The ’30s weren’t exactly a good decade for the western genre. Right at the last minute though, people like John Ford, Henry King and George Marshall came to the rescue. The latter’s gunslinging comedy Destry Rides Again, which was a box-office success, wasn’t just an entertaining piece of popcorn cinema. It also introduced Jimmy Stewart to the western lovin’ audience – making way for some of his classic performances in this great genre.
In a typical set-up, Tom Destry (James Stewart) is a sheriff with a heavy family name and a reputation for cleaning up Tombstone. He arrives at at the town of Bottleneck, responding to a call from his father’s former deputy, Washington Dimsdale, who has just been appointed sheriff after the sudden disappearance of the previous one. Being the town drunk until recently, Washington receives that honor from the corrupt Mayor Hiram J. Slade who simply wants to help the town mobster and saloon owner Kent and his showgirl Frenchy (Marlen Dietrich) continue their landgrabbing-through-crooked-gambling business without problems. But Dimsdale decides to have the last laugh. He calls Destry to live up to his father’s rep and help him clean up the mess. To his surprise though, Tom is a bit different, refusing to carry a gun to uphold the law unless there is no alternative in sight…
A pacifist lawman isn’t a very common premise to build an action western upon, for sure. But it’s a very good set-up for comedy and the kind of didactic witticisms that are scattered all over the movie’s screenplay. Destry uses his newfound ways to roll against some old-school outlaws, creating an advantage out of the time it takes for them to figure him out, that peculiar man who shoots like a gunslinger but drinks milk at a saloon. He tells short fables to make his point, avoiding the usual macho straight talk, further confusing whoever listens to him and he carves napkin rings to channel his anger. “I knew a man who collected postage stamps,” he tells old Wash when the latter complains about Tom’s persistence not to use his irons. “He used to say that one good things about a postage stamp is that it sticks to one thing until it gets there…”
Different from anyone that ever crossed paths with her, Tom catches Frenchy’s attention. She’s the prototype saloon diva who survives on her feisty personality and her seductive ways in a world of rugged men. Tom also catches a bunch of the saloon’s heavier objects which are thrown at him, after he interrupts the notorious Marlen Dietrich-Una Merkel catfight, by showering them with cold water.
George Marshall never overestimates what he has in his hands. He knows it’s not Stagecoach so he doesn’t try to re-establish the genre, but he also doesn’t degrade it to an easy spoof, leaning toward character comedy instead. James Stewart is the key ingredient in that attempt. He makes Tom Destry look totally believable as a charming, witty lawman who can turn to devious and lethal the very moment his job calls for it. He has the best lines and comes out looking quite good opposite Marlen Dietrich’s natural glamor and star quality. Of course, Marshall should be thankful for casting such a radiant performer as his leading lady, who not only gives life to a tired old female stereotype but also makes the best out of an underwritten character like Frenchy. Dietrich, besides the very realistic bar brawl with the equally fierce Merkel, does everything as if this was her movie, making Stewart fight for every scene they’re both in. That’s chemistry, right there!
These two are surrounded by the typical local gangster, Kent, the tobacco chewing, top hat wearing Mayor Slade, the grumpy old-timer Washington Dimsdale, the jumpy cattle-man Jack Tyndall, his nice sister Janyce, local boarding house owner Lily Belle and her russian immigrant husband Boris. All of them are a bit over the top, with Washington, Lilly Belle and Boris (very expressive performances by Charles Winninger, Una Merkel and Mischa Auer) providing the comic relief while Kent (an unconvincing Brian Donlevy) and his goons are the typical bad guys. The face you can’t forget though is that of Samuel S. Hinds’s Mayor Slade, a very well acted stereotype of the corrupt official, created out of a very short part. Nice supporting cast overall, with a few good lines preserved for them in Stewart’s and Dietrich’s shadow.
Seventy years and a lot of western masterpieces later, Marshall’s little known gem could seem a bit trivial and gimmicky. But Destry Rides Again still delivers honest fun and a couple of memorable dialogs. Plus, the birth of a great western actor and one hell of a catfight!