Last year I wrote a post about the movie Destry Rides Again, a comedic Western with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. I really enjoyed it, so several days ago I watched it again. It’s an extremely entertaining film that is also thoughtful. There is an underlying theme about how playing the way that your enemy plays opens you up to your enemy’s fate. Those who live by the sword die by the sword; or by the gun. It’s a curious point to make in 1939, when WWII was just getting underway, but perhaps what really stood out about the movie was how civilization wins out over lawlessness and brutality.
Tom Destry, Jr. (James Stewart) is determined to clean up the town of Bottleneck and believes that you can’t do it by using the methods of the enemy. If you do that, suddenly you’ve undermined your own goal. When he does take up arms, that decision has very serious consequences for him.
But what I was also thinking about when I watched it again was the role of saloon singer, Frenchy, played by Marlene Dietrich.
Frenchy is an interesting character. I am used to the idea of the saloon singer who has a heart of gold and that was my expectation of her coming into the movie. However, she’s really more of a femme fatale, who can recognize goodness. At the beginning, she helps her boyfriend and boss, Kent (Brian Donlevy) cheat a man out of his land and evinces no qualms when Kent kills the first sheriff. She rules at the saloon, almost more than Kent; though he is the one driving the quest for land. She seems happy to assist him,though, and rake in the money.
She also knew that Kent and his gang were going to break out their man from prison later in the film and that they would kill anyone who got in their way. She makes sure that Destry is not there, but as a result, the second sheriff is alone and he is killed. The only truly redeeming thing about her character is that she cares for Destry, though ultimately she is able to achieve redemption by dying for him.
In a contemporary movie, I don’t know if she would have died. There are so many things about her that we admire today. She can not only compete, but win, in a rough and tough man’s world. She is exactly the sort of fun and tough character we love. But in 1930s-’50s movies, the code dictated that people in movies had to pay the price for their crimes. If the film was made today, she would probably not only live, but get the guy. I’m not sure, though, if that would have been more satisfying or not. I have a sneaking feeling that it wouldn’t be.
She also represents our sneaking admiration for a more wild time. We don’t really want to live in a town where the sheriff can be shot and the gambling isn’t honest and the men are spending more time in a saloon than at home, but it’s fun to watch. We like femme fatales, we just don’t want them to win. And that’s the point about Frenchy. She really is a femme fatale, though a sympathetic one. It’s hard to imagine her settling down to civilized life. She belongs to the wild west and when that goes, she has to go, too. She is part of the lawlessness that gets overwhelmed by Destry’s law and order.
I really enjoy this movie. Despite the more serious points, the film is really an excuse to have a lot of fun and the film never allows its more serious points to overwhelm the general tone of the film.
There also some fun songs in the film, sung by Marlene Dietrich and written by Frank Loesser (who wrote the songs for “Guys and Dolls”) and Frederick Hollander (who had to leave Germany in 1933 because he had Jewish ancestors). This video is of Marlene Dietrich singing “Little Joe” from the movie, with movie stills from the film.
“See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have” is probably the most enduring of the songs from the film. In this video, Marlene Dietrich is entertaining the troops during WWII. A German who emigrated to Hollywood in the early thirties to work, she was a staunch anti-Nazi and entertained troops indefatigably during the war, even going near enemy lines in Germany to perform. She officially became a citizen of America in 1939, the same year that Destry Rides Again came out.