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Further Thoughts on Destry Rides Again – Marlene Dietrich and Femme Fatales

Marlene Dietrich as Frenchy

Marlene Dietrich as Frenchy

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.

Frenchy shows Destry how he can clean up the town while Kent looks on

Frenchy shows Destry how he can clean up the town while Kent looks on

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.

 

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Destry Rides Again

1939 – Starring James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Brian Donlevy, Charles Winninger, Mischa Auer – Directed by George Marshall

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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.

th[8]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.

thQJSNIRXCBut Destry is so angered by what happened to Wash that he goes to his room and  puts on his guns. The town rallies behind him and they lay siege to Kent and his men inside the saloon.

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).

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2014 in Comedy, Westerns

 

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