The last time I covered this film was in 2017 when, let’s say there were certain parallels that attracted me to this film at the time. I’m curious to see what watching this movie is like in a post-that one guy America. Stay tuned.
Now on to the June poll: You know what I haven’t covered yet in my revision series? Any animation. Here’s a few of my favorite bits of animation that’s in need of a rewrite. But which one to choose?
Let me know your choice, and I’ll announce the winner on July 1st!
Written by Scorsese & Nicholas Pileggi. Based on the book “Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family” by Pileggi.
Class of 2000
As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to do a “Goodfellas” write-up.
The Plot: “Goodfellas” is the true story of Henry Hill, a mob associate who spent 25 years in New York’s organized crime scene. Hill (Ray Liotta) starts working for Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) at age 12, doing small crimes like fencing merchandise. As he grows up, Hill becomes close with Paulie’s associates; cool-headed Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and loose cannon Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). The mobster lifestyle is one of glamour and luxury for Henry, and he takes his new bride Karen (Lorraine Bracco) along for the ride. Henry’s position within the organization elevates, as does the intensity of the crimes, culminating in a heist of the Lufthansa vault at JFK in 1978. But the further the lifestyle consumes Henry, the more dangerous it gets for everybody.
Why It Matters: The NFR write-up gives a rundown of the story, and highlights the “standout performances” of De Niro and Pesci, as well as the soundtrack.
But Does It Really?: More like “Greatfellas”, am I right? But seriously, I got nothing that hasn’t already been said about this movie. “Goodfellas” manages to take the gangster world of “The Godfather” and make it stylish and accessible. Scorsese is a director with a vision, and it’s clear that he was able to fully realize it, from the pitch-perfect ensemble to the New Wave-influenced film language. Many have called “Goodfellas” Scorsese’s best, and while I personally think it’s second to the likes of “Raging Bull” and “Taxi Driver“, that’s still enough to qualify “Goodfellas” as one of the all-time great American films.
Shout Outs: Scorsese references a number of classic films in “Goodfellas”, including NFR entries “The Great Train Robbery“, “The Jazz Singer”, “Red River”, and “Shane”.
Everybody Gets One: Journalist Nicholas Pileggi was fascinated with the mafia, culminating in his book “Wiseguy” about Henry Hill. Scorsese was initially hesitant to do another mob movie, but after reading “Wiseguy” while filming “The Color of Money”, he knew he had to make this film. Ray Liotta was recommended to Scorsese by Robert De Niro, based on his performance as an unhinged ex-con in “Something Wild”. Liotta spent the better part of a year convincing Scorsese and producer Irwin Winkler that he was right for the part, while Warner Bros. preferred a bigger name like Tom Cruise.
Seriously, Oscars?: A modest hit upon release, “Goodfellas” received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. The big winner of the night was the more epic “Dances with Wolves“, but the film picked up the Best Supporting Actor trophy for Joe Pesci. His acceptance speech was six words long.
I won’t go into every difference between “Goodfellas” and the real life events, suffice it to say that the film is highly accurate, with the exception of some name changes and dramatic license.
This is Saul Bass’ sneakiest credits sequence yet. Come back here!
I must admit this movie does an excellent job of selling the glamour of mobster life, especially from a kid’s perspective: no school, lots of money, everybody treats you like an adult.
De Niro’s biggest strength in this performance is that he is just another member of the ensemble. No flashy theatrics or big character monologues; his Jimmy blends in with the rest of the crew, with De Niro’s inherent star power doubling as Jimmy’s clout within the organization.
De Niro’s supposed to be 28 in the beginning!? Now I see why Marty experimented with de-aging technology.
Paul Sorvino’s work is a lot like De Niro’s: deceivingly simple, but an irreplaceable part of the experience. Sorvino spent most of his career playing detectives and the like on TV, so it’s fun to see him play a cold criminal with a warm front.
During rehearsals, Scorsese would let the actors come up with their own lines, which would then be transcribed and incorporated into the screenplay. When Joe Pesci mentioned an incident where he once insulted a mobster by calling him funny, the scene was added into the film, resulting in Pesci’s instantly iconic “How am I funny?” scene.
Speaking of great lines, is this where I got “Fuck you. Pay me” from? It’s such a common phrase I didn’t realize it’s from this movie.
What makes Scorsese’s movies work is that everyone is making the same movie. You have a cast ranging from heavyweights like De Niro to real life mobsters in their first acting gig, but everyone comes off as natural. Scorsese and casting director Ellen Lewis know how to cast people for quality (as in characteristics) rather than talent. In a film with over 100 credited actors (and non-actors), there isn’t a weak link in the entire ensemble.
Shoutout to Lorraine Bracco as Karen Hill. Bracco was worried that in a male-dominated movie her role would be pared down in editing, so she made a point to make her “work important”. And boy does she deliver: you are always aware of Karen and her vitalness to the story. It helps that this movie gives a damn about Karen’s perspective, even letting her narrate a few scenes.
I can’t call this a movie blog without talking about “The Shot”: a three minute single take of Henry taking Karen to the Copacabana through the backdoor/kitchen area, ending with them getting a table front and center while Henny Youngman performs. I’m a sucker for single-takes, and this is no exception. It’s an exhilarating sequence that sweeps you up in the stylized fantasy of this world. That being said, I’m convinced at one point Henry & Karen just walk around in a big circle.
My favorite detail in the movie: when Karen asks for money to go shopping, she indicates the amount by spreading her thumb and forefinger, referring to the size of the cash wad.
This movie is Round Two of “Joe Pesci vs. Frank Vincent”. Things got heated in “Raging Bull”, and now Pesci’s Tommy makes the first move by stomping Vincent’s Billy Batts to death. A powerful scene showing us how far off the deep end Tommy has gone, plus it’s got that “Atlantis” song I like! To be continued in “Casino”…
Martin Scorsese cast his mother Catherine as Tommy’s mother. She is perfect, evoking some combination of Estelle Gettty and my own Italian grandmother. Martin’s father Charles shows up later as Vinny, the mobster who puts too many onions in the sauce.
It took us 90 minutes, but we finally got a Rolling Stones song. Hopefully “Gimme Shelter” and “Monkey Man” will help you fill out your Scorsese Bingo card.
You know this is early in Samuel L. Jackson’s career when he’s playing the minor character who fucks up, rather than the badass in charge.
Don’t get me wrong, the Lufthansa heist is impressive (in real life and in the movie), but everyone benefits from pre-9/11 airport security. You could smuggle cocaine for god sake!
Add “Goodfellas” to my “Die Hard” Not Christmas list; as seen here, the holiday season after the big heist is the last moment of joy any of these characters have before it all goes to hell.
Ray Liotta is fantastic from beginning to end, but his best work is at the end when a coked-out Henry is increasingly paranoid that he’s being watched by the FBI. Liotta is so convincing that for a moment I thought I was high too.
Over the years, I’ve seen “Goodfellas” a few times, but not often enough that I remember every major story point, so several of the turns at the end still surprise me. Watching Lorraine Bracco walk down an empty alleyway is as suspenseful for me as anything Hitch ever did.
Only Scorsese would end a gangster movie with an homage to “The Great Train Robbery”. Marty’s justification: “It hasn’t changed, 90 years later, it’s the same story, the gun shots will always be there.”
“Goodfellas” opened to a heap of critical praise that hasn’t slowed down in 30 years. The movie continues to be one of Scorsese’s top achievements, and is one of only seven films to make the NFR in its first year of eligibility.
Henry Hill was still in Witness Protection when “Goodfellas” was released. Hill was quite pleased with the film and Liotta’s performance, and publicly revealed his true identity, which got him kicked out of Witness Protection. Hill spent the rest of his life promoting himself in association with the movie, including the publication of his cookbook, up until his death in 2012.
While Nicholas Pileggi was preparing the “Goodfellas” screenplay, his wife Nora Ephron – a prolific writer in her own right – was inspired by Hill’s years in Witness Protection to write her own screenplay, which became the comedy “My Blue Heaven”. The film premiered a month before “Goodfellas” and is remembered today as a minor cult film.
David Chase has cited “Goodfellas” as a major influence on his series “The Sopranos”. Throughout its six season run, the show had 27 different actors from “Goodfellas” in regular or guest roles, including Michael Imperioli, Tony Sirico, and Lorraine Bracco as Tony’s psychiatrist (well, she is qualified, I give her that…).
“Goodfellas” continues to be parodied and referenced for its memorable dialogue and aesthetic. This is usually where I reference a classic “Simpsons” episode, but the pop culture references that immediately came to mind for me were scenes from “Family Guy” and “Saturday Night Live”.
My other favorite recent example is this montage of various insurrectionists and white supremacists getting arrested after the January 6th attacks which, like an important montage in “Goodfellas”, is set to Derek & the Dominos’ “Layla”.
Written by Joel Sayre & Fred Guiol. Story by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur. Based on the poem by Rudyard Kipling.
Class of 1999
The Plot: As the British Army treks across India in the early 1890s, three Sergeants – Archibald Cutter, “Mac” MacChesney, and Tommy Ballantine (Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) – are assigned to visit Tantrapur and determine the fate of a missing British outpost. The three are accompanied by Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), an Indian bhisti (water carrier) who dreams of becoming a soldier. Their adventures include dangerous confrontations with the Thugs, as well as more comedic hijinks, such as keeping Ballantine enlisted so he doesn’t run off with fiancée Emaline (Joan Fontaine). During the climactic battle, Gunga Din shows real courage and proves that he is truly “a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”
Why It Matters: The NFR write-up is mainly just a rehash of the plot. The closest this paragraph gets to a superlative is pointing out that the subplot of keeping Ballantine in the army is reminiscent of “The Front Page“.
But Does It Really?: On the one hand, “Gunga Din” is the kind of fun adventure picture associated with the studio era, with an impressive scale and a cast of thousands. On the other hand, the title character is played by Sam Jaffe in brownface. Plus it’s kind of hard nowadays to watch a movie where the British Army are the heroes and all Indians are double-crossing thieves and murderers. “Gunga Din” is remembered today as an important movie of the time, and part of the collection of films that make up the greats of 1939. I can justify the film’s NFR designation as “historical significance”, but I doubt a modern audience would enjoy or tolerate “Gunga Din” as originally intended.
Wow, That’s Dated: This movie doesn’t just have a BROWNFACE WARNING, it has a BROWNBODY WARNING. Russian Jewish actor Sam Jaffe is made up head to toe in brown makeup as Gunga Din, as is Italian actor Eduardo Ciannelli as the Guru. It’s…rough.
Seriously, Oscars?: “Gunga Din” missed out on any Oscar nominations, although a few online sources claim that Joseph August was nominated for his cinematography. While August was on the initial shortlist of potential nominees, he did not make the final nomination ballot. Truly it’s an honor just to be…considered?
“Gunga Din” was originally to be directed by none other than Howard Hawks (which explains why longtime Hawks collaborators MacArthur & Hecht get story credit). Following the box office disappointment of “Bringing Up Baby“, however, Hawks was fired and replaced by George Stevens, still a relative newcomer to film directing.
Now that’s how you open a movie! Every credit appears on a giant gong, which dissolves into the next set of credits every time they get banged on. It’s very impressive.
With a budget of $1.9 million, “Gunga Din” was RKO’s most expensive film at that time. And it shows: big vista shots with hundreds of extras, battle scenes with explosions, a recreation of Pakistan’s Khyber Pass; this movie is easily the most epic film of its day, and we won’t see another one like it until “Lawrence of Arabia”.
