I‘m not sure why I still start old movies I haven’t seen with preconceptions, but I do. Take this instance: I assumed Destry Rides Again was a curiosity. It’s the first Western starring James Stewart, so it’s significant that way. It also puts him with Marlene Dietrich, who had been have a rough year in Hollywood following the infamous “Box Office Poison” article, which listed her, published in May of 1938. I hadn’t heard much more about Destry Rides Again, so, as I said, I considered it a curiosity, not worth watching for its own power. I was so very wrong. I loved every minute of this film, which has just been released by The Criterion Collection for our viewing pleasure.
Destry Rides Again is touted as a comedy, and it does have plenty of that, but it’s also a unique Western for its time because it couches manliness in the form of Stewart’s down-home charm. The film begins by showing us a rough saloon town. Gun shots, drunks, and angry men ring through the streets of Bottleneck. We enter the saloon, where everyone is happily singing “Little Joe the Wrangler” (which also makes an appearance in the first section of the Coen Brother’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs). In this saloon we meet Frenchy, Marlene Dietrich’s character, who has accepted her seedy character as the one that will help her survive.
Frenchy has teamed up with Kent (Brian Donlevy), the town boss who exploits everyone and is still trying to get control of all of the land. He cheats at poker (with Frenchy’s help).
Unfortunately, the town mayor (Samuel S. Hinds) is on Kent’s side. The mayor even helps him cover up the murder of the honest Sheriff Keogh (Joe King). When that sad event happens, the town needs a new sheriff. Naturally, the man that the mayor and Kent want is the town drunk, Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger, whom I was happy to see again so soon after his role in Show Boat).
To everyone’s surprise — but to no one’s concern — Sheriff Dimsdale takes his job seriously. He once was a deputy under Tom Destry, and he vows to give up drinking and enlist his old hero’s son, also named Tom Destry, to help clean up the town. When Destry (James Stewart) shows up, though, he is not the kind of man Dimsdale hoped for. It’s a great entrance!
Dimsdale is worried Destry will mess everything up. Kent is happy that the new deputy looks like a weak-willed pushover. Destry doesn’t even carry guns! Frenchy isn’t sure what to make of him. She’s the first to realize that he’s a lot tougher than he might appear.
And that’s why I loved the film so much. James Stewart plays Destry to perfection. He is not a bumbler who turns out to have some skill. He enters Bottleneck confident, and he knows he is right to feel confident. He disarms — no, he dominates — with his calm demeanor. When he explains to Kent that he doesn’t carry a gun, it’s hard to explain how he comes out of the conversation with the upper hand . . . but he does! Stewart is simply sublime! I, along with the town bad guys, watch him and try to figure him out!
But this is also a great film for Dietrich. She is glamorous but not afraid to get in a scuffle that leaves her clothing torn and her hair all a mess. Her songs make Destry Rides Again almost a musical. She is funny, and clearly having fun, but she also knows that the film is serious and lends it that gravity.
I do want to end on the note of gravity. Stewart and Dietrich know how to play the characters loose, but they are still in character. Underneath the easy-going banter, they know that the situation is serious. You can see that throughout. Stewart is all smiles when he talks to the bad guys. He’s got his serious face on when he talks to the people being pushed around. The lightness is the way to win, and that, to me, makes this film even more serious and, though it’s been out for over eighty years, timely in its approach to masculinity.
Destry Rides Again will definitely be a regular repeat viewing at my house. I’m already looking at these evenings home with no other commitments as the perfect time to introduce them to Tom Destry.