Silver Screen Standards: Destry Rides Again (1939)
The Western was new territory for leading man James Stewart in 1939, when he starred in director George Marshall’s star-studded, action-packed take on the oater, Destry Rides Again, but the film would usher Stewart into a genre where he clearly felt at home. He would go on to star in iconic Westerns for the next several decades, including Winchester ’73 (1950), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), How the West Was Won (1962), and The Shootist (1976), but his first foray into the genre remains a special moment in his career. Destry Rides Again stars the pre-war Stewart as our hero, a mild-mannered milk drinker with an unassuming manner that makes him an unlikely lawman for a wild frontier town. It’s a funny, rambunctious comedy with moments of drama; today we would call it a “dramedy” and know what to expect, but the mix gives the movie a modern feel in spite of its self-aware, old-fashioned Western tropes. A delightful cast featuring Marlene Dietrich, Charles Winninger, Una Merkel, Mischa Auer, Jack Carson, and Brian Donlevy also makes this a must-see movie for classic film fans, even if Westerns aren’t their usual fare.
Stewart plays Tom Destry, Jr., the son of a famous lawman who is summoned to crime-ridden Bottleneck by his father’s old deputy, Washington “Wash” Dimsdale (Charles Winninger). Wash has been appointed Sheriff by the band of crooks who run the town because he’s an elderly alcoholic whom the villains see as a joke, but Wash is disappointed when Tom turns out to be a good-humored young man who doesn’t even carry guns. The saloon boss, Kent (Brian Donlevy), and crooked Judge Slade (Samuel S. Hinds) initially smirk at Tom’s seeming inadequacy, but everyone in Bottleneck soon learns that Tom is far more capable than they expected. Kent’s star attraction and girlfriend, Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich), is also impressed by Tom, but her interest in the young deputy conflicts with her involvement in Kent’s criminal schemes.
In his pictures before World War II, Stewart is often a mild, amiable character, tall and good-looking but by no means masculine in the same way as Western stars like John Wayne or even Joel McCrea. Young James Stewart doesn’t look like he belongs on a horse, and it certainly wasn’t the kind of movie he had done before. His other big picture of 1939, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, earned him his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and it’s easier to see the connections between that role and his Oscar-winning performance in The Philadelphia Story in 1940. Still, there’s an unexpected rightness about Stewart as Destry that presages the many Western roles to come, some of which, especially the 1950s pictures with director Anthony Mann, probe the darker side of his postwar persona as provocatively as Stewart’s thrillers with Alfred Hitchcock. Stewart’s collaborations with iconic Western director John Ford are also memorable, especially The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), in which Stewart and John Wayne share the lead roles. It’s worth noting, too, that Stewart’s last screen credit, for his voice work on An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991), is a Western, a final bow more than fifty years after his first Western role. Destry Rides Again serves as the starting point for an essential part of Stewart’s career, even if it’s not the genre with which he is most associated today.
Stewart is definitely the star of the movie, but Destry Rides Again also relies on its excellent supporting cast and gives them many memorable scenes in which to shine and play with the traditional genre types their characters embody. Dietrich, also new to the genre, has an especially delicious role as Frenchy; her musical numbers enliven the mood while her wavering loyalties keep the audience guessing about her motives. Dietrich’s fight scene with Una Merkel, who plays the more socially acceptable Lily Belle, is an absolute riot and a chance to see the women of a Western cut loose. Merkel also has terrific comic chemistry with Mischa Auer as her hen-pecked Russian husband, whom Lily Belle insists on calling by her previous husband’s surname. Charles Winninger nails the comedy and pathos of his role as the former deputy sunk into alcoholic buffoonery but still capable of turning himself around, and Brian Donlevy grins with malicious glee as the crime boss who runs the town. The only weak spot in the lineup might be Irene Hervey as fellow newcomer and love interest Janice Tyndall, who is completely overshadowed by Dietrich’s Frenchy and doesn’t have enough scenes or purpose to establish her character’s appeal to Tom. Hervey might have done more with the role had the role itself been better, but she has to share her few scenes with the forceful presence of a young Jack Carson as Janice’s brother. Fans of character actors will appreciate even minor players like Samuel S. Hinds, Billy Gilbert, and Virginia Brissac, who, like Carson, make the most of their time onscreen.
If you enjoy lively Westerns, Destry Rides Again fits the bill in spades, but it’s also a good introductory Western for those who might have steered clear of the genre in the past. Stewart’s hero, lanky, kind, and quick with a funny story, is an antidote to the gun-toting machismo that sometimes repels viewers, and the energetic comedy keeps the heavier scenes from being too grim. Dietrich’s performance is hilariously parodied by Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles (1974), which makes a good follow-up feature for a weekend double bill. George Marshall directed a remake, Destry (1954), starring Audie Murphy in the title role, and the story also inspired a Broadway musical in 1959 and a TV series in 1964. For even more James Stewart Westerns, try Bend of the River (1952), The Man from Laramie (1955), or The Cheyenne Social Club (1970), which sees Stewart team up with fellow Western star and real-life best friend Henry Fonda for an amusing comedy about two aging cowboys who end up in charge of a brothel.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.