Sunday, 26 February 2012
Destry Rides Again
Destry Rides Again (1939) dir. George Marshall
Starring: James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Mischa Auerm, Brian Donlevy, Samuel S. Hinds
By Alan Bacchus
Destry Rides Again showcases Jimmy Stewart in one of his earliest starring roles. As a spry 29-year-old, Mr. Aw Shucks is as amiable, compelling and undeniably a star as he ever was.
The film portrays a typical situation in the western genre. A corrupt frontier town (appropriately called ‘Bottleneck’) has difficulty maintaining law and order. The local sheriff is completely ineffective and is beholden to the local criminal syndicate. Even the mayor is under the corruptive influence of the malfeasants. Marlene Dietrich plays Frenchy, the local saloon owner who quietly helps the criminals cheat and steal their way to money and power.
When the new Sheriff is knocked off by a cheating gangster, Kent (Brian Dunlevy), Mayor Slade gives the badge to the town drunk, Washington Dimsdale. Instead of doing Slade and Kent’s bidding, Dimsdale considers the appointment as an opportunity to make something of his life. And so he hires an old friend and the son of a legendary lawman, Tom Destry Jr. (James Stewart). Destry arrives in town gunless and is ridiculed for his passivity toward armed violence. But beneath his easy-going demeanour is a stone cold hombre who refuses to back down against the local tyranny.
The film takes its time establishing the situation. In fact, Jimmy Stewart doesn’t appear until 30 minutes into the film. George Marshall, a stock studio director with over 150 directing credits but few classic titles, directs the film with the utmost of studio perfection. Watch the scenes from the opening titles to just after Destry arrives in town. Though most of the film takes place in the saloon through camera movement, shot selection and creative staging, Marshall manages to sustain 45 minutes of high cinema energy and action.
After Destry's introduction, Marshall stages one of the all-time great cat-fights in cinema history. It’s Marlene Dietrich as Frenchy versus Una Merkel, who plays the wife of a husband who was cheated out of his money. The fight starts out as a fall-down, hair-pulling match between the gals, but when Destry breaks it up Frenchy continues to battle the new deputy for a total of 5 minutes of bottle-throwing and chair-smashing action. The sequence is a lengthy but exciting and inspired duel of wills. Of course, it’s played for humour, but Marshall’s staging is invisible to the extensive stunts required to make the scene look real.
Though Stewart refuses to carry a gun and uses intelligence to best his opponents, the filmmakers are clear to tell us that Destry is no sissy. In fact, he’s a crack shot with a gun. At one point he picks up a pistol and nonchalantly shoots six targets with his six bullets. But in a genre where the attitudes toward violence are defined by the liberal 'western code of honour', Destry's 'non-violent' approach is a smart nod toward pacifism. These themes would be reworked and remade a number of times after Destry. Marshall would remake the film again in 1954 with Audie Murphy, and Support Your Local Sheriff with James Garner borrows its central concept of a lawman with guns. Enjoy.
Destry Rides Again is available on the James Stewart Westerns Collection from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.
Oher related postings: THE FAR COUNTRY
Here's the classic catfight scene: