Saturday, January 13, 2024

In praise of Destry Rides Again

I have done very little movie -watching in the past two months, but I ended the year with the wonderful, hard-to-classify 1939 film Destry Rides Again – a Comedy-Drama-Musical-Western(!) with the unusual but very effective pairing of Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart. Technically this is a Western (about the “cleaning up” of a corrupt and violent town called Bottleneck), but that doesn’t begin to describe its quirkiness. Its leading man is a deputy sheriff who drinks milk and refuses to carry a gun (at least, for a while). The longest brawl in the film involves two women (this is 15 years before Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge faced off in Johnny Guitar). There is much loony dialogue, and the characters – both the heroes and the villains – behave very differently from the usual Western archetypes.

Here is an example of a studio-era film where all the constituent parts come together brilliantly, under the direction of someone (George Marshall) who doesn’t have a reputation as an auteur or a “personal filmmaker”. One tends to associate such films with reliable solidity (Casablanca might be a major example), as opposed to zaniness, but Destry Rides Again is very much the latter. While it isn’t a revisionist Western in the sense that some films from the 1950s and 1960s onward were, it is offbeat and free-flowing (in comparison, John Ford’s Stagecoach, made the same year, seems traditional and hemmed-in) – a sort of masala movie with bawdy comedy and serious drama (there are a couple of very moving scenes, and beautifully shot close-ups) and music and madness, and even a touch of police procedural.

You haven’t experienced Wild West whimsy until you’ve heard Jimmy Stewart (with his fiercest expression and fastest drawl) say the line: “Now the next time you fellas start any of this here promiscuous shooting around the streets, you’re going to land in jail. Understand?” Or when Mischa Auer (one of many super character actors in this film) unnecessarily says: “Yes Mon Commandant. I am a courier, fast as a bolt of lightning, silent as the night itself” before heading off to perform an important errand for Destry. You can completely see why Mel Brooks was influenced by this film when making Blazing Saddles.

In my view, this film also played as big a part in the creation of the Stewart screen persona as the much better known Mr Smith Goes to Washington did the same year. Meanwhile, Dietrich had been a big star for years, but was being labelled “box-office poison” at this time, and this is one of her most fun roles: yee-haw-ing away in her opening scene in a rambunctious saloon, cat-fighting, singing. (That same year, 1939, Ninotchka was famously promoted as a film where Greta Garbo laughed – and a remote and icy screen goddess was humanised – but Destry Rides Again also gives us a more accessible Marlene Dietrich, compared to the parts she did for Josef von Sternberg earlier in the decade.)

So much fun, especially if you’re interested in the history of the Western and the many avatars it took before it settled into the self-consciously revisionist version of the late 1960s and beyond. I try to avoid making recommendations, since I don’t presume to know anyone else’s tastes, but do give this a try. The first 15 minutes or so is chaos, but it settles into a proper storyline after Destry arrives.
For those who haven’t watched much from 1930s Hollywood, this is also a useful introduction to performers like Brian Donlevy (who played the lead in Preston Sturges’s wonderful The Great McGinty), Una Merkel, Charles Winninger, and of course Mischa Auer.

I have shared a good print of Destry Rides Again on my film group. If anyone here wants it, let me know.

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