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.
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 later.
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 crooked judge.
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 offhand 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 might have.
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 reasonably 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: