1939 – Starring James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Brian Donlevy, Charles Winninger, Mischa Auer – Directed by George Marshall
Destry Rides Again is generally viewed as a comic-western, which is true, but it’s also something more than that; it’s difficult to pin down. It’s a tragicomic western – very quirky, full of high energy, good acting, happily spoofing the western trope of a quiet, mysterious lawman coming into town and engaging in one final gunfight to defeat the villains. But there is also a touch of poignancy and a subtle point about law and order versus the wild west.
Kent is a saloon owner (Donlevy) buying up all the cattle land in the wild town of Bottleneck, with the aid of his girlfriend and saloon singer, Frenchy, (Dietrich) and the protection of a corrupt mayor. He even gets away with shooting the sheriff and the mayor appoints the local drunk as the next sheriff as joke.
The local drunk, however, is a former gunman called Wash (Winninger) and he used to ride with the great lawman, Destry. Determined to prove himself, he quits drinking and sends for Destry’s son, who is also a lawman, Tom Destry, Jr. (Stewart).
Destry is a bit of a disappointment when he arrives, though. He’s carrying a parasol and birdcage for a fellow female passenger on the stagecoach and the effect he has is not exactly what Wash was hoping for. It also seems that Destry carries no guns. Kent thinks he’s a sissy and and Wash wants him to go home before he dies.
But Destry is not deterred and sets out to clean up the town (while carving napkin holders) and bring law and order. He disappoints many people by not preventing Kent from engaging in certain ventures because they are legal on the surface, but only because he is determined to pin the murder of the sheriff on him and defeat him that way.
Frenchy, however, begins to fall for him, despite a raucous first meeting – she got into the mother of all cat fights with another woman (seriously, you’ve never seen anything like it). Destry poured cold water over the two fighting women and Frenchy then chased him all around the saloon throwing bottles, furniture and waving a gun while he shielded himself behind a chair. She is not exactly the hooker with the heart of gold here; she’s more of the femme fatale who is touched by his essential goodness and presence.
And when Destry finally finds a way to pin the murder on Kent, Kent retaliates and the story becomes a little more serious, though never in a heavy-handed fashion.
Destry and Guns – Civilization vs. The Wild West
When Wash asks Destry why he never carries guns, Destry replies that he doesn’t believe in them anymore. His father was a great lawman, but was shot in the back and having a gun couldn’t prevent it.
This aspect about getting shot in the back is a running theme in the film. Three people are shot in the back; one of them is Destry’s father, though we never meet him. Later in the film, Wash is shot in the back by Kent’s men when they break one of their own men out of jail.
In one interpretation of the film I’ve read, it is described as the inevitable gunfight at the end of the western, where Destry must lay aside his pacifistic ways and take up arms to defeat the villains. But Destry’s decision has consequences and could have had even more serious consequences.
The women – partially incited by Frenchy, who is afraid Destry will get killed – interfere and manage to prevent excess bloodshed. They take up various instruments and tools and march down the street in between the two fighting sides, effectually stopping the gunfire. Instead, there is a brawl in the saloon, that the women fully participate in.
My sister pointed out that the moment Destry put on his guns, he doomed himself. He went against what he believed in and was now, like his father and Wash, open to being shot in the back. And he should have died. During the brawl, Kent shoots at Destry while his back is turned and the only reason he doesn’t kill him is because Frenchy steps between Kent and Destry and takes his fate on herself.
It’s not that the film endorses pacifism or turning the other cheek. Destry is more than able to fight. He is a crack shot and can land a punch so fast the other guy never knew what hit him. But he’s also wily and he always stays on the side of the law. Nor is the film against guns. It’s more like the gun represents something in the movie. It represents lawlessness and vigilantism. Destry, with his desire to talk things out and not cause further bloodshed by being trigger happy, is bringing civilization to a wild town. And when the women later intervene to prevent a gunfight, it is a further example of the force of civilization taming the west.
It’s a great film, even if you don’t normally like westerns. James Stewart really makes it work with his mild mannered, polite, inoffensive, law enforcing persona. While people are laughing at him and his apparently sissy ways, he keeps smiling like a Cheshire cat, knowing that he is going to get them in the end.
It’s wonderful to watch the cast, too – they all seem to be having a good time. Marlene Dietrich plays the raucous, hard-drinking, gambling, singing, unscrupulous saloon singer like nobody else. And there is also the wonderful Allen Jenkins (often seen in Warner Bro. gangster films) and Mischa Auer as the hen-pecked Russian emigre who just wants to “be a cowboy and wear [his] own pants” (he lost them to Frenchy in a bet and now his wife won’t let him out of the house).