Destry Rides Again – Best Pictures of 1939 (#8)

Tom Destry's inauspicious arrival in town.

Tom Destry Jr. is an unlikely hero. Being the son of a famous lawman he’s expected to follow his father’s footsteps and clear the trash out of whatever town he’s policing, but Destry doesn’t believe in doing things his father’s way, fists flying and guns blazing. In fact, he doesn’t believe in guns at all. A lawman, to Destry, is meant to be a peacemaker, but carrying a gun makes it all the more likely that a criminal will pull a gun on him, instantly breaking the peace and undermining the entire point of having a lawman in town. An obvious, though no less funny premise on which to base a western.

Director George Marshall’s part comedy, part western takes us to the dusty town of Bottleneck, one of those geographically vague, tumble-weed infested towns that serve as the backdrop for so many gun slinging westerns. Kent (Brian Donlevy) runs the town, and runs it for his own profit. His specialty is rigging poker games to cheat local homesteaders out of their land. It’s a scam that has paid off for him more than once, but when the sheriff, one of the few officials Kent doesn’t own, asks one too many questions, he makes the pesky lawman disappear – permanently. Hoping to keep Bottleneck lawless, Kent has the mayor appoint the local drunk Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger) sheriff. Kent and the mayor don’t know that Dimsdale once served as deputy under the legendary lawman Tom Destry and this past service inspires Dimsdale to take his position and responsibility more seriously than he was meant to. To battle Kent’s reign of lawlessness, Dimsdale summons the now deceased Destry’s son Tom Jr. (James Stewart) to serve as his deputy and clean up the town for good.

Dimsdale knows nothing about Destry’s idiosyncratic philosophy of crime fighting. Some of the movie’s funniest moments come at the reactions to criminals facing the gun-less deputy and his speeches of pacifism and anti-violence, something to which they have no idea how to react. They want to shoot the pesky lawman, but are they really such scoundrels that they would shoot an unarmed man? But if he chooses never to arm himself, when can they get him without being obvious, outright murderers?

Destry’s first meeting with Kent, at which it appears Destry retreats from a fight in cowardice, horrifies Dimsdale who was expecting a younger version of his former boss and who would have shot Kent down for less. But, in Destry’s view, he did his job: he prevented a fight and kept the peace. Building and maintaining a macho image would only serve his own pride; he’s willing to sacrifice his short term reputation in order to effectively fight in the long term.

Destry shows he knows what he's doing when he takes guns away from some bad boys.

Destry believes strength and courage have nothing to do with how people perceive him, but in how he comports himself and does what he knows is right, rather than popular or safe. This means he is committed to following the letter of the law even if it means helping Kent, like when he helps Kent evict a family from their farm (which he acquired dishonestly). Most of the townspeople deride Destry for this, as they see it, act of treachery. The idea is, of course, to keep things calm, keep Kent relaxed, while Destry collects evidence to arrested the high-powered crook.

Marlene Dietrich as Frenchy with Stewart

Marlene Dietrich plays an unlikely ally to Destry as Frenchy, the owner of the local saloon and Kent’s partner. At first Frenchy is amused by the lanky, not-so-tough-looking lawman without a gun, but soon finds herself smitten with his honesty and courage, something the men in her life clearly lack. Destry’s inherent goodness inspires one of those common changes of heart for a Hayes Code era bad girl, but Dietrich plays Frenchy with a touch of humanity that characterized most of her performances so this change doesn’t come out of left field.

Destry Rides Again is a great combination of comedy and adventure that has inspired a remake with Audie Murphy in 1954 (even though the 1939 version is itself a remake of a 1932 Tom Mix picture, but who remembers that one?) and a Broadway musical, which butchers the original ending. Neither of these versions, however, have one of this movie’s greatest assets: James Stewart. He is Tom Destry Jr. His gentle voice and kind eyes belie a toughness that only erupts when it has to. Stewart played Destry thoughtfully, but strong, and his careful balance of these aspects of Destry makes him believable and raises the movie to classic status.

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9 Comments

Filed under 1939, Yearly Best Pictures

9 responses to “Destry Rides Again – Best Pictures of 1939 (#8)

  1. I like this film well enough Jason, and much appreciate this vivid assessment, but I never saw it as a candidate for any kind of a best list. I thought it earned a rather false reputation over the years, but it’s famous alone for Dietrich’s flamboyant performance as Frenchie, and for her husky rendering of “The Boys in the Back Room.” I guess I never saw the disperate elements as adding to a significant whole, but I can’t at all blame you for feeling otherwise.

    • Clearly our disagreements continue for 1939 and, I am certain, will continue as the list unfolds, probably more for what I leave off than what I include. There are many movies from this year that have earned so-called classic status that I have never had much love for (more on those later), and think “Destry” is a much better movie than you indicate. I love it for its willingness to challenge conventional thinking, both about the genre and violence as a whole, and Stewart’s great performance. Incidentally I don’t think Dietrich adds much to the overall film; Frenchie is a minor character given stature by Dietrich’s grandiose screen presence.

  2. I haven’t seen this one as yet, but have just seen Dietrich with John Wayne in ‘The Spoilers’, which I loved (so much chemistry between them, as they were an item in real life at the time), and now want to see more of her Westerns as soon as possible! The fact that she sings in this one is a definite plus – and I’d love to see her with James Stewart..

    • Dietrich and Stewart have an interesting chemistry, a little like her and Gary Cooper, though Stewart is less somber. This movie is also more of a comedy than “Morocco.” I highly recommend it. I have not seen Dietrich and Wayne in “The Spoilers” but look forward to seeing what seems an odd pairing.

  3. zewt

    I was watching this movie on Netflix and noticed at about 3:00 minutes in or so an object is blacked out. Its hard to see, so I am very curious what it could be.

    There are some guys on the stage, and one of them is twirling an object on his finger. That object is blacked out for some reason.

    What is it and why?

    • I pulled it up on Netflix and I see what you’re saying, but I think it just looks like it’s blacked out. It appears to be a black platter or plate spinning on his finger. If you look closely you can see the reflection of the light changing as it spins. Good eye though, I never even noticed that.

  4. Just returning to say that I have now seen this movie – I didn’t like it quite as much as you do, Jason, because I felt it slackens off a bit whenever Stewart is off screen, but I think he is brilliant in the lead role here and it is his film all the way. Must also agree that Dietrich’s role is fairly minor in terms of the plot, although I loved her musical numbers – and, as you say, she always has that “grandiose screen presence”. Interesting to see how this looks forward to Hawks films like Rio Bravo in the focus on an unlikely pair of lawmen, including the town drunk, taking on a whole town – the scenes in the jailhouse in particular reminded me of those later Westerns. Anyway, glad to have seen this!

    • I’m sorry to hear you didn’t like this as much as me, though it sounds as though you did enjoy it on some level. I will agree that Stewart is the heart of the picture and it isn’t as interesting when he isn’t on screen, but the rest holds together well enough for me to really enjoy the film.

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