Wednesday, June 29, 2011

George Marshall and Tom Destry

1891 - 1975

Chicago born George Marshall hit Hollywood at the age of 25 and for the next 50 years worked in that industry town as a director/writer/actor. 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.

Ruth of the Rockies
Will she escape these dastardly fiends?

It wasn't until the 1930s that George made his first feature films including Life Begins at Forty with Will Rogers and Hold that Co-Ed starring John Barrymore. 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 Texas with young Bill Holden and Glenn Ford, 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 & Hardy classics Pack Up Your Troubles, Towed in a Hole and Their First Mistake to The Ghost Breakers, Monsieur Beaucaire and Fancy Pants with Bob Hope and the zany Murder, He Says starring Fred MacMurray, Pot o' Gold with Jimmy Stewart and Scared Stiff with Dean and Jerry.

Among Marshall highlights I would include the perfect little noir The Blue Dahlia starring Alan Ladd, the oddly likable musical-western Red Garters with Rosemary Clooney, the Technicolor actioner The Forest Rangers with Fred MacMurray, the low-key comedy-western The Sheepman with Glenn Ford, Papa's Delicate Condition with Jackie Gleason and the railroad portion of the all-star epic How the West Was Won.

Most of Marshall's pictures can be described as solidly entertaining, but only one has ever been acclaimed as a true classic and it is 1939's Destry Rides Again based on a Max Brand story of a lawless town and the man who would try to tame it without guns. It has that unmistakable combination of comedy and action which was George Marshall's forte.

James Stewart was becoming America's favourite image of itself in 1939 as Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Tom Destry in Destry Rides Again. The 30 year old actor had trained and paid his dues, and the film gods had smiled as he cemented his image of the appealingly shy, yet honest and determined screen hero.

The story moves at a fine clip as the audience is introduced to the town of Bottleneck and the folks who run the whole, if you'll pardon the expression, shooting match. Brian Donlevy is the brains and the money who keeps a crooked judge/mayor played by the usually sympathetically cast (think Peter Bailey) Samuel S. Hinds in his back pocket. Great comic support is supplied by Mischa Auer as a hapless Russian immigrant married to a strong-minded, possessive Una Merkel. Irene Hervey is a nice girl who charms our lead and Jack Carson is her obnoxious brother. The town drunk, and former lawman, Washington Dimsdale, is played with all his well-known charm by Charles Winninger. It is "Wash" who calls on the son of his famous boss Destry to help clean up Bottleneck.

All the elements are in place for a memorable movie including the queen of all the dance hall gals. Marlene 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 relatable and earthy screen presence.

No Academy Award nominations came Destry's way in that crowded year of excellence, but it played to big box office and quickly and consistently became a film fan favourite. In 1996 Destry Rides Again was placed on the National Film Registry.

Universal Studios was having success with medium budgeted westerns in the 1950s starring Audie Murphy and the property of Destry Rides Again seemed like a perfect fit. Indeed, the character of Destry was natural for the 30-year-old Texas born war hero turned actor. George Marshall was again tapped to direct and was happy to do so, "filching the best parts" from his greatest success.

James Stewart was at the major breakthrough point of his career when he gave up Hollywood to enlist in the Army when the United States entered World War II. Audie Murphy was a school drop-out from a family of poor sharecroppers when he enlisted in the Army. James Stewart had his acting career to return to after the war. What becomes of America's most decorated soldier, the winner of the Medal of Honor? In hindsight we might think of Hollywood as a natural step for Murphy, but it wasn't in his thoughts. It was James Cagney and his brother William who saw potential and who signed Murphy to a contract and brought him to the movies. Audie Murphy's acting training would come from learning on the job, keeping in mind Cagney's advice to "look the other guy in the eye and tell the truth". Murphy had over a dozen starring roles to his credit when he took on Destry. He had become a confident actor with a natural instinct, and the ability to use his background and experience on screen.

Mari Blanchard played saloon hostess and resident bad gal "Brandy". It was not to be expected that she give something akin go the iconic turn given by Dietrich in the earlier film, but she does bring a certain zing to the proceedings. Lyle Bettger takes over Brian Donlevy's job of head baddie. Edgar Buchanan does his scene-stealing best as the crooked politico. The comic character couple is played in this remake by Wallace Ford and Mary Wickes. Oscar winner Thomas Mitchell takes on the role of "Wash", only here called "Rags". Lori Nelson plays the nice girl rival for Destry's heart.

