Caftan Woman

Caftan Woman

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

CMBA Fabulous Films of the 30s blogathon: Destry Rides Again (1939)



The Classic Movie Blog Association spring blogathon, The Fabulous Films of the 30s is underway.  The classic movies lauded are a perfect compliment to this fresh time of year.

"Jimmy Stewart in a western - who knew?" was the reaction of my youngest sister when I showed her 1950s Winchester '73 in her young adulthood.  It was shocking to realize how deeply I had fallen down on her movie knowledge upbringing.  Jimmy Stewart in a western is as natural a thing as is breathing.  In the 1950s he made some of the best in the genre with director Anthony Mann.  However, it all started years earlier for Stewart with the role of Tom Destry.  Released in 1939, that crowded year of Hollywood excellence, there were no Academy Awards for Destry Rides Again.  Instead of a gilded trophy, the movie won a place in the hearts of generations of audiences and deserves its true classic status as indicated by its placement on the National Film Registry in 1996.

The screen play is by Felix Jackson (Bachelor Mother, Three Smart Girls Grow Up), Gertrude Purcell (Stella Dallas, One Night in the Tropics) and Henry Myers (The Black Room, First Love), based on an original story by Felix Jackson suggested by Max Brand's novel Destry Rides Again.  Brand's 1930 novel concerns the redemption of a conceited character named Harrison Destry, who seeks vengeance against men who framed him of a crime and finds his humanity.  The popular story was filmed in 1932 starring Tom Mix.  The character's name was changed to Tom, as was the custom for most of Mix's pictures.  Jackson's story makes the character of Tom Destry the son of a famous lawman who follows in his father's footsteps with one notable difference.  The father fought lawbreakers with six guns blazing while Tom, Jr. does not believe in guns.

George Marshall
(1891-1975)

Destry Rides Again became a slyly comic western under the directing guidance of a man skilled in both genres.  Chicago born George Marshall (1891-1975) hit Hollywood at the age of 25 and for the next 50 years worked as a director/writer/actor in that industry town. In the era of learn as you go, George Marshall wrote and directed his first western short for Bison Pictures in 1916. It was called Across the Rio Grande and starred Harry Carey. For the next 15 years Marshall excelled at the short films which provided much of the entertainment of the silent era - westerns, comedies and action thrillers. He worked with western stars Neal Hart and Tom Mix, with legendary golfer Bobby Jones and with serial star Pearl White's rival, spunky Ruth Roland.

It wasn't until the 1930s that George made his first feature films including Life Begins at Forty with Will Rogers and You Can't Cheat an Honest Man starring W.C. Fields.  Action and comedy, entertainingly dished out to the public, are the hallmarks of George Marshall's pictures.  Audiences of the day, and audiences who grew up in the time when studio movie fare was prevalent on local television, have fond feelings toward such westerns as Valley of the Sun with Lucille Ball and When the Daltons Rode with Randolph Scott.  Comedies in George Marshall's resume run from the Laurel and Hardy favourites Pack Up Your Troubles, Towed in a Hole and Their First Mistake to The Ghost Breakers and Fancy Pants with Bob Hope and the zany Murder, He Says starring Fred MacMurray.  Other career highlights are the perfect little noir The Blue Dahlia starring Alan Ladd and the low-key comedy-western The Sheepman with Glenn Ford.  Marshall's output, from the silent era to TV sitcoms, bears the hallmark of consistent quality, but among his films only one can be considered a true classic, and that one is Destry Rides Again.


Bottleneck's criminal element.
Edmund MacDonald, Brian Donlevy, Warren Hymer
Marlene Dietrich, Allen Jenkins

The setting of our story is the wide open town of Bottleneck and the tale is cheekily framed.  The opening credits run over a tracking shot that starts at the shot up sign of "Welcome to Bottleneck" and travels a main street awash with mayhem.  The scene is accompanied by Frank Skinner's rousing score filled with the insistent and melodramatic motifs we would most associate with a Saturday afternoon serial.  This opening theme is repeated at the climax of the film, and the closing credits are shown over scenes of tranquility and bliss and a newly minted, much tidier "Welcome to Bottleneck" sign.

