Video Review: Destry Rides Again (1939)
by Jonathan Walker
Often we inherit destructive patterns in life, or we assume them, or they are thrust upon us. They often mask our potential and keep us from success. Destry Rides Again (1939) tells the story of how people overcome their challenges to clean up the rebellious town of Bottleneck in Hollywood’s old west.
The crooked businessman Kent (Brian Donlevy) has a stranglehold on Bottleneck. He owns the mayor and honest sheriffs have a habit of “leaving town” suddenly-and permanently. Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich), the music hall performer, enjoys the perks of helping Kent cheat the farmers. The mayor appoints the town drunk, Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger), as the newest mayor to prevent any serious disruption to their power, but “Wash” takes the job seriously. He sends for the famous lawman Thomas Jefferson Destry (James Stewart). Only Destry has some “peculiar ideas for a deputy sheriff”: he doesn’t advocate six-shooters or showdowns as a means to justice and he won’t even carry a gun.
There are certain films that delight me so thoroughly that I enjoy recommending them to everyone I know, but I hesitate writing reviews on them. I fear I might analyze the fun right out of them. I suppose I’ll take my chances.
Destry Rides Again is based on the book by the popular fiction author Max Brand (pen name for Frederick Faust). Brand wrote hundreds of stories and novels which reveal a thorough understanding of popular genres. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the story is the way Brand plays with our expectations of the western genre. We expect a showdown, deputies, a saloon fight, and machismo and we get all of them in Destry Rides Again. Only we don’t expect the showdown to be an undignified cat fight, or the deputies to be gun-less and Russian, or the saloon fight to be between two women, and the machismo to be redefined as non-violent.
The film is playful, but it also has a bit of an edge to it. Sure, the taciturn mayor harmlessly plays checkers with himself, but he just as easily averts justice by stacking the jury. A clever ruse cheats a man at poker where he loses the deed to his farm. Frenchy begins her relationship with Destry in comical fisticuffs and ends it in endearing friendship.
The director George Marshall balances the humor with the edge. The film keeps a light tone and clips along with the pace of a comedy. Only occasionally do the more poignant moments keep the mayhem from being too insignificant. A good example of that is when Destry encourages Frenchy to help him in his cause for justice. “I’ll bet you kind of have a lovely face under all that paint,” he tells her. “Why don’t you wipe it off some day and have a good look. Figure out how you can live up to it.” She throws him out only to got to a mirror and remove the heavy lipstick with contemplation. Frenchy has hidden the kind of person she really is under the makeup of a music hall singer. She has abandoned her best self. But, she’s not the only one.
Boris, a Russian drawn to the old west, complains about being forced to take his wife’s dead husband’s name. He wants to be his own man. But, when it comes right down to it, he is trying too hard to be a “cowboy”. Somewhere between the Russian who met all the kings of Europe and the cowboy Callahan is the true Boris. He finds himself not in the saloon at the poker table, but as a deputy helping Destry in is unusual hunt for justice.
Destry also searches for his best self and he doesn’t even know it. He has abandoned guns and the showdown. “Pa did it the old way,” Destry says. “I’m going to do it the new way.” As one of the most legendary of the quick-draws, Destry’s father misplaced his trust in the protection of his guns when he was shot in the back. Instead of the law of the jungle, he would advocate the rule of law, even to the exclusion of any force whatever.
Destry knew that something had to be done. Bottleneck could never be “cleaned up” with guns. One showdown always led to another. Dueling simply raises a man’s machismo until men must remove each other to prove their masculinity. Nothing proves that point more directly than the disappearance of Sheriff Keogh, or by the death of Destry’s father. “You shoot it out with ’em,” Destry said,
And for some reason or another, I don’t know why, they get to look like heros. But, you put ’em behind bars and they look little and cheap. The way they ought to look. That serves as a warning to the rest of them to keep away.
Even the villains of Hollywood’s old west need to be treated as they truly are, heartless criminals that belong behind bars, not heros who stand or fall by the fastest draw.
Men in Bottleneck, however, don’t tend to allow sheriffs to walk them to jail without a fight. And a fight is hard to win when the villains are armed and the sheriffs are not. Destry demands that the rule of law prevail, but ultimately he must enforce the rule of law with violence or at least the threat of violence. He must put on his guns. Destry doesn’t fall from his ideals when he does so. When the rule of law is flouted by violence, it must be defended or abandoned. Somewhere between the gun slinging tough as nails father and the pacifist son lies the most successful Destry.
Even still, when Destry picks up his guns, he opens himself to the same fate as his father. Indeed, he nearly falls the same way, and would… No, I can’t tell you that part. It would ruin the film for you. In any case, Destry’s success has to do with his success as a person first and as a lawman second.
Trying to rid ourselves of the obstacles to our best selves is not easy or expeditious. Destry knew this. After all, he knew a guy who collected postage stamps because “one good thing about a postage stamp is that it sticks to one thing ’til it gets there.”
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.