by Allan Fish
(USA 1939 94m) DVD1/2
Little Joe, Little Joe
p Joe Pasternak d George Marshall w Felix Jackson, Gertrude Purcell, Henry Myers novel Max Brand ph Hal Mohr ed Milton Carruth m Frank Skinner m/ly Frederick Hollander, Frank Loesser art Jack Otterson cos Vera West
James Stewart (Thomas Jefferson Destry), Marlene Dietrich (Frenchy), Brian Donlevy (Kent), Charles Winninger (Washington Dimsdale), Samuel S.Hinds (Mayor Hiram J.Slade), Irene Harvey (Janice Tyndall), Mischa Auer (Boris Callahan), Una Merkel (Lily Belle Callahan), Allen Jenkins (Gyp Watson), Warren Hymer (Bugs Watson), Jack Carson (Tyndall), Billy Gilbert (Loupgerou),
Destry Rides Again is one of those films enshrined in cinema history, a film so wrapped up in western and Hollywood myth as to often prove problematic to discuss. Firstly on account of the fact that it was directed by George Marshall, a man not without talent but to whom the term journeyman was generally conceived, and secondly because so much attention is given to Marlene Dietrich’s truly renowned Frenchy and her immortal rendition of “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” that it’s often forgotten that Destry is great on so many other counts. Perhaps the most important factor in retrospect, though, is just how much of a curiosity it must have seemed at the time. After all, its studio, Universal, pretty much divided its time equally between cheap horror sequels and Deanna Durbin musicals at the time of its release, and the western, though about to be resurrected thanks to the success of both this and the concurrently shot Stagecoach, was considered very much a cheap B movie genre. Most interestingly there was the casting, as in 1939 Marlene Dietrich (then pretty much box-office poison) and James Stewart were the least likely western couple you could have named, which in Stewart’s case is suffused with irony, when one considers the series of classics with Anthony Mann that placed him in the genre’s hall of fame. Dietrich meanwhile delighted in reinventing herself or, as Leslie Halliwell once said, enjoyed being a legend.
After a crooked card game means a rancher loses his land, the sheriff of Bottleneck gets shot by local crooked operator Kent, and an ex-deputy, Washington Dimsdale, now the laughing stock of the town as a perpetual drunk, is chosen as stooge sheriff. However, he aims to trick them by bringing in the son of legendary sheriff Tom Destry to be his deputy. But when Destry Jnr. arrives he seems to be made of a different, more pacifistic stock than his father, much to the horror of Dimsdale and the laughter of the local crooks.
The atmosphere is created from the opening shot of the town sign and the hail of bullets that greet it. It may be an atmosphere that seems old hat in the present era, used to Ian McShane’s deliciously profane Al Swearengen, but this is the ‘wild west’ Hollywood style. The music, the one street set, the songs and the perfectly pitched script combine to great effect, and are made even greater by tailor made casting down to the smallest role; Auer’s implausible pantless henpecked Russian, Merkel as his shrewish wife, Winninger as his old incorrigibly blustering self, Donlevy as a definitive tinhorn villain, the wonderfully crooked top-hatted Hinds as the mayor with a penchant for cheating himself at checkers and Gilbert’s double-taking barman (“I set ‘em up and you drink ‘em down”) are just the most memorable in a gallery of supports. And they are more than matched by the two surprisingly well-matched stars, each of whom is so perfect as to be beyond criticism. There is no-one alive who cannot raise a smile thinking of Dietrich singing any one of her barroom ballads (“the longer they wait, the better they like it” she says knowingly), of she and Merkel in the catfight of the century and Stewart’s drenching of the pair of them, of Stewart’s continual recollections of “I knew a fella” or of the memorably poignant rendition of Winninger’s theme from the kids on the back of that wagon. It may not be a masterpiece to rival the best of Ford, Hawks or Leone, but it doesn’t try to be. It’s simply the classic western entertainment package.