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Blu-ray: Destry Rides Again | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: Destry Rides Again

Blu-ray: Destry Rides Again

Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart shine in the nostalgic 1939 town-tamer Western

Meeting her match: James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich in 'Destry Rides Again'

A calculatedly nostalgia-infused town-taming Western, 1939's Destry Rides Again out-sparkled Errol Flynn's contemporaneous light “oaters" and anticipated noir-tinged classics like My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Gunfighter (1950).

Because it sublimely teamed Marlene Dietrich as worldly dancehall queen Frenchy and James Stewart as pacifist deputy Thomas Jefferson Destry, it is godparent to both Dietrich's crazy Western vehicle Rancho Notorious (1952) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), in which Stewart also played a peace-loving outsider.

Destry proves far from the milquetoast rube he seems to be when, shortly after he appears as a stagecoach passenger whittling a napkin ring and drawling one of his moral anecdotes at the 20-minute mark, he presents himself to the people of the riotous frontier town Bottleneck carrying a parasol and a birdcage. Building on Stewart’s recent success as whistleblowing junior senator Jefferson Smith in Mr Smith Goes to Washington, his fourth film of 1939, Destry Rides Again, his fifth, confirmed him as a major star.

Destry Rides AgainLoosely based on a Max Brand novel (as was the 1932 Tom Mix adaptation), the film was directed with shrewdness and polish by the underrated George Marshall, an accomplished silent-era veteran and Western specialist; Marshall closely remade it as Destry (1950), which only proved that Audie Murphy was less appealing than Stewart, and it also inspired Frenchie (1950).

Destry Rides Again was not only a pivotal film for Stewart and a hit, it rejuvenated Dietrich’s flagging stardom after a couple of misfires by casting her as an earthier and livelier woman than the remote, outlandishly costumed femme fatales she’d played in the seven classics of exotica Josef von Sternberg had directed her in between 1930 and 1935. Dietrich was vacationing on the French Riviera with her husband Rudolf Sieber, her supposed lover Erich Maria Remarque, and her former lover Sternberg when the latter advised her to accept producer Joe Pasternak’s offer to play Frenchy.

Bottleneck's lawlessness, established with a bravura tracking shot, suggests the influence of such Old West paintings as Frederick Remington's "A Quarrel Over Cards" (1887) and Charles M Russell's "In Without Knocking" (1909). The Deadwood-like settlement is despotically run by the land-grabber Kent (Brian Donlevy), proprietor of the teeming saloon where his lover Frenchy dances on the bar in glitzy faux cowgirl duds, singing songs like “The Boys in the Back Room” (a Frank Loesser and Frederick Hollander number that became a Dietrich staple). After she helps Kent swindle a family man out of his ranch during a rigged poker game and the local sheriff is assassinated on Kent’s orders, his ally the corrupt mayor Judge Slade (Samuel S Hinds) gives the badge to town drunk “Wash” Dimsdale (Charles Winninger).

Wash confounds Kent and Slade by sobering up and sending for Destry, the son of a murdered legendary lawman, to support him. Destry starts by dousing in dirty mop water an enraged wife (Una Merkel) and Frenchy – who has robbed the woman’s henpecked husband (Mischa Auer) of his trousers at the card table – to end their saloon catfight. The implied sadistic Sapphic eroticism of this comic barroom brawl was cleverly exploited in Universal’s advance publicity and was one of the movie’s key lures. Marshall was meanwhile blessed with Merkel, Auer, Hinds and Winninger especially, and other top-notch character players.

As a comedy, Destry Rides Again remains amusing, but modern audiences won’t laugh out loud. As a Western melodrama and romance, it's both jarring and moving. When Destry accuses Frenchy of using crime to feather her nest, he unnerves her by demonstrating – without touching her – his sexual magnetism; Dietrich’s nightclub singers stayed impassive when falling in love with Gary Cooper’s legionnaire in Morocco (1930) and Cary Grant’s millionaire playboy in Blonde Venus (1932), but Destry makes Frenchy twitch and fiercely rub off her thick rouge. When Destry’s closest friend is shot, he gently eases his passing by telling him perhaps the only story he hasn't invented, as cinematographer Hal Mohr fills the screen with Stewart’s sorrowful face and bathes it in chiaroscuro. Shortly afterward, Destry straps on his six-guns, Frenchy moves toward redemption, and an army of irate townswomen assembles.

Destry Rides Again holds up well besides other studio films of 1939, Hollywood’s fabled annus mirabilis. If not as influential as Stagecoach, it was considerably more sophisticated than John Ford's poetic but primitive landmark. And though Lillian Yarbo had limited screen time as Frenchy's maid Clara, her performance was less of a caricature of black “help” than Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar-winning Mammy or Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy in Gone With the Wind.

The supplements on Criterion's Blu-ray include a video interview with critic Imogen Sarah Smith, who contextualises the movie in terms of Stewart’s and Dietrich’s careers and the imminence of World War II. Stewart biographer Donald Dewey, another interviewee, summarises the star’s career and analyses the intimacy of his acting in Destry Rides Again. Particularly rewarding are excerpts from a 1973 audio interview in which Marshall describes the beginnings in 1913 of his 56-year, 400-plus-film career as a director.

The implied sadistic Sapphic eroticism of the comic barroom brawl was cleverly exploited by Universal


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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