Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
An immensely entertaining comedy Western, Destry Rides Again is a prime example of how
wonderful old-style Hollywood films could be. The story of the deputy who tames a town without
the aid of a gun is in turns sentimental, cynical, serious and hilarious. A smart screenplay and
casting genius that perfectly exploits the strengths of its stars combine with some great songs
and wild action scenes for maximum entertainment.
Gambler Kent (Brian Donlevy) has Judge Slade (Samuel S. Hinds) in his pocket, and
henchmen (Allen Jenkins and Warren Hymer) to help him take over the town. But his ace in the hole
is the duplicitous Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich), who provides the needed distraction to help Kent
fleece landowners of their property. After murdering the sheriff, Kent appoints town drunk
Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger) to take his place. 'Wash' promptly goes on the wagon and sends
for Thomas Jefferson Destry, Jr. (James Stewart) to seriously clean things up. But, totally against
his reputation, Destry is completely non-confrontational with the bad men, which drives Wash and
cattleman Jack Tyndall (Jack Carson) to distraction. How can a lawman who drinks milk and is the
laughingstock of the bar-room, do any good?
Although it's now hard to believe, by all accounts Destry Rides Again was a desperate production.
Universal was doing poorly, as usual, and Marlene Dietrich was hired at a bargain because she'd
fared the worst in the 'box office poison' exhibitors' backlash of 1938. The result was a Western
comedy that shocked the whole town with its unexpected quality, and became one of the many excellent
films that earned 1939 the label of having more and better pictures released than any
in Hollywood history.
James Stewart has a field day with his laconic, pacifist lawman town tamer, who goes against all
known laws of masculine behavior: turning the other cheek and taking personal insults with a smile.
Naturally, he's hiding the fastest draw in the West behind his Aw Shucks manner.
Stewart uses his comedy experience from his Frank Capra movies and
gives a very-nicely judged performance. His trademark habit of interrupting confrontations by
telling little stories quickly became one of his classic bits - the stammering indecision act came
Marlene Dietrich, according to critics unimpressed by her exotic, sometimes static movies, had burned
herself out and was a humorless fashion plate of cornball romance. Destry Rides Again knocked
them all for a loop by proving that she was hip, fast with the jokes, and possessed of a keen ability
to send herself up. The idea may have been to make her a Lola-Lola of the West, but there's little
to compare between the Von Sternberg mantrap, with her smoky eyes and chubby thighs, and this stage dynamo.
Frenchy's ridiculous head of blonde curls and frilly costumes don't stop her from kicking another
bargirl out of Stewart's lap, and she roughhouses with the best of them.
Her ridiculously low singing voice, often ridiculed, is perfect for Frederick Hollander's rousing
show tunes, and she even does a thing where she grabs her throat and makes her voice warble, that
proves she's worried not one bit about her refined image. Destry Rides Again is one of the
few Westerns where the onstage singing is as good or better than the rest of the picture.
Those hilarious lyrics for See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have and two other songs
are an extension of the elevated wit of the rest of the picture. Mischa Auer plays his usual
droopfaced Russian, this time the henpecked husband of Una Merkel. She has so little regard for him
that she calls him by her first husband's name. Auer, Charles Winninger, and even the two Kent thugs
have clever lines and business, and Brian Donlevy as Kent is one of those genial baddies who's hard
to dislike. Billy Gilbert is a classic barkeep ("I set 'em up, they drink 'em down ...")
with the unlikely name of Loupgarou - 'werewolf' - and Jack Carson is a humorless he-man set up
as a contrast to Stewart's passive-aggressive deputy. It's also fun to see Samuel S. Hinds,
Stewart's idealized father from It's a Wonderful Life, enjoying himself as a disreputable
The most memorable highlight is Merkel's saloon catfight with Dietrich, which looks as if it really
caused some bruises, with the two tumbling across tables and the like. Stewart soaking the two
women with a bucket
of water has an extra kick because of Marlene's penchant for always looking perfect on screen.
With her fancy hair ruined, she pulls a gun on Stewart and we honestly believe she's hopping mad.
Destry Rides Again rides a nice line between comedy and sentimental half-seriousness. The
murder of Stewart's predecessor in the beginning lets us know that there might be some violent
surprises to come, so when Dietrich pulls that gun, she just might shoot somebody. The film has its
way, with a bittersweet finale that goes for an unexpected poignancy. It really works, especially
because journeyman veteran director Marshall doesn't go in for overstatement the way Frank Capra
When we watched Westerns at UCLA, we analyzed and compared many as genre efforts to be classified,
ranked, and otherwise subjected to the indignity of critical studies. Destry Rides Again
entertained us so thoroughly, we had to remind ourselves afterward that we were in school. It's
one of those pictures guaranteed to cheer up anyone.
According to the records, it's technically a remake of a 1932 effort, which was retitled Justice
Rides Again after the fact, so as to not be confused with this favorite when shown on television.
Universal's DVD of Destry Rides Again is a surprisingly good copy of this 64 year-old comedy
oater. I guess it was luckier than the average popular Universal talkie, as many of their vintage
titles are in pretty sad shape. The picture is intact and sharp, from intact elements given a good
encoding for DVD. The audio is cleaner than on the old laserdisc release as well.
Apparently a trailer hasn't survived, because the disc has no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Destry Rides Again rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 10, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson