Why I Love… #130: Destry Rides Again

Year: 1939

Director: George Marshall

Stars: Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, Brian Donlevy

When it comes to Westerns, I’m a picky sod. I’m not fond of John Wayne (even allowing for the changing of the times I find him priggish and his roles often steeped in misogyny and racism). I’ll enjoy a romping adventure but it’ll rarely leave an imprint. I do, however, relish the darker stories. The cold of Day of the Outlaw, for instance, or the imposing harsh realities of The Ox-Bow Incident. If it has Anthony Mann’s name on it, I’ll surely investigate. Similar with Budd Boetticher. And, of course, there’s HBO’s Deadwood. But if you’re asking me for a star of Westerns to hang my hat on, it’ll likely be Jimmy Stewart.

Part of this goes back to the Anthony Mann cycle from the ’50s (an incredible run that features the likes of Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur and The Man from Laramie among others), but there are plenty of more. And among the earlier picks, there is Destry Rides Again.

Destry doesn’t adhere to the darker, bleaker aesthetics itemised above. Indeed, its a comedy (albeit more witty than laugh-out-loud funny). But it’s a gem nonetheless, one that even manages to mount some stakes once its built enough momentum. I ‘discovered’ it a little while before I started actively seeking out Westerns (a summer predilection a few years ago to pro-actively expand my horizons) and long before my latter-day obsession with Marlene Dietrich (empowered by the recent purchase of an Indicator boxset – woof!), and its charm endures.

At the Last Chance Saloon in the rough’n’ready township of Bottleneck, the no-good Kent (Brian Donlevy) and his dame ‘Frenchy’ (Dietrich) hold sway, swindling naive poker players out of their land while making sure the whiskey keeps flowing. When the town sheriff swiftly exits the picture, harmless local drunk Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger) is appointed his successor so that Kent can keep the town in check himself. But Kent reckons without Dimsdale’s connections – he drafts an honest and upright man, Tom Destry, Jr. (Stewart), as his deputy. Destry rides into town and puts a spanner in the works of Kent’s operations, catching the eye of Frenchy in the process.

Though later performances would colour his range to fascinating degrees, Stewart leans hard here into the folksy good-natured persona that typifies a lot of his earlier work. Destry arrives in Bottleneck without guns – he doesn’t wear them. It’s played for laughs, and also to signify to us watching that he’s a level-headed sort, but his evident pacifism is a subtly radical twist on the stereotypical gun-happy machismo often promoted in these Hollywood yarns. The movie goes to great pains to show that Destry is actually a fine shot, and to underscore the difference between the character’s moral standpoint and the cowardice of which the yokels short-sightedly accuse him. Under the guise of a comedy, Destry Rides Again throws a progressive grenade into the genre and then swiftly dives behind a table. In turn, Destry himself can be seen to symbolise the ideals of the America to come; a place of laws and reason (though as we know, that vision remains a volatile work in progress).

The spacious interiors of the Last Chance prove an enduring setting for much of the film, not that we tire of the joint, filled as it is with notable and very funny supporting talent. Though nominally inspired by Max Brand’s novel (which Universal had already adapted to reasonable success in 1932), this film uses the book as a springboard for a more raucous variety show. Dietrich – by this point in her career on the verge of quitting following a series of flops – reignites the smoky cabaret temptress persona that made her collaborations with Josef von Sternberg so iconic, and throws her own particular brand of spice atop the smart dialogue that keeps on delivering. 

It’s her interplay with Stewart that quickly makes Destry Rides Again feel special. After a spirited – and, for the times, rousing – water fight with a female patron of the Last Chance, Frenchy doesn’t skip a beat squaring up to Destry. She boisterously piggybacks the newcomer around the Last Chance, riding him like the genre’s traditional cowboys might master a steed. For all her sexual allure she’s a match for any man present – and drinks with the best of them – and, in her own way, sets a standard for strong women of the West; a baton that would later be picked up by the likes of Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford in more squarely dramatic fare. But Dietrich’s gung-ho, subtly slapstick performance here is a key stepping-stone in the development of feminism in a male-dominated genre. And she’s not alone.

Toward the end of the picture, the early joviality is subdued by the inherent drama that George Marshall defly brings to the boil. Even Destry, loath to use guns, cinches up his holster and readies his shooting irons. Destry gets serious. And, at the height of this turmoil, the other hitherto unseen women of Bottleneck take to the streets; a pitchfork mob rallying against the follies enacted by the town’s no-good men. They’re a sight to behold. Even if Destry wasn’t the first to make such moves (I freely admit I’m still scratching the surface of this gigantic genre), it draws some of the keenest attention. A big part of that is on these women, and on Dietrich. Not bad for ‘box office poison’.

Destry might be a comedic take on one of Hollywood’s most successful genres of its time, but it still holds water as an able-bodied Western in its own right. The unfolding tale ticks all the right boxes. Heroes, villains, gold-fever and an underdog’s fight against the scourge of injustice. In a cluttered year for Hollywood hits, Destry was a modest triumph but popular enough to ignite a succession of comedic westerns from varying studios; a tradition would reach a maniacal peak decades later in the mid ’70s with Mel Brooks’ hysterical Blazing Saddles. And it hasn’t entirely disappeared even now. The Coen Brothers (among others) have ensured that this mix of salt and sawdust keeps turning up when you least expect it, and more power to them.

But if you’re itchy waiting for another giddy jaunt through the wilds of the West, consider looking back. Destry Rides Again is great for Jimmy Stewart fans. Great for Marlene Dietrich fans. Great for Western fans. If you’re in the middle of that specific Venn diagram, like I am, what the hell are you waiting for?

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