#571) Destry Rides Again (1939)

#571) Destry Rides Again

OR “…But I Did Not Shoot the Deputy”

Directed by George Marshall

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.”

Judges?

….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“.

Other notes

  • 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.

Legacy

  • “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. 

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