Destry Rides Again (1939)
“THE GREATEST CAST EVER CORRALLED for a frontier drama like you’ve NEVER seen in all your born days!”
Director: George Marshall
Cast: Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, Mischa Auer
Synopsis: Kent, the unscrupulous boss of Bottleneck has Sheriff Keogh killed when he asks one too many questions about a rigged poker game that gives Kent a stranglehold over the local cattle rangers…
A Hollywood classic from a year in which all tinsel-town seemed to produce was classic movies, Destry Rides Again holds up surprisingly well when viewed today. This is thanks largely to iconic performances from screen favourite James Stewart as the eponymous hero, and Marlene Dietrich as a bawdy saloon chanteuse, a supporting cast that contains a whole clutch of memorable faces, and a light-hearted script that manages to pack in plenty of laughs, mostly at the expense of the male gender.
In the lawless town of Bottleneck, crooked saloon owner Kent (Brian Donlevy) stages rigged poker matches with the aid of saloon singer Frenchie (Dietrich) in order to cheat locals out of their property. When the sheriff starts snooping around, Kent has him murdered, and Judge Slade (Samuel S. Hinds), the local mayor who also happens to be Kent’s partner-in-crime, jokingly installs the town drunk Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger) as the town’s new sheriff. However, Dimsdale used to be deputy to the legendary Sheriff Destry, and summons Destry’s son, Tom, to be his own deputy.
Dimsdale’s expecting a hero figure in the same mould as his former mentor, so he’s disappointed to discover that Tom Destry is a gangly pacifist who never carries a gun. Destry is considered a laughing stock upon his arrival, but it’s not long before the townsfolk realise that there’s more to this unconventional deputy than meets the eye.
Many of the laughs in Destry Rides Again are fuelled by the audience’s preconceptions of what makes a man. We’re used to our Western heroes being overtly masculine types whose virility is symbolised by the gun they usually display so prominently. Not only does Destry not pack a gun, he doesn’t fit the stereotypical model of a Western hero. He’s beanpole thin, with a gentle demeanour and a propensity for telling folksy stories. He also likes to whittle napkin rings, a demonstration of creativity which suggests a sensitive side. But then all the men – or at least all the law-abiding men – are shown as weak and ineffectual. Boris (Mischa Auer), a Russian immigrant whose wife constantly refers to him by her previous husband’s name, spends much of his time in long johns because women have taken his trousers. Dimsdale, the laughable symbol of authority, is a drunk. The men don’t fight, don’t engage in gunplay – when Kent attempts to forcibly evict a family from their home, it’s the woman of the house whom we see firing back at him – and don’t brawl with each other as you’d expect. In fact, it’s the two women – Frenchie and Lily Belle (Una Merkel) – who each debag Boris at some point – who lock horns in a stupendously energetic catfight. The women in this movie impose a physical superiority over the men folk that is both surprising and unusual.
Although in the relatively early stages of his career, Jimmy Stewart had already settled comfortably into the screen persona for which he is remembered, and he gives a typically likeable performance here while occasionally hinting at the steel core that lurks beneath the fluffy exterior. Dietrich, for whose career Destry Rides Again provided a much-needed shot in the arm, strikes an imposing figure and delivers a performance that at least stands up to scrutiny under the spotlight of her ’legend’ status, which is more than you can say for many of her Hollywood performances, Presumably her turn singing ‘See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have’ is intended as a comical interlude, as her foghorn delivery of the lyrics is hilariously bad. The entire supporting cast makes an enjoyable contribution, although Mischa Auer stands out as the beleaguered and bewildered Boris. Destry Rides Again is definitely one to watch, if only to see if it deserves its reputation.
(Reviewed 18th July 2012)