Destry Rides Again - 1939
In 1939, Marlene Dietrich was in the box-office doghouse in Hollywood*, having made a string of money-losing films, and Jimmy Stewart was on the rise having become conspicuous as a male star up against stiff competition from the likes of Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn and James Cagney, among other star names that dominated 1939, the year usually called "Hollywood's best."
For Stewart, it was the year he starred in Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington which came out in October, and Destry followed shortly after in December, both films very financially successful, and with the latter both Stewart and Dietrich were rewarded with plaudits from critics and fans alike, something which rejuvenated Dietrich's career and made it that much easier for her to pursue her true goals: financing her efforts to get people she knew out of Nazi Germany.
With Destry Rides Again, on the surface a tale fashioned along well-used western plot lines with saloons (and saloon girls), funny town drunks, cattle herds that need to be moved around, and put-upon townspeople up against local corruption and random murder. The first difference that shows up amid the sameness is Stewart's completely unexpected deputy sheriff called into Bottleneck (the name of this western town) where everyone expects he'll be like his famous gun-toting sheriff father, but instead, inconceivably, he shows up without weapons and when asked about it, intones that "he doesn't believe in them."
Not that he can't handle a gun. When pressured to demonstrate he isn't to be taken lightly, he lazily shoots the small decorative knobs off a distant wooden sign, and when really pressured he's an ace marksman up against bad men, but in general he tries to bring law and order to Bottleneck by using strictly judicial methods, which brightens the face of the local criminal leader (Brian Donlevy) because he's got the local mayor and chief magistrate (Samuel S. Hinds) all sown up.
Besides the guns eschewed by our hero, there's another subversion of the genre in that there is a typical western hero inserted into the proceedings, rancher Jack Tyndall (played by a somewhat more understated than usual Jack Carson) who is full of righteous indignation at the unethical proceedings of the town and is more than eager to solve everything with gunfire like a proper movie cowboy, the only problem is that he's not exactly too bright and Stewart's Deputy keeps moving him around like a piece on a checkerboard to contain what would otherwise be inevitable mayhem (some mayhem does break loose, though, and Tyndall ends up standing in the local jail, complaining. But, inexplicably in this movie, Tyndall having gunned down a man in a previous scene isn't mentioned at all once he's in the can, and the only legal trouble Tyndall faces is for not having paid up a fee to transport cattle over contested grazing land. This makes it look like, at least in the town of Bottleneck, manslaughter isn't even a misdemeanor).
Another twist in Destry is Dietrich's shocking and amoral Frenchy being shocked by the deputy sheriff who not only can't be bought off, but who sees past her mask of makeup and ornaments, telling her there's a better person under the "paint."** (She then goes to the mirror and wipes the lipstick off and gazes at her self in wonder. Meanwhile, the film skips to the character of Tyndall's sister, a 'normal' female citizen of Bottleneck, who is donning jewelry and checking her hair in a mirror. Director George Marshall slips in a number of little comments into Destry with editing this way.)
Since Frenchy has relinquished her lucky rabbits foot to Stewart (she is convinced he's not going to make it out of Bottleneck alive), we soon see where the director is leading all of this when the ladies of Bottleneck (at Frenchy's urging) take the whole matter of the town's badness into their own hands and charge into the middle of a gunfight between the good guys and bad guys, swinging rolling pins and farm implements, taking the original ladies-only brawl (between Una Merkel and Dietrich) near the start of the film and multiplying it by hundreds to end the story.
A feeling of improvisation comes out of Stewart and Dietrich's screen moments, and there's a lot of funny side characters swept along once Destry Rides Again gets past establishing its western bona fides (the film starts with a gun battle, a burst of action that is unexplained, at least initially, something not common for films of any genre in that era where linear storytelling ruled plots).
Mischa Auer is listed in the IMDB credits as "Boris Callahan," however, most of his time on screen is trying to convince everyone he isn't "Callahan," who is actually the dead first husband of his dominating wife played by Una Merkel. Destry isn't just about the town of Bottleneck coming "clean," or about Frenchy (sort've) going through a rapid-fire reformation, but it's also about Boris getting enough courage to face down his wife who still keeps a picture of the dead first husband hanging on the wall and refers to husband number two with the name of husband number one.
Lillian Yarbo is in the film as Frenchy's maid Clara who seems to always know the funny irony of what is happening to everyone else, and Charles Winninger is a perpetually drunken saloon rat named Wash who is made acting sheriff because the last thing Bottleneck wants is a sober and serious lawman, but once the badge is on Wash, he goes cold turkey (and calls in Destry Jr.), which is where the story really began.
*Actually, Marlene Dietrich wasn't in Hollywood when she made the deal to do Destry, she was in Europe. She didn't want to do the film and was preoccupied with her other personal activities, but her old director Joseph von Sternberg advised her it was a good idea to do such an unexpected type of film for an actress that had been relegated to the famous "box office poison" list of the late 1930s.
** Having the hero to tell the villain, or in this case a sub-villain, that they're capable of better morality and ethics shows up in plenty of other films. A modern example, quite similar, is Batman (Christian Bale) telling Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) this same thing during director Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises (2012).
Original Page December 2012 | Updated September 2020
From former screen legends who have faded into obscurity to new revelations about the biggest movie stars, Valderrama unearths the most fascinating little-known tales from the birth of Hollywood through its Golden Age.
Winner of the 2020 Peter C. Rollins Book Award
Longlisted for the 2020 Moving Image Book Award by the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation
Named a 2019 Richard Wall Memorial Award Finalist by the Theatre Library Association