Starring: James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich
Director: George Marshall
Mood: If you can’t decide if you want to watch a classic or a comedy or a musical or a Western with a strong female star and wish there was a movie that somehow did it all.
“I read a book once that said that women always look their best in the peace and quiet that follows a storm of violence.”
Tom Destry Jr. (James Stewart)
I had never seen a Marlene Dietrich movie before Destry Rides Again.
At my age and having a lifelong obsession with LGBTQ icons and pop culture as I have, that’s basically admitting a dirty secret. Sure, I knew all about her. I knew what she looked like, that she was bisexual, that her style was often androgenous, and that she pissed off her fellow Germans by being openly anti-facist and supporting the USA in WWII – she was the first woman to earn the Medal of Freedom for her efforts.
I had this concept that she was awesome. I had just never seen her in action.
Now that I’ve watched Destry Rides Again twice in just 24 hours, I’m officially a HUGE f*cking Dietrich fan.
This movie is smartly written, funny, fast, and a fantastic showcase for Dietrich’s talent – but also for everyone in it. There’s not a dud in the bunch.
Destry Rides Again takes place at an unspecified time in the Old West, in a town called Bottleneck. It opens with Frenchy (Dietrich) belting out a merry dance hall song, and a poker game that you quickly realize is rigged against the poor guy betting his ranch.
This town is actually filled with shady characters. You’ve got the saloon owner Kent (Brian Donlevy) and his crew, his partner-in-crime Frenchy, and the corrupt mayor Slade (Samuel S. Hinds). The sheriff investigating the poker game suddenly disappears, so mayor Slade appoints drunken buffoon Dimsdale (Charles Winninger) as the new sheriff to keep things fast and loose.
One problem – the sheriff gets serious and calls in Tom Destry Jr. (James Stewart) to help clean up the town. Destry launches a murder investigation with several twists and turns and double-crosses, which gets the bad guys seriously pissed off. This leads to a final showdown that lands the entire town in an all-out brawl.
James Stewart is the title character, and he does a good job – Destry came out the same year as the influential Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and this was his first Western. But it’s hard to say much else because he’s the straight man to everyone else’s bubbly, hilarious, and otherwise scene-stealing performances.
Dietrich is everything and more. Holy shit.
Her Frenchy exudes as much confidence as she does allure. Sure, she’s tarted up to get the men drinking and gambling. But she’s right in there drinking with them. There’s never a moment where she’s weak, hesitant, doubtful, or obedient. And you can tell that she’s the one with the real power to influence the outcome.
Dietrich delivers coy looks and sharp lines as handily as she doles out punches and belts out saloon songs. She even learned to roll her own smokes to lend authenticity to her character.
- Fun Fact: Dietrich’s songs in this movie were the inspiration for the ridiculous Lily von Schtupp in Blazing Saddles, and if you saw that movie first you will instantly get it the moment Dietrich opens her mouth
But the best thing about Destry Rides Again is that although Dietrich is 100% in command, there isn’t a single weak female role in the production. They’re all shown to be smart and strong, and fully competent with either fists or guns.
- Lily Callaghan (Una Merkel) holds her own just fine in a hilarious – and lengthy – fight with Frenchy; the fight was apparently unchoreographed, with the women agreeing to just go for it minus closed fists, and was all shot in one take
- Janice Tyndall (Irene Hervey) steps up the moment Frenchy demands the women get their butts into the final showdown
- Sophie Claggett (Virginia Brissac) is shown rifle in hand right beside her husband, taking shots on Kent’s gang as the bad guys try to take their ranch
- Clara (Lillian Yarbo) may be Frenchy’s maid, but they talk as equals and she doesn’t hesitate to share her opinions
All of that might sound like no big deal, but consider that this was 1939. American women had only earned the right to vote 19 years earlier. This was the age of Shirley Temple, of women still being sweet, supportive, and mostly silent.
So a movie that depicts women as not only equal to men but, arguably, in full control? That’s f*cking groundbreaking.
- Fun Fact #2: Dietrich was apparently taken with Stewart when she arrived on set, but he only had eyes for his comic books. So she made her move by having the art department make him a life-sized doll of Flash Gordon.
The women shine bright, but there are awesome performances here by the men, too.
- Charles Winniger reminds me a bit of Wilford Brimley; from his facial expressions to his physical comedy, he’s absolutely hilarious as the formerly drunken Dimsdale and radiates this warmth that you just want to hug
- Mischa Auer is my favourite performance other than Dietrich’s – this guy hams it up to an 11 in the role of Russian immigrant Boris, a man who can find a dead body but can’t seem to keep his pants
Unfortunately, the moustaches of this movie are mostly of the pencil variety. Charles Winniger is the only one rocking a proper one, so he wins by default.
James Stewart and the bad guys of Destry Rides Again do sound a little more like East Coast wiseguys than Old West characters. But there’s so much action and hilarity going on, and the cinematography is so good for its time, that it’s easy to overlook a few faulty accents.
Unless you’re looking for a somber, serious Western, this movie is bound to give you everything you need. And the more times you watch it, the more fun little details you pick up on.
I’m definitely hunting down Dietrich’s other Westerns. Stay tuned.