Welcome to the town of Bottleneck, which is about as big of a lawless boondoggle as anyplace in the old West. After the local Sheriff goes missing at the behest of an unscrupulous land-owner, Tom Destry (James Stewart), the son of an illustrious lawman, is sent for to clean up the town. When he arrives, the citizens discover a niggling detail about their new savior: Destry doesn’t believe in using guns to enforce the law. Oh, and did I mention that while this is going on, Marlene Dietrich is romping about as a saloon girl named “Frenchy” who spends most of her time drinking and gambling and stealing the pants off of Russian immigrants? Hijinks, naturally, ensue.
Destry Rides Again premiered in 1939, which is sort of a vintage year for classic Hollywood cinema. This is when Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and in terms of great Westerns, Stagecoach first came out. James Stewart also made another little film around this time concerned with law and order, called Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Destry Rides Again isn’t any of these. But it is a smart, fun Western comedy that is much better made than it needed to be.
This is a well-paced, well-scripted film, but it really rides on the strength of its leads. If you’re even a casual fan of James Stewart, there’s a lot for you to love in his Tom Destry. Stewart brings an aw-shucks-ma’am quality here to his already folksy bearing. All his napkin ring whittling and suspiciously appropriate anecdotes about “friends” of his dying horribly add a lot to the film’s humor; it’s especially nice to see him in a lighter role with more physical comedy, which he’s very adept at. There’s still true grit at Destry’s core, though, and when Stewart growls at some ruffians that, “the next time you fellas start any of this promiscuous shooting, you’re gonna land in jail!” you really do believe he’d be able to pitch them all in the can from 50 yards away using only the strength of his crystalline gaze.
The film also has two spectacular fight sequences, with large crowds and complicated staging that are worth repeat viewings for all the gags going on in the corners of the frame. One starts out as a drunken catfight between Dietrich and an uptight hotel matron, which escalates when Stewart dumps a bucket of water on them both, and ends up here:
Save a horse?
The second occurs at the climax of the film, and without giving too much away involves dynamite, some tricky horsemanship, and a horde of pissed-off homesteader’s wives lead by Dietrich in storming the saloon. For a Western that makes some apt comments about the glorification of Western violence, it treats violence in the most hyperbolic and preposterous way it can think to do. Seriousness and basic reality never stand in the way of the film’s fun.
Most of us catch Blazing Saddles well before we’re introduced to Marlene Dietrich’s strange and wondrous star persona. Her feather-boa-wearing, deep-voiced, singing-and-dancing antics can seem a bit absurd as opposed to the prowl of a German sex tigress, and her multiple musical numbers do stop the film cold at several points. Either you love her or you hate her. Personally, I find her showmanship to be just the right level of absurd most of the time, but you do need the extra beer to get through her musical opener, “Little Joe.”
The character of Frenchy is representative of Dietrich’s Western heroines, but intensely problematic, too, and not just because of her name. Stewart’s certainly attracted to her saloon gal with a heart of gold and the chemistry between them is surprisingly fun, however at the end of the film she is still punished for getting into catfights and wearing low-cut dresses with an illegal number of sparkly sequins. The overly neat one-eighty Stewart does from Frenchy to the good-girl Janice, while typical of the code of censorship in Hollywood at the time, will definitely raise the ire of all your friends who majored in Gender Studies.
There are a number of minor characters, in fact, that cause the film to suffer from dated stereotypes and may either jar a touchy modern viewer, or make it funnier, depending on how much of an asshole you are about that kind of thing. When they come up, it’s not a bad idea to try and contextualize these moments in terms of the prevalent cultural milieu in which they were made. It’s also not a bad idea to drink more.
All four of us are deeply concerned that Marlene Dietrich’s African-American maid isn’t being portrayed with enough nuance.
A supremely entertaining, albeit old-timey, Western, Destry Rides Again has a number of fun sequences that are definitely worth laughing at with a group of friends. And since it clocks in at a cool 93 minutes, it’s a great movie to pre-game a long night of saloon-hopping.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time Jimmy Stewart makes an adorably earnest speech about law and order.
Take a Drink: every time a folksy anecdote ends in death.
Drink a Shot: every time Marlene Dietrich sings off-key.