Destry Rides Again August 17, 2016
Much as I’d like to be skeptical of a crime-riddled town’s decision to bring in Jimmy Stewart’s good cop Destry in hopes for someone to bring back old-fashioned safety to the land, I can’t, even though I find it implausible for a skinny fellow of Stewart’s American as apple pie sort to be the sturdy law enforcer everyone’s looking for as their savior. Say it’s the way that Destry has the aim of a mountain lion pouncing on his prey, or the way he maintains his good boy façade all the while perpetuating that he’s tough enough to leave his gun at home. Stewart’s casting, unthinkable as it is pre-viewing, is, interestingly, immaculate; unorthodox tough guys, it seems, are sometimes more compelling than your John Waynes and your Humphrey Bogarts.
For Destry Rides Again, a comedy western released during Hollywood’s greatest year, 1939, Stewart is perfect; and, oddly, so is Marlene Dietrich, the premier femme fatale of that decade who is both the film’s quasi-villainess and Stewart’s would-be love interest. It all sounds like a misfire in the making on paper, akin to one of those failed pictures in which a studio throws star power and a popular genre together hoping for something good. And yet the film defies any notions that it might, in fact, be a disaster.
The film concerns the shaping up of Bottleneck, a hapless small town doomed by its political corruption and unending acts of violence. The mayor (Samuel S. Hinds) is a selfish crook uncaring of the population’s fate; rather than undergo any sort of dirty work himself, the city is mostly run by sleazy saloon owner Kent (Brian Donlevy) and his torch singer girlfriend, Frenchy (Dietrich). As the film opens, we find that Kent has just had the town’s sheriff offed for vaguely questioning the saloon’s bad habit of hosting rigged poker games. This leads to the appointment of the everlastingly drunken Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger) as his successor, which is, seemingly, a smart move on Kent’s part.
But because karma always comes back roaring for revenge, it is discovered that Dimsdale has ties to Tom Destry, a famed but deceased lawman renowned for his unconventional methods of peacekeeping. His son (Stewart), who bears his father’s name proudly, has all but taken Destry Sr.’s rep as an authority figure not to be messed with. Wanting to see an end to Bottleneck’s apparently eternal carnage, Dimsdale calls the man into the city hoping for a solution — and, troubling to the power hungry Kent, Destry is smarmy enough to enforce tranquility.
Always with a twinkle in his eye and a readied one-liner in his mouth to prove his uncrossable confidence, Stewart’s Destry is an unfadingly winning Western hero that both solidifies Destry Rides Again as a genre picture to be taken seriously and a genre picture to be loved for the friskiness in its heart. Stewart is its straight man and perhaps its most uninteresting character, but only because Dietrich, who gets two awesome song- and-dance numbers in and exploits her own erotically charged persona in the process (memorably through a brutal catfight between her and Una Merkel), and because Donlevy, remarkably detestable and the face of much of the film’s cheery chaos, are larger than life.
You’ll remember its images and its dopamine enforced aftereffects more than you’ll remember its intricacies, but Destry Rides Again was never meant to be anything other than a grand old time, which it is. A little over ninety minutes, it’s concrete escapism so inspired in its bold pre-productional decisions that its eccentricity immortalizes it. B+