by Nathan Sacks
Destry Rides Again is one of those early Hollywood genre films that helped establish some of the most timeless and well known of western tropes, but is not itself well known. This may be due to a number of factors, not the least of which is that the film came out in 1939, a mega-rich year for film that included another, more famous trailblazing western (Stagecoach) as well as actor James Stewart’s better-known star turn (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). While those films had auteurs Frank Capra and John Ford at their respective helms, Destry was made by the relatively anonymous George Marshall, who directed a number of westerns but never made a serious stamp on the genre. Despite this, Destry is as influential on the genre in its own way as Stagecoach, and maybe even more.
Director: George Marshall
Producers: Islin Auster, Joe Pasternak
Writers: Felix Jackson, Gertrude Purcell, Henry Myers, Max Brand (novel)
Cinematographer: Hal Mohr
Editor: Milton Carruth
Music: Frank Skinner
Cast: Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, Mischa Auer, Charles Winniger, Brian Donlevy
US Theatrical Release: December 29, 1939
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
It helped that the film was adapted from a book by one of the true masters of the genre, Max Brand. In reality, Brand was one of many pen names used by the pulp writer Frederick Schiller Faust. Faust wrote every kind of cheap dime novel during the 1930s and early 40s, from detective stories to medical dramas, but it was with the western that he created his greatest, most rich and compelling literary works. Novels like The Seventh Victim and Gunman’s Reckoning are today only remembered by pulp enthusiasts, which is too bad, since they helped prove that Western literature had incredible literary potential despite its reputation amongst tastemakers (then and now) as disposable, unserious entertainment. Brand’s work on the western deserves to be as well-known as H.P. Lovecraft’s contributions to horror, Isaac Asimov’s contributions to science fiction, and fellow pulp authors Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain’s development of detective noir—he truly is that crucial in the development of this particularly American mythology.
Faust was amazingly prolific, perhaps moreso than any American writer of the 20th century save Asimov. Between 1930 and 1944, when he was killed by shrapnel in World War II, he wrote an estimated 30,000,000 words, which translates to something like 500 novels in his short lifetime. Destry became one of the most famous characters in the Brand stable, and the novel and movie generated a remake Destry in 1954 and a TV series in 1964. Those versions are actually more faithful to the book than the 1939 film, but each revolves around the basic premise of a pacifist sharpshooter who becomes deputy sheriff in a lawless town.
If that sounds familiar, you are probably thinking of Shane, or maybe even later movies like Unforgiven, but Destry established the idiom first and presents a far more comedic, less anguished take. Jimmy Stewart actually doesn’t appear in the film for the first 20 minutes. Instead, viewers are introduced to the lawless town of Bottleneck via a beautiful craning shot of the town saloon, where boisterous drunkards, gamblers, and musicians gather around what turns out to be a single woman, Frenchie (Marlene Dietrich). She is the madam of this speakeasy, and Dietrich magnetizes the camera as she sings a song “Little Joe,” holding her own entirely in a room otherwise packed with boisterous, drunken men. If Dietrich’s singing style and mannerisms seem a bit familiar, it might be because of Blazing Saddles, where Madeline Kahn’s character Lily Von Shtupp had an accent and deep singing style was that was specifically reminiscent of Dietrich in this role.
Dietrich’s character is glamorous and fun, but ultimately amoral. Later that evening, she helps the bar’s sinister owner Kent (Brian Donleavy) cheat a gambling landowner out of his property. The landowner protests but is kicked out of the bar, where he meets Bottleneck’s sheriff and demands restitution. The sheriff goes into the saloon to meet Kent and is promptly killed for his efforts. The mayor, who is in Kent’s pocket, immediately declares the town’s banjo-playing drunk Washington Dimsdale (Charlie Winninger) to be the new sheriff. With a new and hopelessly ineffective sheriff, Kent hopes to hold onto his stolen land and charge cattle owners a fortune to travel on the property. But Dimsdale turns out to be less of a fool than the town thinks: he hires the son of a legendary gunfighter, Thomas Jefferson Destry, and together they attempt to take Kent down through the letter of the law.
As I said, it is instructive to compare this film to Stagecoach, which came out the same year and established the terrain of the “open” western and Monument Valley backdrops just as this film establishes the closed-set “indoor” western of saloons and small frontier towns. John Ford’s film made a star out of John Wayne, who represented a much different type of Western archetype than Jimmy Stewart. Stewart’s Destry is a kind-hearted eccentric who uses violence rarely and cares little about proving his masculinity, even though he is of course a superior fighter in every way. The film makes him unabashedly a pacifist who always disapproves of guns and gun violence. When he first appears in the town, he is seen carving wooden napkin rings for fun, and steps out of the stagecoach a woman carrying a woman’s parasol and canary cage. Because of this, he becomes the town laughing stock, and uses the town’s underestimation to his advantage as he uncovers the circumstances of the death of the previous sheriff. Along the way, Destry gets out of many violent situations by dispensing homespun wisdom with ironic twist endings (kind of like Rod Serling), which turns out to be a far more effective weapon than any gun.
Stewart and Dietrich do not spend a lot of time together onscreen, but when they do, Marshall’s camera picks up on something special. Stewart’s character is too wholesome for there to be legitimate sexual chemistry between the two, but that fact somehow deepens the connection between these two very different characters. Their friendship ends in an unexpected place, just as the film ends in an unexpected manner, with Destry surviving a major saloon gun battle with the intervention of Bottleneck’s female population, led by Dietrich. This did not happen in Brand’s original novel, but the film’s climax therefore has a few nice protofeminist images that at the very least merit an academic study or two.
Destry Rides Again is a classic western that deserves substantial critical reevaluation. No, it is not a western of open vistas and beautiful outdoor scenery, like John Ford’s movies, nor is it a close character examination of male friendships, like Howard Hawks’ films. It is not a film with a political message like The Ox-Bow Incident or a ponderous moral tale like Shane. It is, instead, a western musical comedy, with great singing performances by Dietrich and a number of memorable, eccentric characters and great lines. The film is about atmosphere, not action. There are plenty of movies like Destry that have been made since, but you owe it to yourself to discover where the tropes originally came from, and why they endure.