Destry Rides Again (1939)

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  • directed by George Marshall
  • starring James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Brian Donlevy, Mischa Auer, Charles Winninger
  • Tom Destry, the son of a legendary frontier peacekeeper, doesn’t believe in gunplay, thus becoming the object of ridicule when he rides into the town of Bottleneck and is appointed deputy sheriff.

“If you can, now, hold on! Hold on. Don’t get excited here. I’m just tryin’ to tell you that I ain’t got any guns. You see if I woulda had a gun then, why, one of us might have been hurt and it might be me. I wouldn’t want that to happen… would I?”

I looked forward to seeing Destry Rides Again mainly for the humor in seeing an affable, Capra-esque performance from Jimmy Stewart set in a rough and tumble Wild West town. Mission accomplished there as he shows up to the town of Bottleneck wet behind the ears, without a gun, and not looking for trouble despite filling in as the sheriff’s deputy. All the expected Stewart-isms are on display—awkward presence, good manners, reasonability, humor—all of which amplified in contrast to the stereotypical saloon-dwelling loudmouth type of Westerner that made up the entirety of the cast.

It was something I didn’t expect to see, however, that ended up being the best part of the film for me. When we first see Marlene Dietrich she’s on stage at the saloon putting on a nice performance of the song “Little Joe the Wrangler,” and as we soon learn, it isn’t just a pretty face and voice that makes up her life in Bottleneck. It was a really bold choice and a change of pace for the Western genre to have Dietrich’s Frenchy be the one unceremoniously in charge of order in the town. Bottleneck had a sheriff, of course, and it had her boyfriend, the devious saloon owner Kent, pulling the strings on a higher political level, but as far as street rule, nobody settled a rowdy mob or garnered as much respect as Frenchy, whether with a song or a violent outburst. The brutal fight between Frenchy and Lily and the resulting attack on Destry as he tries to stifle the conflict is easily the best scene of the movie and no doubt responsible for its long-lasting positive reputation. Even director George Marshall seemed to come alive during the sequence with kinetic camera movements and a spontaneous spirit to match the unscripted bedlam unfolding before a cheering crowd. Stewart even cracks some semi-nervous smiles as Frenchy launches his way bottles, chairs, or whatever else she can find. As you can sort of see from the still above that looks straight out of a Tarantino movie, Dietrich lost it during this scene, and it helped recharge her stalled career in the process.

Around 1939, there were a lot of Westerns being made and Destry happened to be released a few months after the best of them all, John Ford’s Stagecoach. Needless to say, this was no Stagecoach. Where Ford advanced the conventions of the genre and masterfully laid out a blueprint for all future films to follow, Marshall was content in merely telling a light-hearted take on morality and justice. It showed that even though the genre was new and not yet the American landmark that it is today, those in Hollywood were already eager to begin presenting it in a satirized light.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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