June 22, 2020
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Stars Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, Brian Donlevy, Jack Carson, Irene Hervey, Charles Winninger.
Partly by default and partly because it’s true, 1939’s Destry Rides Again is, as the great Imogen Sara Smith says in her interview on Criterion’s new release of what’s likely the most respected film from director George Marshall, also the best comic Western of all time. To really cut it, any contender has to work as a comedy and a Western, and Destry is pretty close to being able to stand alone in this specialist genre’s latter component. In fact, to my taste, there’s a little too much comedy and certainly music here, but it’s the musical numbers that have given the film its place in history, so what are you going to do?
Marlene Dietrich is the one of the actresses that exhibitors had listed as “box office poison,” and she was just coming off Ernst Lubitsch’s flop-at-the-time Angel, which is now a major revisionist cause that Kino just brought out in a new Blu-ray that I haven’t seen despite commentary by major leaguer Joseph McBride, a Lubitsch biographer. (I was also struck that Andrew Sarris rated it very highly decades ago in his landmark The American Cinema.) Of all people, Dietrich “creator” and overall guru Josef von Sternberg encouraged her to take on Destry, with was a major face lift to her screen image.
She plays the in-house entertainment and fleecing assistant at the Last Chance Saloon, which is also the best chance around in which to lose your home and often your life in crooked poker games run by the joint’s proprietor (Brian Donlevy, naturally). As “Frenchy,” Dietrich provides gambling distractions but also performs several songs, including one of her signatures: “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have,” one of several light moments to camouflage the fact that the town law has mysteriously vanished off the face of the Earth. To take his place, the town’s crooked judge who’s under Donlevy’s thumb (Samuel S. Hinds) appoints the saloon’s resident sot (Charles Winninger) as the replacement law. In rare moments of sobriety, the last knows he’s in over his head, so he imports Tom Destry Jr. (James Stewart) as his deputy — son of a famed lawman and himself an individual of reputation in other places. Fun fact: Hinds later played Stewart’s father in It’s a Wonderful Life — talk about another image facelift).
Well … the first the town sees him, he’s helping a “good girl” (Irene Hervey) off the stage and in the process aiding her by holding some of her garb in his hands. Then it turns out that he doesn’t carry a gun. This is all good for guffaws on the street, and Donlevy is delighted once he gets over his sheer double-take bewilderment (no actor did this better than he did), though Winninger is, of course, mortified. Another fun fact: Hervey was married to singer Allan Jones in real life, whose big hit was “The Donkey Serenade” from the same year. Together, they parented singer Jack Jones, and I think I recall from an old “This Is Your Life” episode that he recorded it the same night Jack was born.
Stewart, though, turns out to have his own effective style at defusing trouble, and he develops something of a perverse relationship with Dietrich that includes lots of physical mayhem in the saloon and in her living quarters. Even with this, though, the big fight is between Dietrich and Uni Merkel as a local wife who will tolerate no nonsense. And speaking of violence, calming Hervey has a hothead brother played by Jack Carson in a role much meaner than he usually did. Donlevy, who really does own everything, wants to change Carson for moving his cattle over Donlevy land, and Carson just knocks down a fence and plus on through.
Eventually, Stewart employs a few surprises in his style and finally proves he has the stuff, as he additionally pursues whatever happened to the missing Winninger predecessor. Another ‘A’-teamer (Farran Nehme) wrote the Criterion essay, and she notes how, for all its glory, Destry was actually fairly far down on the year’s list of the renowned 1939’s biggest hits, such was the competition.
Bowing again to Gary Tooze on his DVD Beaver site, I totally agree to unexpectedly striking degree that the All-Region Koch Blu-ray from Germany several years ago has far crisper visuals despite Criterion getting a 4K treatment here. But Criterion’s extras are very cool, including Marshall talking about working during Hollywood’s formative years (he’s right out of the unmatched Kevin Brownlow Hollywood documentary from the early 1930s). And the insights from Donald Dewey, author of James Stewart — A Biography, so impressed me that I tried to get the book for my Kindle, but it isn’t available. All in all this is a strong package, but boy, that Koch version looks good.