Everyone has a different story of how Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. were cast. Most historians agree that Grant was originally cast as Ballantine with Fairbanks as Cutter, and that Grant preferred the role of Cutter. In some versions of this story, the switch happened because Grant won a coin toss. George Stevens biographer Marilyn Ann Moss, as well as TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, believe that Grant switched to playing Cutter before Ballantine had been cast, and recommended Fairbanks for the part. According to Fairbanks himself, Howard Hawks originally cast him as Cutter, and then asked him to switch roles. As they say, success has many fathers.
As with many a problematic studio movie on this list, you’re all lucky Cary Grant is so damn charismatic. This also may be the rare Cary Grant performance where his character is actually British, complete with his old Cockney accent.
Joan Fontaine doesn’t get much to do in this movie, but it’s always nice seeing her in a part where she’s not being emotionally manipulated. Although it says a lot that she is second to Annie the elephant in terms of important female characters.
This movie doesn’t necessarily have padding, but each episode takes its time. Perhaps basing your movie off of a poem wasn’t the best idea.
I always enjoy the Curly-esque noises Cary Grant sneaks into his comedic performances. “Arsenic and Old Lace” is full of them.
In the opening credits we are assured that “[t]hose portions of this picture dealing with the worship of the goddess Kali are based on historic fact.” Phew. For a minute I thought the filmmakers wouldn’t do their homework and offend a death cult.
I honestly don’t have too much else to say about “Gunga Din”. It has the DNA of a classic adventure movie, but Jesus all of that Brownface. It doesn’t help that Gunga Din is a variant of the “happy slave” trope. Apparently Sabu was unavailable.
In the final scene, a journalist named “Mr. Kipling” witnesses Gunga Din’s heroics and writes a poem about him. A bit meta, but there are worse ways to sneak the source material into your movie. Upon seeing “Gunga Din” in theaters, the Kipling family objected to Rudyard being a character in the film (Kipling had died three years earlier), and RKO removed the character from re-release prints for fear of a lawsuit. Thankfully, the current version of “Gunga Din” is restored to its original length.
“Gunga Din” was a hit upon release, and in a very crowded field managed to be the sixth highest grossing film of 1939. Praise for the film was almost universal…except in India. When “Gunga Din” was planning to be released in India, the Indian National Congress called for a boycott of the film and its “insensitive” portrayal of its people, which led to RKO cancelling the engagement.
The inevitable remake of “Gunga Din” was made in 1962, rewritten as a western vehicle for the Rat Pack. “Sergeants 3” starred Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Peter Lawford as three Cavalry sergeants, with Sammy Davis Jr. as a former slave who wishes to join their ranks. The film was directed by John Sturges, one of the original editors of “Gunga Din”.
“Gunga Din” still gets referenced a surprising amount these days, mostly for the last line of the original poem. The most famous allusion to the film is the evil Thugee cult in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”.
“Gonna see a movie called Gunga Din, pack up your money, pull up your tent McGuinn, you ain’t goin’ nowhere…”
But of course, the main legacy of “Gunga Din” is as an example of White actors playing people of color in mainstream media. We are finally getting around to acknowledging the poor, poor taste involved in these decisions; Hank Azaria is apparently determined to apologize to every Indian person in the world for playing Apu on “The Simpsons”.
The Plot: Silent film comedian Max Davidson plays a gardener who has an ongoing feud with his neighbor Schultz (Bert Sprotte), owner of prize-winning rooster Brigham. The two decide to put their differences aside when it is announced that Schultz’s son (Gene Morgan) is engaged to Max’s daughter (Martha Sleeper). The two families have dinner, and Max’s son Ignatz (Spec O’Donnell) is tasked with buying a chicken. But Ignatz keeps the money for himself and steals Brigham instead. All goes smoothly, until Ignatz notices that the cooked chicken still has a First Prize tag on its leg, which has just been served to Schultz. Hilarity ensues.
Why It Matters: The NFR’s very brief write-up mentions Max Davidson’s status as a German-Jewish performer who “caricatured established Jewish stereotypes of the day”. Silent film expert Steve Massa is on hand with an essay with more information on Davidson’s film career.
But Does It Really?: I…guess? Max Davidson is all but forgotten today, but his comic facial expressions manage to stand out amongst the likes of Keaton and Chaplin. “Pass the Gravy” is still entertaining (although be warned there is a bit of animal cruelty), and thankfully doesn’t lean on the Jewish stereotypes Davidson was famous for. As a representation of Max Davidson, “Pass the Gravy” has just as much a right to be in the NFR as any other lesser-known silent star. “Pass the Gravy” gets one of my trademark “slight pass” designations for NFR inclusion.
Everybody Gets One: Emigrating to the US from Germany as a young adult, Max Davidson started out as a performer in vaudeville. These performances led to silent shorts with Biograph, where he played a Jewish caricature named Izzy. By the 1920s, Davidson was working for Hal Roach, eventually getting his own series of starring roles as a put-upon father.
Title Track: No one actually says “Pass the gravy” in this short, so…what was the point of that title?
Leo McCarey is credited here as Production Supervisor, and I’m not sure what that means. McCarey started off as a gag writer for Hal Roach, working his way up to director and producer. The only description I can find of his supervisor work is that he “supervised the direction by others”. I guess it would be the equivalent of a TV showrunner today?
There are already way too many intertitles in this movie. One states that while Max’s character raised flowers, Ignatz raised “what it’s not polite to mention”. I assume they mean Hell.
Ignatz is played by Walter “Spec” O’Donnell, who earned his stage name thanks to the large amount of freckles on his face. It truly is a sight to behold.
As I mentioned earlier, there is an uncomfortable amount of animal abuse in this movie. Chickens are being handled aggressively and thrown into the air, culminating in a shot where an entire flock is thrown over a fence. This is entertainment? For the record: American Humane did not start supervising on-set animal treatment until about 1940.
I will admit, the reveal of the First Prize tag made me laugh out loud. Unfortunately the rest of the short is everyone slowly figuring it out, and then spending half the film trying to explain it to Max. There’s some fun pantomiming from Morgan and Sleeper, but man does it go on forever.
Oh my god; figure it out, old man! And when is someone gonna pass the gravy!?
Max Davidson transitioned to supporting roles in sound pictures, but a rise in complaints from Jewish communities (as well as the continued suppression of depictions of Judaism in film) led to Davidson’s career fading away. Davidson died in 1950 in a retirement home, his film career long over.
Like Max Davidson, the rest of the cast transitioned to sound films, though none of them ever became big names. The only members of the “Pass the Gravy” team that would go on to fame and fortune were cinematographer George Stevens and production supervisor Leo McCarey; both of whom would go on to be successful film directors.
“Gravy” director Fred Guiol would go on to collaborate with George Stevens on several of his movies, co-writing the screenplays for “Gunga Din” and “Giant“, and serving as associate director for “A Place in the Sun” and “Shane”.
Hmmm, a movie where they kill off a character’s prized animal for retaliation. Where have I seen this before….?
The Plot: More than 10 years after their college activist days, seven friends reunite for a weekend in New Hampshire. Teachers Mike and Katie (Bruce MacDonald and Maggie Renzi) serve as hosts for the weekend, coping with several shifting arrangements. J.T. (Adam LeFevre) is an aspiring folk singer aware that his window of opportunity is closing. Med student Frances (Maggie Cousineau) reunites with local gas station clerk Ron (David Strathairn). Political speechwriter Irene (Jean Passanante) brings along her somewhat square boyfriend Chip (Gordon Clapp). But the real drama comes from Maura (Karen Trott), who arrives without her longtime boyfriend Jeff (Mark Arnott), having just broken up. Jeff eventually shows up, after Maura has already rebounded with J.T. It’s a long weekend with these Baby Boomers coming to terms with what their lives have become.
Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s “insightful script”, “naturalistic acting”, and “Altman-like editing and overlapping dialog”.
But Does It Really?: Sure. There’s no shortage of movies in which boomers face the realities of adulthood, but Sayles did it first, and “Secaucus” perfectly captures time and generation. Like many a low-budget indie, “Secaucus” has a clear point of view and delivers it through a well structured script and an impeccably cast ensemble. While John Sayles may not be as well remembered or revered today as his contemporary filmmakers, he is more than worthy of NFR recognition, and “Secaucus” is a natural choice.
Everybody Gets One: John Sayles started off as a novelist, eventually pivoting to screenwriting. Sayles used the money he earned writing scripts for Roger Corman to fund “Secaucus 7”. Fun Fact: John Sayles also worked on the screenplay for “Night Skies”, the proposed “Close Encounters” sequel that eventually became “E.T.“.
Wow, That’s Dated: Filmed in the fall of 1978, “Secaucus” makes references to then-President Jimmy Carter, the Panama Canal Treaty of 1977, and Michael Dukakis, who was Governor of Massachusetts during filming, but had lost his re-election bid by the time the film was released.
Title Track: As explained in the movie, the title is an in-joke between the seven main characters when they were arrested in Secaucus, New Jersey on the way to a Vietnam protest in D.C.
Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar nominations for “Secaucus”, though the film did win the Los Angeles Film Critics award for its screenplay. John Sayles would eventually receive Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay for his later films “Passion Fish” and “Lone Star”.
John Sayles wanted to make an “audition film” he could show studios to get more directing gigs, and allotted himself a budget of $40,000 (about $163,000 today). Sayles shot “Secaucus” in 25 days, primarily at a rented ski lodge which doubled as cast and crew accommodations. The actors were all unknowns from local theaters, and Sayles wrote several subplots so that the movement between scenes would help make up for the lack of movement in the scenes.
This movie suggests that there was a time when Boomers were young and not blaming all of society’s ills on Millennials and Gen Z. I don’t know…sounds like pure fantasy if you ask me.
I’m used to David Strathairn’s more recent filmography of straight-laced business types, so it’s fun watching him pull a 180 as Ron, the guy who didn’t leave his hometown after high school. Seeing Strathairn in a jumpsuit being awkward and shooting the shit is a delight. Plus this is his film debut!
I will try my best not to make the inevitable comparisons between this film and “The Big Chill”, but if forced to choose between Gordon Clapp or Meg Tilly as my movie’s audience surrogate, I think we all know who wins that round.
There really isn’t a weak link in this ensemble. I particularly enjoyed Maggie Renzi as Katie, who gets several great one-liners, and Karen Trott, emitting some serious Lauren Bacall vibes as Maura.
Side note: Maggie Renzi is the real-life partner of John Sayles. In addition to her performance, Renzi served as the film’s unit manager, location manager, and assistant editor.
Despite the NFR’s praise of Altman-esque overlapping dialogue, very little of this film is improvised. The actors stuck to Sayles’ script for the most part.
Longtime readers know I’m a sucker for scenes that are covered in a single take, and many of the film’s more intimate conversations are presented this way. As much as I like to write these off as a purely artistic choice, I also recognize that single-take scenes are a great time and money-saver for your low-budget indie.
As well-made as this movie is, it does drag in a few places, at least through my modern lens. At one point I thought I was watching this weekend happen in real time.
Just as I say this movie is dragging, along comes some full-frontal nudity from the male cast, including David Strathairn! It’s brief, but does give us the best line in the movie: Katie, upon seeing the men in the buff from a distance, “Jesus, now we know what Irene sees in Chip.”
In true low-budget fashion, John Sayles cast himself in the small role of local friend Howie. Didn’t realize it was him until the credits, which says a lot about how well he blends in with his cast.
While watching this, it occurred to me how many NFR movies center around groups of seven: this, “The Magnificent Seven“, the aforementioned Seven Dwarfs. Heck, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” does it twice! This bodes well for “The Trial of the Chicago 7”, less so for “Se7en”, but that’s for other reasons.
“Return of the Secaucus 7” was never intended to get a theatrical release. John Sayles entered it into the Los Angeles Filmex festival in the hopes of getting a TV distribution deal, but the film ended up being the surprise hit of the festival, and got a theatrical release from Libra Films. “Secaucus” was a critical success, and earned $2 million at the box office.
Since “Secaucus”, John Sayles has directed several films, his most recent being 2013’s “Go for Sisters”. Many of his films feature appearances by his “Secaucus” ensemble.
Despite their great work in this movie, most of the cast didn’t appear in too many films after “Secaucus”, and for some this was their first and only movie. Major exception David Strathairn aside, Gordon Clapp would go on to be a regular on “NYPD Blue” (winning a Primetime Emmy), and Jean Passanante has written for every major network soap opera (winning 5 Daytime Emmys).
“Secaucus” inspired the “Reunion movie” sub-genre of the 1980s, in which a bunch of Baby Boomers, now in their early 30s, reunite and discuss what happened to then between the idyllic ’60s of their youth and the more conservative ’80s of their adulthood. The most famous of these is 1983’s “The Big Chill”, whose director/screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan has gone on record saying he had never heard of or seen “Secaucus” before writing his movie.
Written by Felix Jackson & Gertrude Purcell & Henry Myers. Suggested by the novel by Max Brand.
Class of 1996
The Plot: When the Sheriff of Bottleneck (Joe King) mysteriously “leaves town”, town drunk Wash Dimsdale (Charles Winninger) is appointed the new sheriff, a tactic to keep corrupt saloon owner Kent (Brian Donlevy) in business. Wash sends for Tom Destry, the town’s former sheriff, to appoint him as his new deputy and help clean up Bottleneck. When Destry arrives, it’s actually his son Tom Jr. (James Stewart), a quiet man who believes in non-violence. The town is immediately dismissive of this new civility, but Tom proves them all wrong with his strong convictions and skilled gunmanship. Oh, and Marlene Dietrich is there as Frenchy the saloon girl.
Why It Matters: Weirdly, the NFR write-up doesn’t give any superlatives or explain why “Destry” is on the list. It gives the plot, mentions this film within the context of Stewart and Dietrich’s careers, and cites the many other iterations of this story.
But Does It Really?: I’ll chalk this one up to a “minor classic”. “Destry Rides Again” is a quick, enjoyable film that gets lost in the shuffle of classic westerns (and other 1939 movies). That being said, “Destry” holds up remarkably well (especially in comparison to the other, more problematic westerns on this list), with strong performances from Stewart and Dietrich, and a surprising humorous streak. “Destry” is an underrated gem that I hope keeps getting rediscovered alongside its fellow NFR entries.
Wow, That’s Dated: Mostly the sexism that shows up in these types of movies, like the scene where Destry tells Frenchy she’d be prettier if she didn’t wear makeup. Great, now I got that Amy Schumer song stuck in my head.
Title Track: Wash assures the townspeople that when his new deputy comes to town, “Destry will ride again.”
….Ooh, sorry, but we’re looking for an exact match.
Seriously, Oscars?: Like many of the 1939 greats, “Destry Rides Again” was shut out at the Oscars. Two of its main cast, however, did receive nominations for other films that year: Brian Donlevy for Supporting Actor in “Beau Geste”, and James Stewart for Lead Actor in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington“.
The original novel of “Destry Rides Again” (and its 1932 film version with Tom Mix) is about cowboy Harrison Destry seeking vengeance on those who framed him for a robbery. Obviously, the film took a different route, hence the “Suggested by” designation in the opening credits. And despite the title, this is not a sequel to anything.
Marlene Dietrich’s career had hit a slump when “Destry” came her way, having been labeled “Box Office Poison” a few years earlier. She wasn’t sure about playing Frenchy, but was encouraged by her longtime collaborator Josef von Sternberg, who allegedly told her, “I made you into a goddess. Now show them you have feet of clay.” If nothing else, Dietrich does more emoting in one scene of “Destry” than she does in all of “Morocco“.
