Westerns ‘39: Destry Rides Again

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Eons ago, I started a project at my old blog of writing about the five hit Western movies released in 1939 that led to the genre’s revitalizing in the 1940s and ’50s. I never finished the project, writing about only three of the movies, but I’m starting it up again—first by digging up and revising the three posts I did finish. So I’ll begin with, let’s see … Destry Rides Again.

It may sound strange to people unfamiliar with film history, but for a good stretch of the Golden Age of Hollywood—the 1930s—the Western was at a low point in popularity, almost as low as during the 1980s. For most of the decade, “A” picture Westerns were almost unknown; the genre was restricted to low-budget “B” status and thought to be mostly for kiddies.

This changed dramatically in 1939, when five big studio Westerns aimed at an adult crowd turned into box office smashes: Union Pacific, Dodge City, Jesse James, Destry Rides Again, and Stagecoach.

Destry Rides Again is the only one of the bunch that’s specifically a comedy, although there’s plenty of humor in the good-natured rollicking of Dodge City. Its lightweight take on the fictional West makes Destry an important part of the ’39 Western Quintet. The Western comedy was already an established subgenre, but this star vehicle showing the influence of the ’30s screwball comedy became the gold standard of Wild West humor until Burt Kennedy’s movies in the 1960s. (And then Blazing Saddles in the ’70s, but that’s a whole different tale.)

Destry Rides Again is the most famous movie based on a novel by Frederick Faust, aka Max Brand. But the movie has almost zero connection to Faust’s novel, which was first serialized as Twelve Peers in 1930. The movie’s opening titles say it’s only “suggested” by the book and gives an “original story” credit to Felix Jackson. Nothing of Faust’s tale of a man avenging himself on the jurors who sent him to jail appears in the movie except for the last name of the main character. I’m sure Faust (who was working in Hollywood at the time as screenwriter) appreciated the paycheck and didn’t care what appeared on screen.

This wasn’t the first time Hollywood used Destry Rides Again: Tom Mix starred in a version in 1932 that was closer to the novel, but still loose. The reason for the 1939 remake was to boost Marlene Dietrich’s career. The singer-actress had dropped into a low-point after the fiasco of Knight Without Armor in 1937. A Western comedy seemed appropriate material for her, and Universal already owned the rights to the book from their 1932 version. The title was dusted off and Dietrich was a given a role to try to recapture the popularity of her 1930 breakthrough film, The Blue Angel.

The ploy succeeded. Destry ‘39 was a massive hit, gave Dietrich her most beloved part, and made “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” into her signature song. It also gave Madeline Kahn great parody material many years later. (Again, a whole different tale.)

The town of Bottleneck, located on a back-lot somewhere in Studio City, CA, has dipped into lawlessness. Card cheat and land-grabber Kent (Brian Donlevy, The Quatermass Experiment) and his accomplice, chanteuse Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich), have made themselves into the de facto mayors. When Sheriff Keogh mysteriously disappears, the puppet mayor appoints the town drunk, “Wash” Dimsdale (Charles Winniger, State Fair), as the sheriff. But Wash decides he’ll do the proper thing and sends for Tom Destry Jr., son of a legendary town-tamer, to serve as his deputy.

When Tom Destry (Jimmy Stewart) arrives, he isn’t what anybody expects as the son of a famed lawman. He looks like a greenhorn, drinks milk instead of whiskey, and doesn’t carry a gun. But as he explains to Wash, he does plans to enforce the law—and he’ll do it without slinging lead. He has a good chance of cleaning out Kent’s influence if he can prove the man ordered the killing of the previous sheriff.

Destry Rides Again is the polar opposite to another of the 1939 Western hits, Dodge City, and not just because it was shot in black and white almost entirely on sound stages, where Dodge City was shot in Technicolor on expansive exterior locations. Destry has a similar town-taming story, but wipes away mythologizing in the name of wry amusement. Errol Flynn conquers the corruption of Dodge with an armory of hot steel and flying fists; Jimmy Stewart mellows out Bottleneck by being clever and funny and not even carrying a weapon. There’s no subtext here—Destry doesn’t go up against the criminal element of Bottleneck without guns to make a statement about civilizing of West. He does it because it’s funny. Destry’s got “personality,” as Frenchy’s maid identifies, and for a comic Western that’s what you need. He also has an endless supply of stories that begin with, “I knew a friend who …” and they’re almost as effective weapons as guns.

Although Dietrich got top billing and Universal designed the film as a vehicle for her, the character Frenchy has only a minor impact on the plot. Its Dietrich who has the huge impact on the screen. She’s sultry and tough, and a rare example of a female protagonist in a Golden Age Western whom I believe could survive the historical US frontier. There’s also nothing quite like her performance of “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” in the history of cinema.

Dietrich gets the iconic moments, but the movie still belongs to Jimmy Stewart from his first appearance to “The End.” Stewart was in his “All-American Boy” period, the man you loved to love. If Spider-Man existed in the early 1930s, Stewart would have play Peter Parker. He would later turn into a sinister and shaded Western hero in the 1950s when Anthony Mann found a dark streak in the man’s acting, starting with Winchester ’73 (damn, that’s a great film), but he’s as pleasant and charming a lead as you can imagine in Destry and gives every scene an unpredictable lilt with a comfort that throws off his adversaries.

Descriptions of the film often mention the chemistry between Stewart and Dietrich, but this is misleading. Stewart has great chemistry with everybody. His rapport with his co-stars, whether they’re playing life-long friends, possible love interests, a mortal enemy, or a henpecked Russian goof, is instant. Stewart’s affability makes it impossible for him not to click with the people he shares the screen with. He always acts as if he’s thrilled to be in the movie and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else except there on the soundstage entertaining you.

In fact, Destry Rides Again is the sort of film where it seems everybody in it—even the bad guy, even a dying major character—is having a splendid time. It’s impossible not to feel that amusement and laugh along. Nobody is taking this seriously, why should you? The cat-fight between Una Merkel and Marlene Dietrich is just one example of the film’s rambunctious silliness for pure entertainment value.

For all its good-natured humor, Destry Rides Again executes a downer surprise in the end. The script does a great job at pulling the switch on the viewer, first seeming to turn to grim territory and a violent finale, then changing into crazy farce as the housewives of Bottleneck descend on the villains and clobber them with rolling pins, only then leap back with a shocker. The coda restores the movie to jollity, but putting a dark blot near the end was a brave move.

Destry Rides Again is the least “Western” of the five hits of ‘39. The frontier town backdrop casual one, and it isn’t trying to examine its genre, expand viewer’s ideas of US frontier history, or re-write an American legend. It’s a comedy with some action and musical numbers and a lot of screwball snap. It’s good fun, and if it’s slight, it’s slight in a classic way. If only more easy-going comedies today were as funny.

By the way, what are the boys in the back room having? Nobody has ever answered this to my satisfaction.

Next: Union Pacific

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Spoiler Postscript to Criticize Netflix

Just to prove to you that, once again, Netflix does not require its employees to actually watch a film before writing a blurb, here’s the description of Destry Rides Again on their website:

Marlene Dietrich, as a crooked saloon waitress with a heart of gold, hits a career peak with her rendition of “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have.” When sparks fly between her and Destry, there’s no doubt they’ll be riding off happily into the sunset.

“No doubt?” She dies at the end of the movie! Brian Donlevy shoots her in the back! How in the world did the writers miss this?

I’ve seen ads for Netflix employment, and they say that applicants must have a “degree in film.” Clearly, this is a lie.

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