By Jeremy Carr.
There is, first and most famously, Marlene Dietrich. Since the time of its premiere in 1939, to its latest reemergence in the form of a Criterion Collection Blu-ray, conversation concerning Destry Rides Again has inevitably, and quite justly, hinged on the presence of this beguiling, Berlin-born beauty. Despite her meteoric rise, however, on the heels of Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) and subsequent collaborations with the director – a parade of lavish and stylish features that would cement her iconic status – Dietrich had by the end of the decade fallen on hard times. Recent Paramount titles floundered commercially, and she was branded with the potentially career-killing label of “box office poison.” Keeping busy in Europe, and keeping an eye on the troubling developments in her native Germany, Dietrich was hesitant about a return to Hollywood, as was Hollywood. It was the Hungarian producer Joe Pasternak who saw a potential path forward, albeit by the most unlikely of means. Appearing in a Western was something Dietrich couldn’t fathom, but von Sternberg stepped in, as he was wont to do when it concerned his most prized accomplice, lover, and prodigy. “I put you on a pedestal,” he told Dietrich, “the untouchable goddess. He wants to drag you down into the mud, very touchable. A bona fide goddess with feet of clay – very good salesmanship.”
Starring as Frenchy, a cabaret queen (her nickname, according to Farran Smith Nehme, a “way of explaining her inimitable German accent”), Dietrich doesn’t exactly scrabble in the mud in Destry Rides Again, but she does appear in a rough-and-tumble role totally foreign to that point in her career. Heard before she is seen, leading a barroom singalong, Dietrich assumes complete command, dancing and carousing, absorbing the advances, admiration, and utter awe of the rowdy townsfolk and every gaze of director George Marshall’s camera. She sings two songs within the film’s first 15 minutes, and some 45 minutes later returns to the stage with a delightful rendition of “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have,” written by Frank Loesser and set to the music of Frederick Hollander, who had also written “Falling in Love Again” for The Blue Angel. On stage or off, Dietrich revels in this raucous, against-type performance. Wielding such enticing phrases as “All or nothing I always say” and “The longer they wait, the better they like it,” her Frenchy plays interference for Kent (Brian Donlevy), owner of the Last Chance Saloon and her ostensible suitor, and she slinks her way through the rustic setting with a peerless allure. Although she may be deprived von Sternberg’s trademark glamour, this bawdy, down-to-earth turn seamlessly suits Dietrich’s archetypal demeanor and temperament. Frenchy has a servant and there are allusions to her past in New Orleans, suggestions of opulence and a touch of the exotic; yet she’s perfectly at home engaging in a stunning (and censor squirming) catfight with Una Merkel’s Lily Belle, after Frenchy literally wins the pants of the young woman’s husband in a card game (adding to the risqué skirmish, the two are also doused with water).
Frenchy is, it is said at one point, the “real boss of Bottleneck,” and surely, this boisterous town needs one; a trail of giddy gunfire erupts under Destry Rides Again’s opening credits, as rabble-rousers shoot into the night sky, and the commotion scarcely lets up thereafter, igniting a territory where lawlessness is simply routine. But the true authority in Bottleneck, it would seem, is actually Kent, an unscrupulous villain in cahoots with the town’s equally dubious mayor, Hiram J. Slade (Samuel S. Hinds). To lessen the enforced legal pressure, such as it was to begin with, the two collude in appointing the town drunk, Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger), as the new sheriff, taking the place of the recently murdered Sheriff Keogh (Joe King), who foolishly, if admirably, attempted to thwart the local wrongdoings. Dimsdale realizes he’s in over his head and enlists the aid of Tom Destry, Jr., the son of a famous lawman and apparently the man behind “[cleaning] up Tombstone,” a passing reference but one which, for those in the film and those viewing it, carries mythic connotations.
