Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Director: George Marshall


Two major names in Hollywood play against their types and open new doors in their carriers in Universal Pictures’ western Destry Rides Again. Although bearing a name that may lead one to think the film is a sequel, Destry Rides Again is a completely original story that shares next to no resemblance to the 1930 Max Brand novel from which the title originates from. This western shares a light tone to go along with the usual western roughnecks and sanger to win over the audiences’ appreciation as very fine, somewhat parody, of the genre.

Destry Rides Again is a western of a pacifist lawman who must straighten out the small frontier town of Bottleneck which is controlled by crooked men. The small town of Bottleneck is controlled by the crooked saloon owner Kent (Brian Donlevy) with the aid of his saloon queen girlfriend Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich), and backroom dealing Mayor Slade (Samuel S. Hinds). When the town drunk Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger) is appointed sheriff, he hires the son of a famous lawmen to be his deputy, but does not get what he hopes for in the pacifist Tom Destry Jr (James Stewart). Destry, as a son of a great gunman, surprises the town as being a man that does not believe in guns, much to the amusement to everyone in this dangerous town. Despite this nonaggression, Destry’s has a strong want for justice making a showdown with Kent inevitable. Frenchy is won over by this fresh faced lawman and changes her allegiance, and as the final confrontation takes place she is killed in the crossfire that would have claimed the life of Destry. As any good western concludes, justice wins out and our hero changes how the town is run for good.
The picture creates a different look at westerns as we see our hero, who is shown to be a very good marksman, is one that refuses to carry a firearm. Filled with many lighthearted characters this movie takes a slightly comical approach at the genre as James Stewart brings his innocent Mid-Western charm to the role of a deputy sheriff. This is not to say the film is without dramatic showdowns, barroom brawls, or gunfights, as the picture is full of them. The story with all its comical supporting characters do, however, allow for a good number of lighter moments which Destry carries out the dramatic tale of figuring out how to bring down Kent in a non-conventional way.

Starring the once very popular sex symbol Marlene Dietrich status as a foreign import of the early 1930s had faded in recent years due to poor box office numbers.  She steps out of her usual roles to play a bar hall queen.  Dietrich had been the equivalent to a German Greta Garbo, or perhaps Garbo was the Swedish version of Dietrich, she had seen far more prosperous days in her past as critics began to put he in that category of “box office poison.” As World War II began in break out in Europe and being German Dietrich took Destry Rides Again as an attempt to make herself more American in the eyes of American audiences.

In 1939 Dietrich  would become an American citizen to distance herself from the Nazi ran country that was her homeland and would take this western with a pay cut believing that the move would take her new home nationality a step further. It was against her character-type as she was not her usual European vamp, but rather a woman that embraced the freedom loving life of American life, even though she was clearly a foreigner with her thick accent. The idea worked as she would find a new niche in Hollywood playing similar ball room characters in the near future, building on her appearance here as Frenchy. Dietrich would be given the first billing in Destry Rides Again as she was the most recognizable name among the two co-stars, which would quickly change.

James Stewart was in the middle of an Oscar award winning year with the success of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Here with Destry Rides Again he brings a similar charm that made him such a likable character in Mr. Smith. Stewart would not gain any great acclaim from his appearance here in this picture, but it would be his first venture into westerns, a genre he would see a large amount of success in later in his career.

The two co-stars, apart from sharing an onscreen romance, also shared an off-screen affair. Rumors and legends surround the two stars’ unseen romance. Perhaps the most controversial is said to be that Dietrich had gotten pregnant by Stewart during the making of this picture and would secretly have an abortion because of it.

Western filmmaker George Marshall brings to the picture the fun and adventure that the picture was looking for. With his specialty being the western Marshall is able to make this world in Destry Rides Again be alive with energy and fascination. He makes the saloon and the town flourishing with the raucous appeal that made westerns alluring in to audiences.

Cast in the various colorful roles is a wonderful troupe of good character actors. Charles Winninger plays the lovable town drunk turned sheriff. He spends most of his time embarrassed and mad as Destry’s lack of using a force, but still carries that lovable fatherly like demeanor that can be seen in his performances from Show Boat or Babes in Arms. Russian character actor Mischa Auer portrays comic relief as a Russian hand that aids Destry while attempting to deal with the fact he is never called by his real name of Boris. His wife is played by the distinct Una Merkel who has a brief, but memorably controversial cat-fight with Dietrich that had censors wondering what was too far in woman on woman violence. The villain of the film is played by Brian Donlevy whose work on Beau Geste during the same year would nominate him for Best Supporting Actor. He made for an easy villain you would love to hate with his casually sly demeanor and overly evil intentions.

The plot of the movie was overall very different for the novel it was supposedly based, penned by Max Board, and equally different from the 1932 feature film that proceeded this 1939 production. A near shot-for-shot remake entitled simply Destry would be directed by George Marshall in 1954, continuing his work in the western genre with a remake of his own work. In 1959 a musical version of the story opened on Broadway and starred Andy Griffith, made most popular by his days on his television show bearing his name. All of these remakes of the western manifests just how well liked this film’s storyline was as it attempted to transcend time and styles.

Destry Rides Again is not the most memorable western ever made, but it does leave its indelible mark on cinema with the rebirth of Marlene Dietrich and James Stewarts entrance into westerns. Dietrich’s saloon girl style would grow and inspire other such performances, some which included her distinct German accent to make a saloon singer more exotic. With its election to the National Film Registry in 1996, Destry Rides Again manifests just how well received the motion picture is in American culture and its mark it left behind for contemporary audiences.

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