The dreamy black and white cinematography of Hal Mohr harkens to his Oscar-winning work on A Midsummer Night's Dream.  The smoky nighttime scenes and the beautiful, shimmery greys work to give the film a nostalgic quality that takes the viewer completely into the tall tale mood of the film.


Peter Bailey and son in an alternate-alternate reality.
James Stewart and Samuel S. Hinds

Bottleneck is under the thumb of the crooked Kent played by Brian Donlevy (Beau Geste, The Great McGinty).  He swindles, cheats and murders his way to the top of the heap.  His mob includes the Watson brothers, a couple of gents of the "deese, dem and doose" school played by Allen Jenkins (Dead End) and Warren Hymer (Meet John Doe).  Samuel S. Hinds (It's a Wonderful Life) is the larcenous mayor/judge who uses his brains and titles to coolly keep the masses in line.




The face of the gang, and its headquarters at The Last Chance Saloon, is entertainer "Frenchy" played by the top-billed Marlene Dietrich.  Ms. Dietrich revitalized her career with her portrayal of Frenchy. Her box office appeal had waned as it seems audiences had grown tired of the allure of the fascinating foreigner.  With her vibrant and touching Frenchy, Miss Dietrich became a relateable and earthy screen presence.  Gorgeously gowned by Vera West in glitter and feathers, and performing songs by Frank Loesser and Friedrich Hollander there is no doubt that Frenchy is the star of the show and the star of Bottleneck.  The songs, You've Got That Look, Little Joe, the Wrangler and especially See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have became popular movie tunes indelibly associated with Marlene Dietrich.


Hooray for the new sheriff!
Charles Winninger

Frenchy is as hard-boiled as they come and exceptionally skilled at duping the customers.  Her assistance proves invaluable in cheating a rancher out of his property.  The rancher, Claggett played by Tom Fadden (Moonrise) brings his troubles to the sheriff.  Sheriff Keogh played by Joe King (Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum) is summarily dispatched off screen by Kent.  The mayor announces that the sheriff has left town suddenly and appoints Washington Dimsdale as the town's number one lawman.  "Wash" is the town drunk played by Charles Winninger (Show Boat).  Wash was at one time a respected deputy to the fabled Tom Destry and although he may now be a joke, he determines to live up to his newly bestowed title.  Wash throws away the bottle and sends for Destry's son, who is garnering his own reputation after having cleaned up Tombstone, to bring and law order to Bottleneck.


Tom Destry impresses the enemy.
Brian Donlevy, Billy Gilbert, James Stewart

James Stewart, at 30 years of age, was becoming America's favourite image of itself in 1939 with his roles of the idealistic Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Tom Destry in Destry Rides Again.  Devoting much of his time at Princeton to the University Players and training in repertory, the actor paid his dues and showed his worth in roles of increasing value over the past five years in Hollywood.  He proved adept at light comedy (Vivacious Lady) and moving in drama (Of Human Hearts), now it was time to turn to a western, if an offbeat one.

Tom Destry arrives in Bottleneck subverting every expectation for a lawman.  He does not carry guns.  He doesn't believe in them.  He establishes himself in the minds of the citizens as an easy-going, yarn spinning, wood carving oddball.  Wash is shocked and humiliated.  Kent and his gang find the situation hilarious and fortunate.  Stewart as Destry plays with the hilarity, presenting himself as a fellow with a self-deprecating sense of humor, totally disarming his foes.  Watch Stewart's eyes.  He smiles shyly, joining in the joke, and while Kent is lapping it up, you can catch the briefest glimpse of disdain and determination flashing in those eyes.  It is a look that will become familiar to audiences in Stewart's 1950s output.


"All I want is to be a cowboy and to wear my own pants!"
Mischa Auer and Una Merkel steal the picture.

The first test of Destry's mettle comes in the form of a fight between two of Bottleneck's leading citizens.  One of Frenchy's dupes is a Russian named Boris played by Mischa Auer (My Man Godfrey).  His surname is unpronounceable, hence Boris is called Callahan by one and all as he is the second husband of boarding house owner Lily Belle Callahan.  Boris, in what he knew in his heart of hearts to be an ill-considered bet, has lost his pants to Frenchy.


Let the games begin!
Una Merkel and Marlene Dietrich

Mrs. Callahan played by Una Merkel (42nd Street) storms the Last Chance Saloon to retrieve the trousers and get some satisfaction for the humiliation.  What she gets is this barb from Frenchy:  "But Mrs. Callahan, you know he would rather be cheated by me than married to you."  Such nerve must not go unanswered, and in one of the best remembered scenes from the film, an epic battle between the two women ensues.  Ms. Dietrich and Ms. Merkel are hundred per centers and gave their all in the unchoreographed brawl with only the proviso of no closed fists to guide them.  Tom Destry eventually puts an end to the main event by dumping a pail of water on the combatants.  Lily Belle retreats in embarrassment and Frenchy wrecks the joint in an attempt to do an injury to the deputy.

It takes a heart-to-heart, plus a demonstration that proves Tom hasn't lost his sharpshooting skills, for Tom to get Wash entirely on board with the idea of deputy sans firearms.  Most of the town is rather old-fashioned in that idea as well.  Their thoughts are voiced by a a loud-mouth cattleman named Jack Tyndall played by Jack Carson (The Strawberry Blonde).  He is the rough and tumble, always ready to rumble sort.  His sister Janice Tyndall played by Irene Hervey (Three Godfathers) has a dollop of common sense mixed in with her natural spunk.  It is clear to all that the pretty miss and the new deputy would make a charming couple.


Do you get the feeling we're intruding?
James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich

One of the most affecting scenes in the movie is the one where everything changes for Tom and Frenchy.  Tom is questioning Frenchy at her home when he strikes a nerve on the matter of Sheriff Keogh, presumed to have left town of his own accord.  Her obvious fear for the truth to be revealed and for Tom's safety brings them close.  In a series of close-ups you sense their growing attraction and understanding.  When Tom wipes away the heavily made-up Frenchy's lipstick saying "I'll bet you've got kind of a lovely face under all that paint, huh? Why don't you wipe it off someday and have a good look - and figure out how you can live up to it." he seals their fate.  As Clara the maid, played by Lillian Yarbo (You Can't Take It With You), remarks, "That man has got personality!".


Everybody down to the Last Chance Saloon!

Concluding that Sheriff Keogh was murdered, Tom sets about investigating that possibility with the help of Wash and their new deputy, Boris.  It is now a battle of wills and strategy between the sheriff's office and the crooks as to who will rule Bottleneck.  Frenchy turns traitor to Kent in order to protect Tom, leaving Wash open to attack.  Tom retaliates a brazen nighttime raid on the jail by strapping on his guns.  Frenchy exhorts Lily Belle and the decent women of the town to action.  The men may think they are in control when they turn main street into a shooting gallery, but they are helpless in the face of a gang of females armed with everything from two by fours to rolling pins.  The Last Chance Saloon ends up the location of a rollicking free-for-all and a tragic sacrifice.


"You know, speaking of marriage, Janice..."
Irene Hervey and James Stewart

Law and order has come to Bottleneck in the form of a visionary and amiable young man named Tom Destry, who becomes the favourite son of the town; and actor James Stewart, a favourite son of the movies.

The story of Destry Rides Again is riveting and told with humour both wry and slapstick.  The action and the sentiment that are essential to the film's emotional core develops naturally.  The movie captivates audiences with its genuine heart, memorable characters and indelible performances.  Truly, one of the fabulous films of the 1930s.


A collection of essays from this blogathon series can be found here, with a click of the lovely lady's glass:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00WOHF9J4
   

24 comments:

  1. Leave it to you to find a western even I like! This is such a fun film. Stewart's presence in a western at this point in his career is a bit startling (who knew of things to come?), which makes it all the more engaging. I am also not a big Dietrich fan, but here I can more take her than leave her. And thanks for some good info on Mr. Marshall. As always, CW, you knocked it out of the corral - errrr - ballpark.

