Friday, 3 August 2012

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Vestens Dronning
“Destry rides again” is labeled a western comedy, which baffles me I bit after seeing it. Yes, it is a bit on the light side, but I really would prefer simply calling it a classic western and a good one at that.

The comedic element may be a disguise for some good points and there is a seriousness underlying the play that I appreciate.

Bottleneck is a generic frontier town in the grip of anarchy. The top dog among the bad guys is Kent who operates his shady business from The Last Chance saloon (that is actually funny). Kent effectively controls the town. The mayor who also acts as a judge is in his pocket and the sheriffs have a bad habit of disappearing. His scam-du-jour is to fool property out of the local homesteaders to block the passage of cattle trains in order to charge customs.

When the latest sheriff disappears the mayor names the local drunkard Dimsdale Washington, also known as Wash as new sheriff. But if they thought they got themselves an easy puppet they soon learn that Wash takes his appointment serious and immediately sends for the son of his late friend Destry, Tom Destry Jr.

So far it is not much out of the ordinary. We follow one of the saloon girls, who combines her performances with a part in Kent’s scam and does some cons of her own. Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) is a very tough girl.

But life on the frontier is tough. Besides all the toughs hanging around in the saloon there are the homesteaders, who will not give up their land and defend it with smoking guns, there are the “ordinary” women of the town who are not cowed at all, but easily marches into the saloon to settle a score. Here we see Mrs. Callahan (Una Merkel), who was so fond of her first husband that she kept the name and insists on calling her second husband Callahan as well, enter the saloon to retrieve her husband’s trousers from Frenchy and end up in a fistfight with her. No, this is not a place for the meek.

In comes Thomas Jefferson “Destry Jr.” (James Stewart) with an entirely different approach. No guns, talk with people, let the law speak. I know the contrast is supposed to be funny, but setting the humor aside he is the voice of civilization in a place run by the jungle law. Okay, he knows how to handle a gun, but if you bring guns you get a gunfight, so better leave them at home. He is not insensitive to people’s needs, but if you make compromises with the law you are on the wrong track yourself. He is integrity in a place that is sadly lacking. I know there is a crime case here as well and a love story with Frenchy, but I really find this civilization versus barbarism a very interesting point and at the core of the story. He is the opposite of Dirty Harry. In Dirty Harry society has become so politically correct that they have lost the ability to act, whereas in Bottleneck the action has gone entirely out of hand and must be restrained. Too many people with guns.

It is a clever way for the director to sugarcoat this message in a western comedy, the most trigger happy of genres. The sad thing is that they are not taking it through to the final conclusion. When the baddies go for Wash Destry drags out his gun belt again and go out to do business and in self-defense he shoots Kent (Nothing so satisfying for your feeling of justice as killing off the bad guy). But at least the director lets the women, representing order, sweep through the nest of corruption and clean out the place. There is a simple pleasure in that, though I would have preferred that the judge would have made it through to deal with it.

I am very happy with “Destry rides again”. It is very entertaining and watchable and the cast is doing nicely. It is very classic in its setup, but beneath the core it has this subtext that makes it much more interesting. I may be over-interpreting it of course, maybe it is just classic western, but I like to think not.

James Stewart is quickly developing into being a guy I am looking forward to see and he is as usual a pleasure. I am a little more hesitant about Marlene Dietrich here. There something a bit overdone about her part. It does not feel natural. Well, you cannot win every time.

It does not change that I enjoyed myself with this movie.


  1. Dietrich isn't well known for her comedic abilities, but I think she does a pretty good job here. As an aside, this film pretty much saved her career. Stewart had a habit of helping out leading ladies who had fallen on hard time in the business--see Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story.

    1. Dietrich had her ups and down. I am not as crazy about her as Sternberg was. Here she is only halfway okay. By comparison Hepburn was stellar in The Philadelphia Story. I n fact she is always stellar.