Destry Rides Again (1939, George Marshall)

There are a lot of great shots in Destry Rides Again, with director Marshall finding a lot of raw human emotion in a comedic Western; it starts with opening titles, which are a long tracking shot introducing the setting—the town of Bottleneck. The tracking shot is at night (cinematographer Hal Mohr’s black and white photography is gorgeous and never more than in low light or night exteriors, it’s just glorious) and the town is hopping with drunk cowboys shooting off their pistols in glee as they file in and out of the single saloon. Brian Donlevy owns the saloon, Marlene Dietrich is the headlining star, though we don’t find out about Donlevy right away. Initially, he’s just a guy losing at cards.

Only he’s got an ace in the hole—Dietrich. After she does her first song, she heads upstairs to help out, introducing some of the the supporting cast on her way. Marshall’s really big on continuous movement, whether a shot or between them, and Dietrich quickly establishes drunk Charles Winninger, devoted fan Mischa Auer, and town mayor Samuel S. Hinds.

Turns out Donlevy and Dietrich aren’t just a couple, they’re a criminally enterprising couple—they’re cheating ranchers out of their land to set up a toll road for cattle (when they cheat yet another victim, it’s hard not to just think, well, it’s capitalism)—and eventually sheriff Joe King’s going to have to do something about it.

Now King is just a regular sheriff, not a mythic Old West sheriff, though Winninger used to be deputy to one those—name of Destry—something he can’t stop talking about. At least when he’s conscious. If only they could get someone like Destry again.

Good thing there’s a Destry Jr. out there, James Stewart, who Winninger calls in Donlevy goes too far.

It takes twenty minutes before Stewart shows up (Dietrich is top-billed so character name in the title doesn’t matter here) and he’s not what anyone’s expecting. Not Winninger, not Donlevy or Dietrich, not new-to-town rancher Jack Carson… or his sister, Irene Harvey. Stewart’s an amiable fellow who tries to deescalate situations instead of shooting things up, speaking in Old West dad jokes.

Destry’s got a lot of things going for it—Marshall, Stewart, Dietrich, Winninger, Donlevy, all the other actors (especially Auer and Una Merkel)—so maybe all things—but the script is something spectacularly spectacular. Felix Jackson, Gertrude Purcell, and Henry Myers only have seventy-six minutes (starting when Stewart shows up—that first twenty mnutes is continuous action set in a night); they do a lot with it. There are full subplots for Winninger, Auer and Merkel (they’re a married couple), Dietrich (separate from Donlevy and Stewart; she’s got arcs with both of them too), and also Carson. Tom Fadden gets sort of half a subplot to himself before son Dickie Jones takes it over. Plus minor subplots for Harvey, Lillian Yarbo, and….

Everyone. Basically everyone who doesn’t die right away gets at least a minor subplot for the film to keep running to give the film its verisimilitude. It’s a short film with a limited setting (they leave town—and presumably back lot—once to go to a ranch), it’s got three big musical numbers, and the arcs for Dietrich and Stewart, Stewart and Winninger, and Stewart and Donlevy are all rather complex but they still make time for the background. Turns out to be particularly important for the twist in the finale.

Because the script is phenomenal. All of the great moments (save probably that opening title tracking shot) come through thanks to the script. Getting Stewart and Dietrich into the room in the right way, getting Stewart and Harvey their brief moments, a subplot change in the Dietrich’s style, the way Marshall holds on Donlevy’s bravado until the layers become visible—ditto Dietrich—there are a lot of great scenes.

But nothing compares to the deus ex machina. All of a sudden Marshall slows Destry down and zooms in hard on Stewart and demands an entirely different moment. The film—again thanks to the script and Stewart, Dietrich, and Winninger’s performances—all of a sudden needs Stewart to show a precise depth he’d only ever implied implying before. It’s classic movie magic in that way the ingredients all have to be right for the film to succeed so well and it’s breathtaking good. Marshall maybe seems a little lost during some of the musical numbers—he’s focusing on Dietrich whether he should be or not—but otherwise his direction is outstanding.

Destry is an exceptionally subtle yet often uproarious comedy, an always sultry and always sincere morality play, and an exciting action movie. It’s truly wonderful and rather charmingly casual about it.

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