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Destry Rides Again (1939)
Because we arrive into our culture in medias res we often become aware of the imitation before the thing that's being imitated. I had no idea, for example, what Madeline Kahn was up to in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles until I recently watched Destry Rides Again. After decades, the other shoe dropped.
(based on the novel by Max Brand)
Academy Award Nominations:
None. Although in 1996 it was included in the National Film Registry.
"I bet you have a lovely face under all that paint. Why don't you wipe it off someday and have a good look. Figure out how you can live up to it."
In the old west town of Bottleneck, Kent (Brian Donlevy) is acquiring land through crooked poker games with the help of Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich), a tough, sexy, New Orleans barroom gal. When Sheriff Keogh attempts to intervene he's killed, and town drunk Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger) is jokingly appointed the new sheriff so the town may continue its lawless ways. Ah, but Dimsdale was once the deputy to Sheriff Destry, an old west legend, and he sends for Destry's son, Tom Jr. (James Stewart), to be his deputy, so the two of them can clean up Bottleneck together. "Destry rides again!" he cries to the mob. However, Tom isn't what Dimsdale anticipated. He arrives whittling napkin rings, telling tall tales, and not wearing a gun. He soon becomes a town joke.
Yet there's a calm strength in his pacific resolve. The townspeople laugh at him, sure, but he doesn't care and he doesn't care in a good-natured way. Of course the film has to stack the deck in his favor. Even though he doesn't carry a gun he's probably the best shot in town, which he demonstrates to some rowdies to warn them away. In the old west, in order to be peaceful and law-abiding, you have to be tough as hell first.
Destry sets about trying to find out what happened to Sheriff Keogh, and, once he assumes murder, to find the body. He winds up tricking one of Kent's lieutenants into finding it for him. Unfortunately, the crooked, tobacco-chewing mayor, Slade (Samuel S. Hinds), is also the crooked judge, so Destry sends for a federal judge to try the case. When Kent and his men find out, they kill Sheriff Dimsdale, causing the inevitable: Destry straps on his guns again and goes for Kent.
There are great supporting characters here: Dimsdale, always pulling out his shirt front in frustration, and Boris, the Russian emigre who wants to be a cowboy but winds up losing his pants to Frenchy in a poker game. Dietrich is rowdy and sexy, and she gets involved with Una Merkel, wife of Boris, in one of the great cinematic catfights. At times Dietrich overacts in that 1930s fashion her eyes bug out so she looks half-crazed but she's quite effective in a melancholy mood. Stewart, meanwhile, who got second-billing, is impeccable. He's got "personality," as Frenchy's maid, Clara (Lillian Yarbo), says. It's fun watching him on screen.
However, the film seems to be applying 20th century, small town morals onto a 19th century, old west landscape. I doubt many lawmen arrived into an old west town without guns. And even though Destry wins in the end, at what cost? You could argue that both Dimsdale and Frenchy are killed because Destry refuses to use his strength. What if Destry had rode into town, summed up the situation, and shot Kent on sight? We'd have had a shorter film but the ending would have been the same except Dimsdale and Frenchy would have lived. In a way, the movie almost argues against the kind of pacifism that Destry preached, while pretending to argue for it.
Minor criticism for a film which has held up amazingly well after 60+ years.
January 19, 2002
© 2002 Erik Lundegaard