This 1939 Western is one of several produced around the Destry character of the 1932 novel. This version is only loosely based on the novel though, with many characters and events differing significantly. In the fictional Western town of Bottleneck, saloon owner Kent (Brian Donlevy) reigns supreme. With the help of saloon singer Frenchie (Marlene Dietrich) the town is under his control through fear, intimidation and extortion. A series of Sheriffs come and go with the latest being shot by Kent himself. In order to avoid the unwanted attention of the law, Kent and his Mayor (Samuel S. Hinds) give the job to one of the town’s many drunks, Washington Dimsdale (Charlie Winniger). ‘Wash’ surprises the town though by cleaning up his act and hiring a new Deputy from Montana. The son of a once feared lawman, Destry (James Stewart) turns out to be a disappointment. Against guns and seeming a bit of a wimp, Destry hides behind his polite exterior, a man willing to uphold the law, whatever it takes.
Destry Rides Again pulled me in two directions. Occasionally I thought the film was far too broad and frothy, full of poor jokes and songs but every now and then it surprised me with a cutting line, wonderful metaphor or ferocious fight which gave me the impression of watching two films accidently cut together as one.
I found the humour of the film worked against its overall goals and definitely interrupted my enjoyment. The frequent gurning reminded me of the sort of acting you’d find from bit part players behind Charlie Chaplin in the middle teens of the last century. Maybe it’s just that the comedy has aged but I found very little of it funny. What was better than the front and centre jokes were the ones which slipped under the radar slightly. The more subtle comedy worked far better here than the more broad, loud stuff. Something else which I wasn’t keen on were the songs. I don’t like the sound of Marlene Dietrich’s singing voice. It sounds a couple of octaves too low for her body and reminded me of football chanting. That being said, there was one song in the film which kept repeating in my head as I tried to sleep last night. The song was Little Joe, the Wrangler and it had an incredibly catchy rhythm to it. It also closes the film, sung by some children at the end.
I enjoyed the plot much more than I did the songs and comedy. It’s basically a classic sheriffs and outlaws tale only with the outlaws running the town and the sheriffs riding in to take it. The way in which Jimmy Stewart’s Destry goes about cleaning up Bottleneck is very different to your typical cowboy film. His early scenes make him a laughing stock and his gentle tones and upstanding gait give him the look of a college student who got off the wagon at the wrong stop. What he initially hides though is supreme intelligence and understanding of how things work Out West. He draws the bad guys in close before striking and often does so without the use of weapons.
I was impressed in the early stages with the film’s anti gun stance. For a movie made in a country which is strangled by an irremovable law allowing anyone to own a firearm, the anti firearm stance of the central character was a welcome change from the norm. While this is kept up for most of the film, a turning point in the plot sees Destry heading for his shooting irons before a final climactic shootout. This was a shame but the movie redeemed itself by making the women of Bottleneck the true heroes and they used no guns at all. In the face of the American right’s ridiculous suggestion that if everyone was armed then there would be no gun crime, I found Destry’s line “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?” to be of particular significance.
For a film produced under the strict Motion Picture (Hays) Code, I was a little surprised by a couple of the scenes. The Code era censors were renowned for cutting seemingly innocuous scenes from movies but a couple seemed to have escaped their gaze here. Marlene Dietrich is seen changing her clothes in one scene and when down to her undergarments, straddles a stool. While tame by modern standards, this sort of saucy image was the sort of thing I’d have expected the censors to remove. A vicious catfight was also included. This fight, between Dietrich and Una Merkel lasted a couple of minutes and ended with the two women’s clothes in tatters. Dietrich in particular appeared to go all out in the fight.
The acting was a real mixed bag. There were a lot of actors, mainly those with more comedic roles whose performances I could have done without. Billy Gilbert is one example of an actor who is on hand purely to provide laughs but fails to do so. Marlene Dietrich is pretty good as the seductive tease of the saloon and she shares some nice scenes with James Stewart who is the stand out. His affable and gentle personality is really suited to the role and the metaphorical dialogue comes straight off his tongue with great style. Mischa Auer is one of the few actors in a comedic role who shines and I was also impressed with Jack Carson and Irene Hervey. Brian Donlevy appears to be acting in a film made fifteen years earlier but is fine as the villain.
In the end there are areas of Destry Rides Again which I really enjoyed. The plot whizzes along and the dialogue is snappy but I couldn’t help but feel the tone was just too light.
- Dietrich and Stewart had a famous affair while making the film and it is heavily rumoured that following the production, Dietrich had an abortion without Stewart's knowledge.
- This was Stewart's first Western. He wouldn't return to the genre for another eleven years.
- The famous fight scene was un-choreographed and the actresses agreed that anything went except closed fists. Dietrich was bruised for weeks following the scene but the Director got it in one take.