Title: Destry Rides Again
Director: George Marshall
Writers: Felix Jackson, Gertrude Purcell and Henry Myers from the novel by Max Brand
Stars: Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, Mischa Auer, Brian Donlevy, Jack Carson
The Story: His famous father died in a gunfight, so the amiable Destry Junior tries to clean up a crooked town without ever using a gun. It’s a tall order, because a ruthless gang is stealing people’s land with the help of certain German saloon singer.
How it Came to be Underrated: This one is a stretch, since everybody loves it, but it rarely gets mentioned amongst the other great classics of 1939, and it’s right up there with the best of them. The movie tends to get ignored by the auteurists, because nobody knows who the hell George Marshall was (and I don’t either).
Why It’s Great:
- I complained before that Blazing Saddles subjected Busby Berkley to ridicule, but this movie has even more of a grievance against Brooks. Madeline Kahn made the idea of a German chanteuse in a western saloon seem so inherently ridiculous that one wants to laugh out loud as soon as Dietrich appears on screen. Then she quickly wins you over—she couldn’t be more at home in this setting. (It’s actually not a silly idea, the west was founded by immigrants.) It turns out that Brooks borrowed the character because she was a lot of fun—and he only spoofed movies he loved.
- Dietrich somehow managed to combine the ethereal beauty of Garbo with the bawdy humor of Mae West. It never should have worked, but she does it effortlessly, and her appeal is more modern and un-self-conscious than the two of them put together.
- There’s a central paradox at the heart of most Westerns: law and order must be upheld—by shooting the bad guys dead in the street. Given the way that movies tend to escalate, it’s very hard to make one that champions pacifism, and all the harder if the story is set out west where the law can’t protect the weak. If a western shows pacifism as an option, as High Noon does, then that option is proven wrong. Not so, here. Yes, Stewart ultimately has to put on a gun at the very end, but by that point he’s won us over to his philosophy and we don’t want him to. This is amiable comedy, but it’s also a thoughtful movie about moral courage.
- One of the 1939 movies that auteurists do mention a lot is John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, starring Stewart’s former roommate Henry Fonda. That movie is fun but very hokey. This movie works better as a parable for Lincoln’s presidency, with Stewart as a tall tale version of the president—Like Lincoln, Destry pretends to be a rube and tells meandering jokes to defuse dangerous situations, all the while quietly accumulating the power he needs to save the town. This is the liveliest and most authentic version of the president we’ve gotten onscreen so far.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Dietrich revisited American saloons in two underrated American movies by great European directors: Rene Clair’s The Flame of New Orleans and Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious.
How Available Is It?: It’s got a gorgeous DVD.
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