27 May 2010

Movie review: Destry Rides Again

Destry Rides Again (1939)
Directed by George Marshall. Starring Marlene Dietrich, Jimmy Stewart, Mischa Auer, Charles Winninger, Brian Donlevy, Una Merkel.

This is my third review of a movie from the five classic Westerns of 1939, the quintet that re-shaped the genre for the next twenty years: Union Pacific, Dodge City, Jesse James, Stagecoach, and the only one that’s an outright comedy, current topic Destry Rides Again. It’s this lightweight take on the fictional West that makes Destry so important. Western comedies were already a common subgenre, but this 1939 star vehicle with the heavy influence of the “screwball” comedy became the standard of humor in the Wild West until Burt Kennedy’s movies in the 1960s.

Destry Rides Again is also the most famous movie based on a novel by Frederick Faust, a.k.a. Max Brand. However, the movie has almost zero connection to Faust’s 1930 novel, to the point that the opening credits say it is only “suggested” by the book, and gives an “original story” credit to Felix Jackson. There’s almost nothing of Faust’s tale of a man avenging himself on the jurors who sent him to jail in the 1939 movie except for the last name of the main character, so I’m not going to mention the novel again. Thanks for reading this paragraph, and I’m sure Faust (who was working in Hollywood at the time) appreciated the paycheck.

The reason for making, or strictly speaking re-making, Destry Rides Again was to boost up Marlene Dietrich’s career. The singer-actress was dropping into a low-point after the fiasco of Knight without Armor in 1937. A Western comedy seemed the appropriate material for her, and Universal already owned the rights to the book from their 1932 version starring Tom Mix. The title was dusted off and Dietrich was a given a role to try to recapture the popularity of her 1930 breakthrough film, Der Blaue Engel.

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

The town of Bottleneck, located on a back-lot somewhere in Studio City, has dipped into lawlessness. Card cheat and land-grabber Kent (Brian Donlevy) 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), 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 (James Stewart) arrives, he isn’t what anybody expects as the son of a famed lawman. He looks like a complete greenhorn, he drinks milk instead of whiskey, and he 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 that that the man ordered the killing of the previous sheriff.

Destry Rides Again is like the anti-Dodge City, and not just because it was shot in black and white almost entirely on sound stages. It uses a similar story, but wipes away the mythologizing in the name of wry amusement. Where Errol Flynn conquers the corruption of Dodge with an armory of hot steel and flying fists, 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 because the film wants to make a statement about the civilizing of the West. He does it because it’s funny. Destry’s got “personality,” as Frenchy’s maid identifies, and for a comic Western that’s just 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 has top billing, and Universal designed the film as a vehicle for her, her character of Frenchy has only minor impact on the plot. But Dietrich has huge impact on the screen regardless. She’s sultry and tough, and is a rare example of a female protagonist in a Golden Age Western whom I believe could survive the historical U.S. 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 of the movie, but the movie still belongs to Jimmy Stewart from his first appearance to THE END. Stewart was in his “All-American Fellow” 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 very shaded Western hero in the 1950s when Anthony Mann found a dark streak in the man’s acting, but he’s as pleasant and charming a lead as you can imagine in Destry, and gives every scene an unpredictable lilt and a comfort that throws off his adversaries.

Descriptions of the film often mention the great chemistry between Stewart and Dietrich, but this is misleading. Stewart has great chemistry with everybody in the film. His rapport with his co-stars, whether they are 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 sharing the screen with him. He always acts as if he’s absolutely thrilled to be in the movie and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else except right there, on the soundstage entertaining you.

In fact, Destry Rides Again is the sort of film where it seems that 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 with with them. Nobody is taking this seriously, why should you? The catfight 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 still 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, and then abruptly leaps back with a shocker. The coda restores the movie to jollity, but putting a dark blot near the end was a gutsy move.

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

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

Spoiler-filled Postscript

Just to prove to you that, once again, Netflix’s does not require its employees to actually watch a film before writing the blurb, here’s the description on Destry Rides Again on the website and the disc sleeve: “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 you miss this?

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