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Destry Rides Again
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Destry Rides Again

In the year that Destry Rides Again (1939) reached movie screens, America was on the cusp of possible world war. Could it be that this groundbreaking Western was addressing this situation within its story? Pacifist sheriff Tom 'Jefferson" Destry (James Stewart) tries to stop the spread of evil in his rustic town of Bottleneck with a non-aggression law (no guns allowed). But, in the end, he must strap on his guns and fight the fight if he's to stop the senseless killing by a power-hungry villain bent on overtaking his territory. Regardless of the film's ideological subtext, Destry Rides Again turned out to be one of the most amusing, romantic, and exciting Westerns ever made by a Hollywood studio.

1939 marked an incredible year in Hollywood cinema which saw probably the greatest variety of landmark films in its history: Stagecoach, Gone With the Wind, Ninotchka, The Wizard of Oz, Gunga Din, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Grapes of Wrath, Wuthering Heights, the list goes on. In a year where Westerns were reaching new artistic heights with the work of John Ford's Stagecoach, Destry Rides Again introduced a new kind of film which was a complex synthesis of several genres - comedy, romance, musical, and Western revenge fantasy. Director George Marshall twisted these together in a unique and entertaining blend that helped redefine the genre's sense of irony and purpose.

First of all, the film introduces a deputy sheriff who arrives in town carrying a parasol and a birdcage - not exactly the macho image of a frontier lawman. His reputation doesn't improve when he walks into the local saloon and orders tea followed by milk. In reality, this goody-two-shoes image was not too far removed from the real James Stewart who once said, "I have my own rules and adhere to them. The rule is simple but inflexible. A James Stewart picture must have two vital ingredients: it will be clean and it will involve the triumph of the underdog over the bully." By contrast, Frenchy, the promiscuous owner of the Last Chance Saloon, is brash, aggressive, and has a swagger to match the toughest hombres in the bar. In fact, it's no surprise that the most dramatic showdown in the film occurs between two women - the famous barroom brawl between Frenchy and Lily Belle Callahan (Una Merkel). In James Stewart: A Life in Film by Roy Pickard, Una Merkel recalled filming the fight sequence: "Neither of us knew what we were doing. We just plunged in and punched and slapped and kicked for all we were worth. They never did call in the stunt girls. Marlene stepped on my feet with her French heels. The toenails never grew back. She was stronger than me. She was very powerful and I was very thin. Luckily, I have a remarkable constitution. I was bruised from head to foot when it was over. I looked like an old peach, green with brown spots. And I felt like one too. At the end of the scene Jimmy Stewart came in and dumped a whole bucket of water over us. He did it in long shot. Then he had to do it over for close-ups. Then Life Magazine wanted pictures so they did it over again. He dumped water on us for hours."

Another highlight of Destry Rides Again is Marlene Dietrich's rendition of "See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have" which was written for her by her favorite composer, Frederick Hollander. He had also composed her other signature song, "Falling in Love Again," which was featured in The Blue Angel (1930). Once again, Dietrich was playing a lusty chanteuse but this time she was going for a more unglamorized look, one that was far removed from the exotic, artfully lit films she made with Josef von Sternberg.

Surprisingly, Marlene Dietrich's stature in Hollywood was in decline when the film was made, and Destry Rides Again was an opportunity for the struggling actress to revitalize her career. She had struggled with a number of poor films in the late 1930's (under a contract with Paramount) and her acceptance of the part of Frenchy was a risky move for the actress. Also, she had been offered the part only after Paulette Goddard, Universal's first choice, turned it down because the studio would not agree to Goddard's contract demands. But Dietrich threw herself into the role, even learning to make her own cigarettes Western style and using her teeth to open the neck of the tobacco sack. She was also quite taken with her co-star. Producer Joe Pasternak recalled their first meeting: "She took one look at Jimmy Stewart and began to cut her hands. She wanted him at once. He was just a nice, simple guy who loved Flash Gordon comics. That was all he seemed to read on set. I remember she did something incredible. When he was in his dressing room she locked the door and wouldn't let him out. But she promised that she would come back with a surprise. The surprise was a doll, a life-size doll of Flash Gordon. She had persuaded the art department to come in over the weekend and make it up for him. It was correct in every detail. It started a short romance."

Regarding the original screenplay of Destry Rides Again, it was reportedly quite racy, with several scenes and dialogue cut which related to the bawdy nature of Dietrich's profession. The fast and loose sexual innuendos exchanged between Dietrich and the two male leads - Stewart and Donlevy - were also toned down for the screen. One famous cut line had Dietrich pocketing gold down her dress and the character Bugs (Warren Hymer) shouting "There's gold in them thar hills!"

Destry Rides Again has been filmed numerous times; first as a Tom Mix oater in 1932 which followed Max Brand's original novel the closest, again in 1939, and as an Audie Murphy western in 1954 simply titled Destry. The movie Frenchy (1950) was also suggested by the same novel. There was a television remake produced by Universal in 1955 starring George Murphy as Destry and in 1964 it was transformed into a comedy-Western series with John Gavin as Harrison Destry. It even turned up as Broadway musical in the sixties with Andy Griffith as Destry and Dolores Gray as Frenchy.

Producer: Islin Auster (associate producer), Joe Pasternak
Director: George Marshall
Screenplay: Max Brand (novel), Felix Jackson, Henry Myers, Gertrude Purcell
Art Direction: Martin Obzina, Jack Otterson
Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Costume Design: Vera West
Film Editing: Milton Carruth
Original Music: Ralph Freed, Frederick Hollander, Frank Loesser, Frank Skinner
Principal Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Frenchy), James Stewart (Thomas "Tom" Jefferson Destry Jr.), Mischa Auer (Boris Callahan), Charles Winninger (Washington 'Wash' Dimsdale), Brian Donlevy (Kent), Allen Jenkins (Gyp Watson), Una Merkel (Lily Belle Callahan), Billy Gilbert (Bartender Loupgerou).
BW-95m. Closed captioning.

by Richard Steiner

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