Despite a directorial career in film and television that spread from the mid-1910s to the early 1970s, taking in a series of sustained collaborations with prominent stars (such as Bob Hope and Glenn Ford) and several key works in specific genres, George Marshall is an undervalued figure in Hollywood film history. President of the Screen Directors Guild in the late 1940s, Marshall worked across a wide range of studios including Pathé, Universal, Paramount and Fox, serving his apprenticeship with figures such as Francis Ford and Harry Carey and cutting his teeth on low-budget westerns and comedies. Despite his extraordinary productivity across close to 200 films and television episodes, and intermittent critical success with key genre films such as The Ghost Breakers (1940), The Blue Dahlia (1946) and The Sheepman (1958), his unfussy but often assured direction, reported good nature and mercurial, mostly below-the radar presence render him the definition of the journeyman director working within Hollywood. Destry Rides Again (1939) is both the high point of Marshall’s career – so much so that he was persuaded to make an inferior but still highly enjoyable colour widescreen remake, Destry, with Audie Murphy in 1954 – and one of those charmed Hollywood productions that brought together a series of individuals working near the peak of their powers alongside the collaborative and synthetic affordances of a well-oiled and technologically consolidated studio system.
Produced by émigré Joe Pasternak for Universal – at that time a smaller studio here operating on a larger scale – filmed at around the time of the outbreak of the Second World War (its narrative focus on appeasement followed by reluctant, inevitable action pertinent to the time), and firing off the palpable, and reportedly consummated, sexual chemistry between its two leads, Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart, Destry Rides Again is also an important film in the history of the western. While 1939 has often been discussed as a peak year in terms of the refined quality and depth of Hollywood studio production, it was also a year that saw a significant resurgence in the “A” western. Although many westerns were produced throughout the 1930s, after a series of sometimes not so successful large-scale examples released at the start of the decade like The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh, 1930) and Oscar Best Picture winner Cimarron (Wesley Ruggles, 1931), it was a genre largely confined to the serial, “B” feature or burgeoning “country” or musical subgenres for most of the decade. Symptomatic of this was that John Ford, probably the most famous practitioner of the iconic form, didn’t make any 1930s westerns until the very end of the decade. Destry Rides Again, based on a story by the intriguing Max Brand, was itself first made in this period in 1932, also by Universal, as a much more desultory “B” feature directed by Ben Stoloff and starring a creaky relic of the silent era, Tom Mix. But 1939 saw the release of at least four significant, large-scale westerns by major directors – Henry King’s Jesse James, John Ford’s Stagecoach, Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific and Michael Curtiz’s Dodge City – before the crowning achievement, Destry Rides Again, made its bow at the very end of the year. It is a sign of the streamlined qualities of Marshall’s highly energetic, exquisitely detailed and genre-wise production that it is only Ford’s breakthrough masterpiece that beats it.
Although Destry Rides Again typically emphasises elements of set design, costuming and “atmosphere” – Universal also produced many stylish horror films throughout the 1930s and early 1940s – it is probably most discussed and remembered for its two featured stars. Stewart and Dietrich were contracted to the film at very different moments in their careers. Stewart was riding the first peak in his storied career after his breakthrough success in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You (1938), soon to be followed by an acclaimed role in another Capra film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). In early 1939, Dietrich was “exiled” in Europe after a series of significant Hollywood failures – such as the sublime and supremely adult Angel (Ernst Lubitsch, 1937) – that had her, alongside Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and several others, labelled as a box-office “poisonality”.
Neither Stewart or Dietrich had appeared in a western before, and each deployed highly contrastive, if equally gestural modes of performance. Amongst the greatest pleasures of Destry Rides Again is seeing these diverging styles of acting merging together. Stewart brings his characteristically digressive, stuttering, gangly, patient and self-consciously thoughtful style of performance to the role of Destry. This is emphasised by the numerous circuitous stories and parables he spins throughout the movie, as well as the very leisurely manner in which he rises to action – for instance, the town’s citizens show great disappointment when he first arrives as the long-awaited new deputy sheriff carrying the parasol and birdcage of one of his fellow stagecoach passengers. A key to what Stewart brings to this film – and many of his other roles – is the sense of a character genuinely “thinking” before acting. This movie, for which he was loaned out by MGM, was just another rung on his ascent to true stardom.
There was much more at stake for Dietrich. In many ways, Destry Rides Again represented a significant departure for the actress, one that has parallels with the transformation undertaken by Garbo in the same year’s Ninotchka (Lubitsch). Although it would be inaccurate to tag or promote this movie as “Dietrich Laughs”, it does feature Dietrich in a much looser, funnier and more explicitly physical role than that cemented by the highly modulated, compositionally fixed, breathtakingly distilled and often imperious persona created by her and Josef von Sternberg (with significant assistance from cinematographers like Lee Garmes and Bert Glennon) in seven films across the first half of the 1930s. This emphasis on the “new” Dietrich was very deliberate and carefully staged, with the press allowed onto the set to report on the immediately “famous” extended bar-room brawl between Dietrich’s Frenchy and Una Merkel’s Lily Belle. This included significant – if not completely accurate – reporting on the fact that neither actor required the use of their stunt doubles. This transformation of Dietrich into a more “approachable” and earthy figure is also built into the film’s narrative, with her character transitioning from a highly sexualised and cosmetically enhanced bar-room singer (famously intoning the prescient “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have”, amongst others) into a more “suitable”, less rouged object of Stewart’s affection.
Destry Rides Again opens with a very rustic sign proclaiming “Welcome to Bottleneck” before various bottles perched on it are exploded by gunfire. Typically for the western, the journey of the film’s narrative involves the inevitable taming of a boisterous, wide-open town into a more ordered, sedate and modern settlement. The more solid sign welcoming (or farwelling) us to Bottleneck at the film’s conclusion is, in contrast, notably pristine, smoothly planed and unmarked by a single bullet. Although this is a sign of the film’s conservatism, and of its necessary compliance with the production code of the era that favoured such civilising narratives and values in relation to the Old West, its sanitation or blandness also encourages us to long for the more vibrant and dangerous world and sexual chemistry found in its earlier sections. We also miss the more crowded and dynamic staging of the film’s earlier moments. This “nostalgia” is reinforced by a wagon of children buoyantly singing one of the now-deceased Frenchy’s signature songs, a potent reminder of her allure, sacrifice, memory and legendary stardom. The brief pained, longing and melancholy look on Destry’s face when he hears the refrain also alerts us to the true stars of the picture: Stewart, Dietrich, the studio system and the old-fashioned western itself.
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Destry Rides Again (1939 USA 95 mins)
Prod Co: Universal Pictures Prod: Joe Pasternak Dir: George Marshall Scr: Felix Jackson, Gertrude Purcell, Henry Myers Phot: Hal Mohr Ed: Milton Carruth Art Dir: Jack Otterson Mus: Frank Skinner
Cast: Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, Mischa Auer, Charles Winninger, Brian Donlevy, Allen Jenkins, Una Merkel