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 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 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.