Friday, July 22, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Destry Rides Again (1939)

Destry Rides Again (1939) ***
Directed by: George Marshall.
Written by: Felix Jackson & Gertrude Purcell &  Henry Myers based on the novel by Max Brand  
Starring: Marlene Dietrich (Frenchy), James Stewart (Thomas Jefferson 'Tom' Destry Jr.), Mischa Auer (Boris Stavrogin), Charles Winninger (Washington Dimsdale), Brian Donlevy (Kent), Allen Jenkins (Gyp Watson), Warren Hymer (Bugs Watson), Irene Hervey (Janice Tyndall), Una Merkel (Lily Belle), Billy Gilbert (Loupgerou), Samuel S. Hinds (Judge / Mayor Hiram J. Slade).

Jimmy Stewart is one of the most likable actors in movie history. Alfred Hitchcock knew this, which is why he cast Stewart is dark films like Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958) because he knew audiences would follow Stewart anywhere – even into becoming a peeping tom, or into his obsession with a dead woman. After all, Stewart played Mr. Smith, George Bailey and Elwood P. Dowd. Another of Stewart’s pure, awe shucks good guy roles is in Destry Rides Again, as a new Deputy in the Wild West Town of Bottleneck, who comes in and tames it, mostly without using a gun. Destry has a lot of stories about a “A guy I knew once”, which explain why he doesn’t believe in violence. And it is Stewart who makes Destry Rides Again so entertaining.

The movie opens in Bottleneck with the murder of the old Sheriff by Kent (Brian Donlevy), the owner of the saloon, who runs the town as his own personal playground. He has the mayor (Samuel S. Hinds) in his pocket, and can do whatever he wants. He is currently scamming all the local ranchers out of their land, so he can charge absorbent rates for other who want to graze their cattle there.  The Sheriff doesn’t like it, so he’s gunned down. Everyone knows it, although they do not question the “official” story that the Sheriff had to leave town in a hurry. In order to avoid any messiness in the future, the Mayor decides to name the town drunk Wash (Charles Winninger) the new Sheriff. But Wash surprises everyone. He wants to be a law and order man – he once worked under the legendary Tom Destry, and now decides to bring out his son Tom Destry Jr. (Stewart) to be his new deputy and tame the town. That is precisely what Destry wants to do – although he shocks everyone by informing them he doesn’t care a gun. He saw his father shot in the back, and doesn’t want to go out the same way. He quickly becomes a laughingstock.

But Destry has a plan. He likes the fact that everyone underestimates him. That will make his job easier. So Destry sets out to cleanup the town, winning people, including Kent’s girl, the tough pool room singer Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) to his side. Eventually however, non-violence only gets you so far before you have to pick up a gun to get the job done.

Directed by George Marshall, Destry Rides Again is a perfectly fine, entertaining old school Western. Made in 1939, when the Western was still an innocent genre devoid of the darkness that would seep in later decades, Destry Rides Again is feel good entertainment. It is one of the films, along with John Ford’s Stagecoach from the same year, that I would recommend to parents who want to introduce their children to the Western genre. Start them with the adventure, before you introduce the dark side the genre would later offer.

Stewart was in quite a few of those darker Westerns during his collaboration with Anthony Mann in films like Winchester 73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country and The Man from Laramie. I have not seen all of those films (hopefully soon), but what I have seen I have loved. I prefer my Westerns darker, which is perhaps why I didn’t enjoy Destry Rides Again as much as those other films. And yet, I have to admit that before you can subvert a genre, you have to have the standard. And Destry Rides Again meets that criteria. And with Stewart as likable as ever, Dietrich playing the tough girl, singer and a supporting cast full of fine character actors, I can’t complain too much about the film. A great film it isn’t, but it is wonderfully entertaining.

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