Both films run at a brisk 95 minutes. Both films have popular and talented character actors in support. Both films have an ideal western hero in their leading man. Destry Rides Again also has the star power of Dietrich, the breathtaking black and white cinematograhy of Oscar winner Hal Mohr and the freshness of the story. It is truly a classic. Destry relies on the familiarity of the story, the novelty of the Technicolor and the appeal of leading man Murphy. Destry was the expected success, but not a classic.

Both movies have had a place in my heart since childhood. It is fun to spot the little differences between the pictures.

Destry Rides Again: they are investigating if the sheriff has died.
Destry: they are investigating how the sheriff died.

Destry Rides Again: the good girl is the sister of the cattleman.
Destry: the good girl is related to the rancher cheated in the card game.

Destry Rides Again: funny subplot with the "Callaghans" (Auer & Merkel).
Destry: a doctor and his wife take over the comic duties (Ford & Wickes).

Destry Rides Again: final shootout a free-for-all involving the whole town.
Destry: final shootout involves only the bad guys, Brandy and Tom Destry in the saloon.

Destry Rides Again: Tom whittles.
Destry: Tom whiles away the time with a piece of string.

Destry Rides Again: Tom always related a story he heard.
Destry: Tom always related something he read in a book once.

Dig that cap!

George Marshall's career went from silent shorts to sound features and then to television where he directed old friend Lucille Ball in Here's Lucy and frequent star Glenn Ford in Cade's County, as well as shows like Daniel Boone, Hec Ramsay and The Odd Couple. His last screen credit is in 1972, just three years before his passing.

By the way: western movies/musical theatre buffs will be happy to know that a musical version of Destry Rides Again directed by Michael Kidd with songs by Harold Rome and starring Andy Griffith and Dolores Gray ran for almost 500 performances on Broadway (1959-60 season). My favourite song from the show is the lovely ballad "Anyone Would Love You". Perhaps the time is right for a revival.


  1. Thanks for this excellent background on George Marshall. I didn't know about the Destry musical. Audie Murphy an interesting case, equal parts tragedy and triumph.

  2. I think of George Marshall as one of those guys that kept Hollywood ticking.

    Twenty-some years ago "my" community theatre group did "Destry Rides Again". My future hubby was in the cast and I worked stage crew. It was part of my stalking plan. To his everlasting annoyance, my plan worked.

    Audie Murphy is an intriguing man. When it comes to his acting career, I feel he is unjustly undervalued.

  3. A terrific background piece. I never knew much about George Marshall though his name, of course, was vaguely familiar. I haven't seen either Destry movie in years and years. Mayeb it's time to re-up.

    I like your line re: Jimmy Stewart - America's 'best image of itself'. Yup.

    But sad to say, though I 'got' that about him, I was never a major fan, except for maybe, REAR WINDOW in which I was finally won over. :)

    Audie Murphy. I always feel so sad when I think of him. I always wondered what demons must have been driving him. As Jacqueline says: "...equal parts tragedy and triumph."

    Thanks for a great post.

  4. Thanks, Yvette.

    Years ago I read Murphy's autobiography "To Hell and Back". It would have been enlightening for us, and perhaps cathartic for him to have written about his life in those post-war years.

    I hope you catch up with at least "Destry Rides Again". It is a lot of fun.

  5. Another community theatre veteran? I wish we techies had a secret handshake or something. Or wore a "ruptured duck" pin on our lapels so we could identify each other.

    Sometime we'll have to meet at the bar and swap war stories.

  6. We'll know each other by our black T-shirts and the expert way we use the "shush" motion to keep those chatty actors quiet back stage.

  7. Caftan Woman, I very much enjoyed your post about the two movie versions of DESTRY RIDES AGAIN! Poor Audie Murphy sure had a rollercoaster life (and more acting talent than he got credit for); to echo Jacqueline's sentiments, "equal parts tragedy and triumph."

    So many community theater folk here! I had a small role in a community theater farce -- adapted from a British play that I must confess I don't remember the title. It was interesting, but I decided I preferred to write, and let others do the acting! :-)

    That brings me to the Broadway musical version of DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, starring one of Vinnie's and my household favorites, Andy Griffith. Wow, I wish we could go back in time (but only temporarily! I've gotten used to modern medicines and technology :-)) to see Griffith playing Tom Destry! Anybody know if there's a kinescope of it or something?

