Review: Destry Rides Again (1939)

USA, George Marshall

I thoroughly enjoyed this western, starring two actors whom I’ve never liked more than in this movie.  Neither Jimmy Stewart nor Marlene Dietrich are particular favorites of mine, but they completely won me over in their portrayals of a soft-spoken deputy and spirited saloon singer.

Stewart stars as Tom Destry, Jr., the son of a famous gunfighting lawman, who comes to the town of Bottleneck at the request of the new sheriff to help clean up the town. While Stewart stars in many of my favorite classic films (Philadelphia Story, Shop Around the Corner and You Can’t Take It With You quickly come to mind) he’s never been one of my favorite stars. I like him well enough, but he’s also kind of one-note, always playing a variation on himself–stammering, soft-spoken, quiet and kind, a kind-of godfather to Hugh Grant. In Destry Rides Again this characterization is perfectly suited to that of the pacifist deputy.

As Destry tries to keep peace in the town using the letter of the law instead of a gun, he charms two women (one saint, one sinner.) Irene Hervey plays the refined woman from the east who arrives with Destry on the stage.  While you know that she’s the one destined for the hero, she’s not terribly interesting and thankfully only in a handful of scenes.  Dietrich plays the other side of the coin, the tough talking, feisty, smokey throated saloon singer who begins the film in cahoots with the town bully, and ends up falling for Destry.

This film was amazing to me for very simple reason–Marlene Dietrich smiles.  When I think of Dietrich, it’s as a cold, calculating, sophisticated woman, smoldering but cynical and dispassionate.  In this film she smiles, laughs and sings with the “boys in the back room,” punctuating her songs with an enthusiastic cowboy yell.  It’s great fun.  Her scenes with Jimmy Stewart are golden.

Great supporting work is supplied by Mischa Auer, Una Merkel and Charles Winninger as the town drunk turned sheriff.  There’s a great running gag throughout the film involving the Sheriff’s nervous tendency to pull his shirt out from his pants and Destry’s attempt to keep the sheriff calm and together by tucking it in again. It’s a clever bit that tells more about the characters in brief gestures than pages of dialog could ever do. These touches make all the difference in these great classics from the golden age of film. [***** out of 5]

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