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    1. Thanks a lot.

      From now on I will always think of "Destry" as "the western that even FlickChick likes"!

      Marlene really sells it for me in the finale when Frenchy is so desperate to save Tom. Good girl!

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  2. I love Westerns and this was a fascinating review, especially the information about the cinematography. I've always thought John Ford borrowed a lot of the lighting and crowded barroom setups for My Darling Clementine

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    1. Amanda, I can see that similarity in the barrooms now that you draw my attention to it. Logisitically complicated set-ups, but incredibly mood inducing. I'll be musing on that for the rest of the day.

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  3. Jimmy Stewart is perfect for Westerns, isn't he? With the exception of "How the West was Won", I love every Stewart western I've seen him in.

    However. I have not seen "Destry Rides Again", but I know I'll like it at least as much as your review.

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    1. What a very nice thing to say. I find Jimmy especially appealing as Destry. Audie Murphy is a good fit in the 1954 remake "Destry", also directed by George Marshall. It is entertaining, but not the classic that was produced in 1939.

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  4. Hard to believe Marlene was considered old hat by 1939.

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    1. Her previous couple of films didn't live up to expectations and she had been off the screen for a couple of years before Destry came along. I think she is marvelous in the film and audiences appreciated it. Better still, the money men appreciated it. Good girl!

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  5. Wow! It's been many, many years since I saw this. I think I may have been a kid.
    You make it sound like a blast of a western. Your description of Tom Destry reminds me of James Graner's Bret Maverick. Great review. Now, I have got to find this movie

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    1. There is indeed a touch of Tom Destry in the Maverick boys.

      Yes, John, get a copy of this movie soon. It will not disappoint.

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  6. A wealth of background info, well done. It's been too many years since I've seen this one, but it is a charmer.

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    1. Destry does charm. He can't help himself. It's true even with this fan that too many years pass between viewings. The next time you watch it you will wonder why.

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  7. Marlene Dietrich in a Western? Yes, and with Jimmy Stewart this turned out to be a winning combination. Great choice for the blogathon CaftanWoman and a great review of this classic.

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    1. Thanks so much. I don't think of myself as a huge Dietrich fan, but then every time I see her she wins me over again. I just have to give up and accept that I'm under her spell.

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  8. Great post about a wonderful film! This is one of my all-time favorite Westerns, not only because of the leads but because of the marvelous Una Merkel. Glad you picked this one for the blogathon!

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    1. Thanks. It was fun spending more time with an old favourite.

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  9. I love the idea of this powerful woman playing such a strong role--one of the reasons I have finally warmed to westerns: so many interesting female parts. And Stewart too! I have to see this:)

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    1. I applaud your giving westerns a chance. It is true that you can find lots of interesting women in those stories. They didn't all just stand on the porch waiting for the hero.

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  10. Wonderful review of what's probably my favorite James Stewart movie of the 1930s. Love your description of the big scene between Destry and Frenchy (the best scene in the movie?). I just realized that Marlene plays a character named Frenchy here and is loved by a character called Frenchy in RANCHO NOTORIOUS. It's not like Frenchy is a common name either!

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    1. True. You do not run across a "Frenchy" every day of the week. I wonder if it was a topic of conversation on the set of "Rancho Notorious". I further wonder if perhaps it was a nod to the success of Destry. I wonder too much.

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  11. I'm ashamed to say I've never seen this! I love Stewart's Anthony Mann westerns, though, so this has shot to the top of my list! Wonderful review of what seems like a very special movie!

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    1. It is special indeed and I'll eat my hat if you don't fall in love with Stewart/Destry.

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  12. Wonderful review! It's been way too long since I have seen this one. Thanks for reminding me of Una and Mischa's hilarious antics. I agree, they steal the show.

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    1. Thanks. It is such fun watching the accomplished Ms. Merkel and Mr. Auer.

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