This movie is filled with character actors I’ve started to recognize on sight thanks to this blog: Billy Gilbert, Una Merkel, Mischa Auer, Dickie Jones. Also popping up here is Lillian Yarbo, a sensation in the Harlem nightclub scene of the 1920s, but like many a Black performer of the time, seen here as the stereotypical help/comic relief.
Dietrich sings three songs in this movie, but not “I’m Tired”? Come on!
My favorite line may not be one from the movie: In a scene where Frenchy is sticking money into her bra, she originally patted her chest and said, “There’s gold in them thar hills”. The Hays Code made Universal delete the line.
James Stewart was a rising talent in 1939, his breakout in “Mr. Smith” finished but not yet released when he made “Destry”. Stewart landed the role of Tom Destry when Gary Cooper and Joel McCrea turned it down. This is one of Stewart’s more unsung performances, and it’s fun watching an actor who is clearly ready for his breakout role.
One of my notes reads “Hey, this one’s fun.” After a run of NFR westerns that are either heavy on action, philosophy, or racial insensitivity, it’s a relief to watch a western with a sense of humor. I laughed out loud quite a bit during my viewing.
This is the movie where Marlene Dietrich gets into a catfight with Una Merkel. According to Merkel, as well as Dietrich’s grandson Peter Riva, the two actors did the entire fight themselves without calling in their doubles. The fight was allegedly unrehearsed and filmed in one take. You gotta admire anyone who does their own stunts.
Charles Winninger is giving me older Mickey Rooney vibes; he overplays everything but it’s more endearing than annoying. And the dynamic of the comic sheriff and his straight-laced deputy is what we call a “Reverse-Andy Griffith”.
I’m enjoying the running gag of Tom constantly telling stories about friends he knows. It’s somewhere between Gabe Kaplan’s family stories on “Welcome Back, Kotter” and Betty White’s St. Olaf run on “The Golden Girls”.
“The Boys in the Backroom” is the best remembered of Frenchy’s song, though it’s not that different from her other saloon numbers. Side note: All the songs in this movie were co-written by Frank Loesser, future composer of “Guys and Dolls” and “How to Succeed in Business…”.
At one point Frenchy mentions going back to New Orleans. Back? She must be from the same part of Louisiana as Yul Brynner in “The Magnificent Seven“.
Watching the climactic fight with hundreds of people in a crowded saloon, I have to say: I’m really going to miss social distancing.
[Spoilers] The ending seems tough on Frenchy, but then I remembered the Hays Code, and knew that she had to be punished for her role as co-conspirator. I will point out, however, that Tom thinks of Frenchy in the epilogue when he hears children singing “Little Joe, the Wrangler”…a song Frenchy sang about 15 minutes before Tom showed up in this movie.
This is one of the rare classic movies that does something creative with its closing credits. The last shot is Tom telling another story about a friend of his, with the cast list scrolling past him as he keeps talking. It’s hilarious.
“Destry Rides Again” did okay with audiences and critics, not helped by the fact that the film was released a week after “Gone with the Wind“. Luckily, “Destry” is one of many films that got rediscovered through TV reruns.
Although Jimmy Stewart is often associated with his many westerns, “Destry” was his first, and he would not return to the genre until 1950’s “Winchester ’73“.
There are two kinds of remakes of “Destry Rides Again”: the ones that follow the novel’s plot, and the ones that follow the movie’s plot. The former is represented by a TV series starring John Gavin that came and went in the spring of 1964.
Retellings that favor the movie include “Destry”, a 1954 almost shot-for-shot remake directed once again by George Marshall, and a Broadway musical starring Andy Griffith. Hmmm…Griffith as the town sheriff. Interesting…
“The Boys in the Backroom” became a staple for Marlene Dietrich, who performed the song at various USO tours and nightclubs over the years. The song is also a favorite of Dietrich impersonators.