By Leo Racicot
Destry Rides Again – 1939 – dir. George Marshall
Marlene Dietrich acted with her eyes. Yes, she possessed one of the most beautifully and deliberately sculpted faces in film history. Yes, she could be a crackerjack actress, easily overcoming her good looks when she wanted to, giving strong, memorable performances in classics such as “Stage Fright”, “Witness for the Prosecution”, “Morocco”. And yes! She had a body-and-a-half that oozed a glamorous and alarming sexuality that still has yet to be defined or matched. Woe to whatever actor had to share the stage or screen with her because when she was “on”, you couldn’t really see anybody else, such a beam of light was La Dietrich. But it was her eyes that made her. Entities unto themselves, lidded by light, lace curtains of flesh, fluttering butterflies running up and down like little elevators, they darted, they flew, they geisha-ed their way into your personal space, invading you, capturing you, making of you a happy prisoner of their multiple seductions. When she first appears in “Destry Rides Again”, her eyes give out so many varied and conflicting emotions at once, if you pay good attention, you cannot help but be slayed out of your seat by the sheer range of shyness, deceit, cuteness, shrewdness and sassy-assed lust they aim at you. They are true guns of seduction and better duck fast before they fire and you die in the happy blast of their embrace. Ah, those eyes. Those eyes are able to bring together the most disparate elements into one, single, glorious being; to wit — Marlene Dietrich!!
She was no slouch with a song, either, and her bawdy rendition of “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” immediately lets you know in that throaty man/woman growl so distinctly hers that she is offering more than beer. (Interesting aside: In the 50s, 60s and 70s, after her movie career had waned, Dietrich found a second career with her wildly popular nightclub and concert stage act that brought her face- to-face with her legions of devoted, international admirers. A Nazi and Hitler hater (though Germany was her country of birth), she tirelessly entertained the Allied Forces in Europe and Northern Africa touring with the U.S.O. and even herself saw comabt action. As tough in real life as she was on screen, she was much loved the world over by millions of people and remains one of the great movie stars of all time.)
She lends her stellar talents, as does the equally stellar Jimmy Stewart, to “Destry Rides Again”, one of the very few comedy Westerns that scored big when it first hit the screen in 1939 and still scores today. In 1939, recognized now as a banner year for great movies, a year that gave audiences “Gone with the Wind”, “The Wizard of Oz”, “Wuthering Heights”, Goodbye Mr. Chips”, “Mr Smith Goes to Washington”, “Of Mice and Men”, “Dark Victory” and “Stagecoach”, one classic after another, director George Marshall managed to have “Destry Rides Again” join their ranks with a story that more than holds its own in their company, in its tale-telling power, its superior acting and its craftsmanship. It was a box office
“Destry Rides Again” tells the story of Bottleneck, a Western town that has known
better days and that is now under the long-suffering thumb of its corrupt saloon owner, Kent (delivered with a delicious malice by Brian Donlevy). Along with his sidekick, cabaret chanteuse, Frenchy (Dietrich), Kent relishes having total control of the city and its citizens. After he shoots dead a man for accusing him of cheating in a poker game, the residents call for their Judge Slade to clean up the town. But Slade, in cahoots with Kent, names the town drunk, Wash (a deceptively simple-minded Charles Winninger) “sheriff” thinking he is sure to play puppet in their hands. Little do they know Wash is good pals with the honorable gunslinger lawman, Thomas Jefferson Destry Jr. (Stewart) and calls him onto the scene to re-establish law and order to woebegone Bottleneck. And so it goes from there…
“Destry Rides Again”, a remake of a 1932 film starring movie cowboy, Tom Mix,
is what is called, in Hollywood parlance, an “oater”, one of many Westerns made not on location but on a movie set. Because it does not follow a conventional “oater” formula, it rises above the standard Western churned out so effortlessly by the movie-making machine, especially in its choice of stars. Dietrich and Stewart play against type; she, abandoning the posing and posturing she had, before playing Frenchy, become known for, and he, playing his part not as a stereotypical
rough-and-tumble rifleman but as an easy, likable, pleasant professional full of humor and heart.
Also along for the ride are many of Hollywood’s great character actors of its Golden Age: Mischa Auer, Una Merkel, Billy Gilbert, Samuel S. Hinds, Irene Hervey, Jack Carson. It is always so nice, isn’t it, even cozy and comfortable
whenever we see these loved and oh-so-reliable players appear in any movie.
In 1996, “Destry Rides Again” was selected for preservation by the U.S. National
Film Registry of the Library of Congress as being historically, culturally and aesthetically significant. It is all of these, and more — a rousing entertainment that will leave you totally satisfied as you leave the theater. Do see it! You will be happy you did…