Destry Rides Again (1939)

Director: George Marshall

So, Stagecoach basically revived the “A” western as a major box office draw after it had spent a lot of years in the Poverty Row wilderness, and I suppose this film—released at the other end of 1939—was one of the first “big” examples of the genre to benefit from John Ford’ example. Actually, it was in fact the second film of that title, Universal having previously made a film called Destry Rides Again in 1932 before they made this one… neither of them having anything to do with the book of the same name published in 1930; the “suggested by” caption in the opening credits here being a nice way to quietly admit the only thing the makers took from it was the title. Anyway, our setting is a kind of corrupt and wild old town called Bottleneck, where the local landowner makes a mockery of the law by, well, literally shooting it dead; the mayor appoints the town drunk, Wash, as the new sheriff after the previous one “leaves town” on the assumption he won’t repeat the latter’s error of actually trying to enforce the law. However, Wash is determined to take the job seriously, having served as deputy to legendary sheriff Tom Destry, and he summons the latter’s son to be his own deputy. Except that Tom junior isn’t quite the rootin’ tootin’ gunslinger his old man was. This was James Stewart’s first western, and he kind of inhabits Destry just by, you know, playing himself as I suppose he always did (can’t quite imagine Gary Cooper, the original choice for the role, doing it the same way), so surprising that he didn’t do another one until Winchester 73 in 1950… and Marlene Dietrich, bless her, who didn’t want to do a western at all and yet comes close to stealing the film from Stewart at times, particularly in that glorious catfight in the saloon. Actually, the really remarkable thing is just how, even though Destry is generally played for comedy, it could so easily be turned into a film noir or something and made really dark. It’s a funny film, brilliantly so at times, but that undercurrent is always there nagging away at the comedy. Great stuff.

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