Destry Rides Again (1939): United States – directed by George Marsahll
Not rated by the MPAA – contains some violence, and a few pants-less men
Destry Rides Again isn’t a typical Western, in many respects. Destry himself is a non-violent pansy for much of the movie, in a move that I can applaud the filmmakers for attempting. With Jimmy Stewart occupying a lead role alongside Marlene Dietrich, the film becomes a near-classic, held up by only a few flaws.
The story is nothing terribly original for a Western, though in late 1930’s America it probably hadn’t been tried too many times before (discounting the 1932 version of the book). Some inconsistent tones hurt the film toward the end, but with a strong cast and a competent production, Destry Rides Again is worth watching, if only to see an early iteration of Jimmy Stewart’s Elwood P. Dowd from Harvey.
The first chunk of the film endures without Stewart, and instead sets up the town of Bottleneck. It’s a rough-housing type of Western town, full of drunken cowboys and loose women. There are a number of well-to-do families, but they often get pushed around by those on the fringes of the law. Sheriff Keogh (Joe King) tries his best, but after a particularly shifty game of cards the Sheriff is “disappeared.”
Mayor Slade (Samuel S. Hinds) is more concerned with upholding the status quo than fighting for justice, as it allows him to pursue nightly games of checkers with ample amounts of booze. He lets Kent (Brian Donlevy), the local crime lord, get away with just about anything. Kent’s forte is using Frenchy (Dietriche) to scam poker players out of their land and life savings. Once Sheriff Keogh is gone, they’re eager to set a new lawman in his place, preferably one they can continue to push around.
Who better for the job than the local drunk, Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger)? Unfortunately for Kent and Slade, Dimsdale decides that once he’s Sheriff it’s time to clean up and fly right. To this end he sends for Tom Destry, Jr. (Stewart), son of a legendary quick-draw lawman famed for cleaning up several difficult towns.
Tom arrives but is an instant disappointment for Dimsdale. Tom doesn’t wear a gun, and prefers to talk to people instead of shoot them. Dimsdale argues that the town needs a violent lawman capable of instilling fear in its populace, but Tom won’t budge. He becomes friendly with Frenchy, and soon comes close to discovering the truth behind Keogh’s disappearance, all the while attempting to right the injustices meted out on the town’s citizens by Kent.
The most admirable part of the film is Destry’s continued insistence on non-violence. He’s capable of drawing much faster than any of the bad guys in town, but never wears a gun. This makes it all the more disappointing, thematically, when he straps on his gun belt for a final showdown toward the end of the film. Until then he’s been a paragon, being treated like a pansy for refusing to fight, and his ultimate recourse turns out to be violence. Fortunately, the climactic battle is interrupted by a horde of women marching with farm utensils in hand. Destry’s final (and only) act of violence turns out to be justified, but his willingness to strap on the gun at all remains mildly disappointing.
Stewart is the best part of the film. Dietrich plays a French prostitute/hustler/singer with ease, oozing a bizarre kind of confident, world-weary sexuality, but her accent remains a hindrance. A time or two she becomes upset and her voice cracks, revealing her German roots. Though she is visually striking in her every scene, Stewart is the film’s stalwart. He speaks slowly and doesn’t carry any stick. He starts most conversations out with “I had a friend once…” and continues the story with a timely parable. But he’s never overbearing or annoying, and his quiet, gentle manner serves him well in most situations. When needed he will strike a man, but he usually wins with dialogue.
There are a few technical issues, with most of the fault lying in some non-continuous editing. Visually the film is pleasant, and it moves along at an adequate pace. More impressive than any element of the story or production is Stewart, whose temperament is always charming while he frustrates the bad guys, like an early Columbo. Destry Rides Again is worth watching solely for Stewart and Dietrich, particularly in an amusing scene wherein they duke it out on a barroom floor. A near-classic that doesn’t quite embody greatness, the film is nevertheless worth watching for fans of the cast or early Westerns.