Destry Rides Again: Review
A very young and handsome Jimmy Stewart comes to the aid of a desperate town, earning the affection of it’s most notorious citizen, played by Marlene Dietrich at her most tempestuous.
Destry Rides Again has all the makings of a classic Hollywood Western; barroom brawls, dance hall girls, dangerous men, and a hero to save the day. It also has two of the biggest stars ever known to movie-goers around the world. Even though the story may have been strictly by the book, it is the sheer magnetism of Stewart and Dietrich who make Destry the classic it is today.
Stewart had just finished Mr. Smith Goes to Washington when he began what was to be his first Western. He wasn’t a huge star yet, but he was already extremely popular. His good looks and natural modesty made him the ideal to play a man of honor and principals, and caught the immediate attention of his leading lady who declared at first site, “That’s for me”! And her bravado performance opposite the young up-and-comer certainly reflects her enthusiasm.
Although Dietrich was pushing forty, Stewart’s mutual admiration was also quite apparent, providing legitimate appeal to the aging actress’ big comeback. Dietrich had been a major player in movies, first in silent films in Germany and then later with American films beginning with The Blue Angel in 1930. However, by 1939 her star had begun to lose its shine. The success of Destry not only saved her career it cemented her life long personae (regardless of age) as the wanton woman to whom men couldn’t help but be attracted.
In addition to the chemistry of its stars, Destry stands out as an early example of a successful attempt at mixing genres (atypical for its time). Destry adeptly merges comedy, music, and a love story within a Western. The comedy is provided by veteran character actors Charles Winninger as the drunken Sheriff, and Mischa Auer (You Can’t Take it With You) and Una Merkel as a battling married couple. Merkel also matches punches with Dietrich in what can only be described as one of the funniest, roughest and realistic barroom brawls ever caught on film. The actresses were reportedly told to go at with all their might and they did, ending up with a priceless scene and a trip to the hospital for Merkel who suffered exhaustion as a result.
As impressive as everyone is, Dietrich really is the show stealer here. Particularly when she performs her iconic rendition of “The Boys in the Back Room”. She is every bit as alluring as she ever was or would be as she jostles about the rugged men of the west belting out tunes in a teutonic warble (a style latter spoofed by Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles). Dietrich proves (just as Stewart would down the line) that star power is ageless. Just about as ageless as a classic film like Destry Rides Again. When you’ve got it, you’ve got, no matter how old you are.