  8. Yet another refugee from community theatre!

    Dorian, I am with you that a kinescope of Broadway's Destry or a time machine would be great. Howevre, within our reach we have the original cast album on Amazon, and a clip of Dolores Gray as "Frenchy" on YouTube.

  9. The soundtrack from the DESTRY RIDES AGAIN musical is available on, in addition to Dolores Gray on YouTube! Cool! Thanks for the tip, Caftan Woman!

  10. Just saw that "Frenchy" jailhouse number on YouTube, thanks to you, Caftan Woman! If you like that number, I think you'd get a big laugh out of this one from "CANNIBAL! THE MUSICAL" by the loveable madmen who brought us SOUTH PARK. Here's the link:

  11. I was really interested to learn about George Marshall, someone I didn't know much about and who was so important in movie history. I would like him if only for The Ghost Breakers, my very favorite Bob Hope movie and one of the funnest ever, to me. Also, the Blue Dahlia.

    P.S. I was a techie for a little theatre group here some years ago for the play version of "The Women." Lots of fun. I had auditioned, and made it to the last cut, just losing out to someone at the end! But it is fun to work behind the scenes!

  12. Dorian, that number is a hoot! Can't understand why I haven't seen it until now. Thanks.

  13. ClassicBecky, George Marshall left us a lot of old favourites. The movies you mentioned are pure gold.

    My best audition story: I had the director rolling in the aisles when I auditioned for Miss Prism in "The Importance of Being Earnest", then he asked me to do the monologue again only this time with an English accent. Oops! That was my English accent!

  14. Love your audition story - next time just tell them you never do your full-on performance until opening night - then move to England for a few days and just listen a lot!

    Mine isn't exactly an audition story, but close. As a senior in high school, I got to play the part of the bedridden invalid in Sorry, Wrong Number. It was a one-woman show, of course, except for the very end -- then you just saw a menacing looking shadow with a fedora hat, just shadow. I was madly in love with "the shadow", and hated that I was always made up as an older lady with some wrinkles, grey-sprinkled wig and a bed shawl! AND, he never did ask me out. Ah, the sacrifices for art!

  15. Becky, I'll always think of you as a noirish combination of Agnes Moorehead and Barbara Stanwyck, longing for a shadow in the night.

  16. LOLOLOL!! I blush to admit that a shadow in the night sounds awfully good!

  17. Wonderful info. on George Marshall. I have to admit.. I did not know very much about him.. "Destry Rides Again", is a great movie.

  18. Thanks, Dawn. So many people made the movies we love, and it's fun to learn about them.

  19. Sorry it's taken me awhile to get to this excellent post! I especially enjoyed your comparison of the original and remake (I haven't seen the latter in years, but thought the always likable Audie did a respectable job in the lead). What I admire most about Marshall is what you highlighted so well--his versatility. Like Robert Wise, he could make any kind of movie and make it well. Of those you listed, MURDER, HE SAYS is a funny little gem, very atypical for all involved.

  20. Howdy, Rick. Thanks for the compliment.

    Fellas like Marshall don't get the praise from the big guns, but his name says "entertaining movie" to me.

    I get quite a kick out of "Murder, He Says". Fred MacMurray really committed himself to his goofy side.

  21. I think I'm among the few who saw the remake of Destry Rides Again BEFORE the original! That said, I've come to like the original a touch more than the color version.

    Audie Murphy was no slouch as an actor (when he got a plum role), but part of the reason he wasn't getting steady work might be attributed to his height. (Just recall him alongside Jimmy Stewart in Night Passage, for example.) How tall was he? I don't think he was as short as Alan Ladd.

  22. 1954s "Destry" used to play a lot on television when I was a kid. Lost in the mire of movie memories is which one I actually saw first.

    If the IMDb is accurate Stewart was 6'3" to Murphy at 5'5". Ladd was 5'6-1/4".

    I think the biggest hindrance to Murphy's movie career was that he was indelible associated with the medium budgeted western that fell out of favour.

  23. Wow! Audie Murphy was as tall as Gary Burghoff is!

    You are right about Murphy getting caught up in "medium budgeted" westerns. A lot of Universal's '50s westerns were this; the FEEL of them fit them right between "A" and "B" westerns. (Fred MacMurray did some of these, too, but he was lucky to get out of the rut.)



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