Just as Dietrich’s Destry appearance works against her prior, more familiar characterizations, James Stewart in the title role as the newly installed deputy positions itself as an exemplar of things to come in terms of his own conventional screen persona, as Stewart biographer Donald Dewey thoroughly relates in an interview for Criterion. In this, his first Western, a genre within which he would later excel, Stewart imbues Destry with his quintessential mild-mannered disposition. Espousing homespun words of wisdom and illustrative anecdotes, Destry, who makes a habit out of carving napkin rings, is the antithesis of everything Bottleneck represents, and what Dimsdale expected. Soft-spoken, a little gangly, and effortlessly casual, he is mocked for his refusal to carry guns, though he is, of course, an expert shot when tested (recalling John Wayne’s phrasing in Rio Bravo, when he says Ricky Nelson’s young gunslinger is “so good, he doesn’t feel he has to prove it”). Easygoing though he may be, Destry is swiftly suspicious about Keogh’s “disappearance,” and while some question his by-the-book approach, which occasionally manifests itself as mere ambivalence, his reticence is ultimately effective. And in the end, arguably upending the film’s hitherto statement on the nature and necessity of violence, he gets a determined tracking shot as he straps on his father’s guns and enacts more typical western justice.
Rumor has it, Stewart and Dietrich had an affair during production of Destry Rides Again, which supposedly left her pregnant and resulted in an abortion she never relayed to Stewart. Whatever the case (and does it really matter?), there is an undeniable chemistry between the two stars. As Destry and Frenchy jostle for supremacy in their own unique ways, to their own unique ends, the juxtaposition of personalities is antagonistic and at the same time engagingly complementary. On the cusp of full-blown stardom (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was released the same year and The Shop Around the Corner the next), Stewart conveys what Imogen Sara Smith calls the “power of softness,” and Dietrich, who would later solidify her Western worth in Fritz Lang’s 1952 film Rancho Notorious, seizes the attention of men and women alike, as she had in her earlier films, with an inviting blend of sexual fascination and contempt. Both performers are pleasantly compelling in their shared capacity for comfortable charm, confidence, and varied forms of savvy impudence.
Max Brand’s 1930 source novel of the same name had also served as inspiration for the 1932 Tom Mix vehicle of the same title, and the property was resurrected again in 1954, with Destry, starring Audie Murphy and also directed by Marshall; further reworkings would include a television remake in 1955, a Broadway musical with Andy Griffith, and a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation in 1945, featuring Stewart and Joan Blondell and included on the Criterion disc. As for this 1939 iteration, however, with its writing credits going to Felix Jackson, Henry Myers, and Gertrude Purcell, production was rather slipshod. Just 45 pages of the script were complete when Dietrich arrived on scene and additional sheets of the screenplay often didn’t appear until the day of shooting. Still, the basics were in place, and the “genius” of Destry Rides Again, writes Nehme in her Criterion essay, “is that it weaves together its comedy with the elements of a true Western.” As far as this comedy, the film is indeed notable for its borderline slapstick exploits and most of all in the perpetually flustered Dimsdale (played straight or for humor, everyone in the picture seems to be having a great time in such defined parts). To this point, Imogen Sara Smith, also interviewed for Criterion, likewise calls Destry Rides Again the “greatest comic Western” and applauds its merging components of a “spoof” and those of more “straightforward” genre fare. Further highlighting its idiosyncratic nature, Nehme points to its “oddball feminist touches,” from its shady lady dominance to its rallying of women as they storm the Bottleneck streets. “Gender bending” and “genre bending,” according to Smith, the seemingly atypical aspects of Destry Rides Again could also be attributable to Pasternak, who, she says, eschews rudiments of the traditional Western and adds a European sensibility.
All such points are valid – this is an unusual Western – but in attempting to ascribe why the film is so distinctive, the recurrent mention of outside generic influences somewhat denies the richness of its fundamental genre in the first place. Destry Rides Again, notes Richard Steiner, writing for Turner Classic Movies, “introduced a new kind of film which was a complex synthesis of several genres – comedy, romance, musical, and Western revenge fantasy.” But perhaps the picture isn’t so much outstanding for its assimilation of these other forms as it is for being an exemplary specimen of just how fertile the Western itself was, and still is. It’s a genre with infinite possibilities; from B-grade “oaters” to Bazinian “superwesterns,” there have been unceasing narrative, stylistic, tonal, and thematic variations, and others yet to be explored. With assured direction by Marshall and expert cinematography by Hal Mohr, a two-time Oscar winner (including a write-in victory for 1935’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), a film like Destry Rides Again should therefore be celebrated not only for integrating what the Western often hadn’t, but by what it so successfully could, all while remaining entrenched in its generic foundation. It’s a nonconforming Western, sure, but it’s a Western just the same.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (forthcoming).