramatic moments, like when Destry urges Frenchy to try seeing what she looked like without all of her makeup. It’s a film I can see myself returning to, time after time, if for no other reason than for James Stewart. I felt a distinct Harvey vibe from his performance here (though perhaps in a less strange setting), so at odds with how everyone else around him sees the world, and yet Tom Destry Jr. is the one we should all be listening to. He sees things others don’t, and that’s his greatest weapon against criminals.