When it’s on: Tuesday, 23 December (1.50 pm)
Destry Rides Again came out in 1939, the same year as Stagecoach, and it seems that it will go down with the epitaph ‘The One that wasn’t Stagecoach.’ 1939 was the year that also brought us Mr Smith Goes to Washington, the tale of an idealistic young Senator played with such conviction by James Stewart, at this stage a star on the rise. Stewart was suddenly hot property, and ensured Destry Rides Again would be pumped out quickly to capitalise on his winning ‘Aw shucks’ charisma. In the years that followed, especially after his experiences in World War Two, Stewart’s range would broaden and become far more complicated, but for now it was easy to see him as the idealistic young American, with his provincial, awkward manner of speaking, his steadfast resoluteness and offbeat appeal.
The real star of the show at the time, however, was Marlene Dietrich, the Berliner who was approaching 40 and presumably nearing the tail end of her long, glittering career. As Frenchy, the owner of lawless Bottleneck’s rowdy saloon, she’s a jaded singer who’s seen it all, betting the pants off other barflies over card games and being embroiled by association with the schemes of the town’s unofficial boss, Kent (Brian Dunlevy). She knows all the twists and angles, and she also sings for the bar’s denizens, her tunes lampooned mercilessly in the later Blazing Saddles (fascinating for viewers like me who saw Saddles first and had no idea Madeline Kahn was satirising Dietrich throughout the film).
Like the rest of Bottleneck, she is at first optimistic when former soak and new, ‘tame’ Sheriff Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger) declares he will clean up the town by hiring as his deputy the son of famous lawman Tom Destry, and then falls into jaded cynicism when young Destry (Stewart) turns up and shows he’s far from the action hero she thinks is needed. Destry Jr doesn’t carry guns. He orders a cup of tea at the bar. He talks of resolving problems without shooting, which sends everyone into confusion and makes him appear at first ridiculous. And Frenchy, the one who seems to have had her hopes dashed hardest, turns to the bottle and enters into a no holds barred catfight with another woman.
Destry might indeed abhor violence, but he has steel. Resolving as much as he can without resorting to reaching for ’em, he nonetheless shows he knows how to shoot in one bravura scene, and only dons the pistols when there’s no other way. The parallels with America itself are clear enough. Fashioned as the peace loving, pacifist nation that only entered conflict when the bloodletting became too great, the USA was wavering over whether to enter the brewing conflict that would escalate into the Second World War and provided decisive when it finally flexed its mighty muscles. The same with Destry, who resorts to action when Dimsdale is gunned down senselessly, the shameful result of a town that uses violence cheaply.
For Stewart, this and Mr Smith were career making turns, transforming a jobbing actor into one of Hollywood’s major stars, though the juxtaposition between Destry and the characters he played in his 1950s Westerns are stark. Dietrich worked hard on the film, at turns tragic and comic, retaining her beauty whilst looking lived in and with sad stories to tell.
The film’s part comedy, but one with dark overtones as the situation in which Bottleneck finds itself in is all too credible. Credit goes to Donlevy as the oily Kent, his eyes on everyone whilst remaining a credible low key villain. It’s good stuff, and alongside Stagecoach helped to revitalise the Western genre.
Destry Rides Again: ****