A gun-shy sheriff needs to clean up this town in this delightfully funny semi-comedy Western
Director: George Marshall
Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Frenchy), James Stewart (Tom Destry Jnr), Mischa Auer (Boris), Charles Winninger (Washington Dimsdale), Brian Donlevy (Kent), Allen Jenkins (Gyp Watson), Warren Hymer (Bugs Watson), Irene Hervey (Janice Tyndall), Una Merkel (Lily Belle), Billy Gilbert (Loupgerou), Samuel S Hinds (Mayor Hiram J Slade), Jack Carson (Jack Tyndall)
There’s a new deputy sheriff in town! Son of a wild-shooting, hard-as-nails lawman, Tom Destry Jnr (James Stewart) is surely the man to bring justice to Bottleneck. Or at least that’s what everyone thinks until his carriage arrives and out steps an aw shucks slouching drawler, carrying a parasol, who loves a homespun yarn and – worst of all! – doesn’t see the point of carrying guns. Surely, he’ll be a push-over for Kent (Brian Donlevy), the corrupt saloon owner who runs the town? Guess again. Tom will soon change all sorts of minds, not least Kent’s gal, glamourous singer (and card sharp) the improbably accented Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich).
George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again is pretty much a delight from start to finish. It combines rich comedy and Western satire, with genuine sharp-shooting thrills, and showcases a host of actors at the top of their game. It’s crammed with excellent jokes, shrewd observations and some moments of truly affecting tragedy. It’s the finest film Marshall, otherwise a journeyman, directed with confidently handled, crowd-filled set pieces and a wonderful sense of pace.
It’s hard not to fall in love with a man who doesn’t care what people think of him but, when push comes to shove, could beat them all in a game of quick draw. It helps abundantly when he’s played by James Stewart at his most boyish and lovable. Tom is determined to prove the law can be done another way: that escalating things by pulling a firearm only leads to trouble (“You see if I have had a gun there, why, one of us might have got hurt – and it might have been me”). Tom is quick-witted and confident enough to face down crises without a gun – putting him years ahead of the townsfolk who judge everyone by their ability to hit a target.
In fact, Destry Rides Again in its opening hour really commits to the idea of Tom as an ahead-of-his-time pacifist, who thinks through events with the grace of a chess-master. We’re constantly encouraged to delight not only in his smarts – the incriminating traps he lays for all around him, the skilful way he defuses situations – but also respect for his cool and guts (you need to be damn sure of yourself to order a glass of milk in Kent’s no-holds-barred saloon).
Tom eventually of course has to give them a show – his pin-point accuracy with a pistol leaves the town gasping, and a group of would-be trouble-makers lamely muttering how sorry they are to have disturbed the peace – but he’s far too brave to need to prove himself. Real courage is not caring what people think of you, and real smartness is being happy for others to call you a knabby-pabby yellow-belly. After all, they’ll only underestimate you – and make it even more likely Tom’s methodical, law-following approach will yield the right results.
Marshall mines gallons of fish-out-of-water comedy from Tom’s willingness to look the fool. From his arrival at the town clutching the parasol of a fellow passenger – his shoot-first-and-second-think-third fellow passenger Tyndall (Jack Carson) is mistaken for him because he matches the bill of what the town expects – to his passion for whittling napkin rings and his calm aw shucks good humour when handed a mop and told to use that to “clean up this town”. But we are never left with a doubt that Tom is the bravest, smartest, toughest guy in the town – and that he doesn’t need to constantly proof it to himself and others.
It eventually sinks in as well to glamour madam, Frenchy. Marlene Dietrich had not only never appeared in a Western before, she’d been declared “box office poison” just a few months earlier. In the public mind she was associated with glamour, distance and von Sternberg majesty. All that was to change with Destry Rides Again, where she was lusty, earthy but still with a touch of class. Who would have imagined Sternberg’s muse engaging in a no-holds barred cat fight with Una Merkel’s domineering housewife (a brawl that trashes most of the bar)?
Dietrich is quite superb in the role of this enigmatic madam. Her distinctive singing is used liberally throughout the film. Which fits nicely with Frenchy’s role in the town as the glamourous distracting agent for the crimes of Kent (a smugly grinning Brian Donlevy). Not that she’s an innocent: she swipes cards from punters in crooked card games and knows full well Kent sends “out of town” anyone who crosses him. But there is something in Tom she finds intriguing, perhaps because he’s smarter, more interesting and different from any other an in this benighted outlaw stop-off.
It helps as well that there is a clear magnetic attraction between the two. Not to mention between Stewart and Dietrich – it’s no surprise, watching the film, to hear they had a passionate affair during its making. Stewart has never really felt sexier than here with Dietrich, while Stewart helps Dietrich feel warmer and more approachable than she ever did with Sternberg. The dance (literally at one point) between these two, captures in microcosm the struggle for the town’s soul: will Tom win them over, or will the gun-totting baddies?
Marshall doesn’t quite cap the film off as well as you might hope. Eventually, Tom is left no choice but to pick up his guns. The film does present a final shoot out quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen before – ending in a battle-of-the-sexes brawl in the saloon, shot with an immersive comedy. But it doesn’t change the fact that Destry Rides Again can’t in the end square its circle: Tom may preach stern words over violence, but when push comes to shove only guns solve problems.
But you forgive it because this film is a hugely entertaining delight. There are a multitude of delightful supporting roles. Best of all are Mischa Auer is extremely funny as a Russian would-be-deputy who (literally) doesn’t wear the trousers in his marriage and Charles Winninger as the town drunk turned sheriff, who has a secret heart of gold even if he can’t tuck his shirt in (there is a lovely, late, call-back to this mannerism in the film from Tom that is genuinely moving). Destry Rides Again manages to be both a sort of spoof, but also a very real genuine Western, with a near perfect mix of jokes and action. It doesn’t quite manage to deliver on its concept, but it does more than enough.