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Destry Rides Again

by Peter Bogdanovich
September 28, 2011 4:28 AM
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Among the most entertaining of non-”auteur” star vehicles——made at a time when stars often were not only good actors but unique personalities as well——is the first pairing of America’s innocent James Stewart (as he was always billed in pictures, never Jimmy) and Europe’s worldly Marlene Dietrich, out in the Wild West of 1939’s Destry Rides Again (available on DVD).

The picture is a perfect example of what made the old studio star system in its heyday work so well: Both stars’ parts are expertly styled for what these actors can do best, and because their innate personas have such appeal and scope, the characters achieve an added dimension of mythic size which could never be attained with just good actors.

It was Stewart’s first of about two dozen Westerns——he rivaled only John Wayne for hit cowboy pictures throughout the ‘50s and early ‘60s (Wayne’s first hit western, John Ford’s Stagecoach, was also released in 1939)——and set a particular image of him that he and others exploited for the rest of his career: the book-reading, non-violent Eastern dude in the West who must learn to use a gun when necessary. Western master Ford cast Stewart in exactly that same role twenty-three years later for what would turn out to be the actor’s (and the director’s) last great Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

For Dietrich, on the other hand, Destry was a huge change of image——done with that clearly in mind: Marlene, after several successes with director-discoverer-mentor-lover Josef von Sternberg in the early ‘30s, had toward the end of the decade become “box-office poison” to exhibitors --the somewhat distant pedestal Sternberg had put her on having lost its allure with Depression audiences. Destry ripped her right off any pedestal and, interestingly, it was Sternberg himself who convinced her to take the role of a tough, brawling, saloon chanteuse/woman of easy virtue.

The extended cat-fight between Dietrich and Una Merkel is justly famous, and the novelty song Marlene sings, “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” (“And give them the poison they name…”), became a popular standard throughout the rest of her career. I saw her sing it marvelously at a concert in Denver thirty-three years later. Directed by veteran Hollywood journeyman George Marshall, the film is unadorned, straightforward, unpretentiously made and surely Marshall’s best movie of about four hundred he did.

Marlene and Jimmy had a blazing affair during the shooting and the electricity is noticeable. Dietrich told me that during one love scene Stewart’s “interest” in her became so “apparent” that director Marshall called an early lunch, at the same time wagging his index finger reproachfully at the actor, “Jimmy...” And Orson Welles mentioned once that he had taken Marlene to have an abortion after Stewart had got her pregnant. The result of their passion is a charming, extremely likeable movie, with a touching conclusion.

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  • jerome p | October 18, 2011 7:13 AMReply

    peter you keep on writing and i will keep reading just as i will keep watching jimmy stewart films. who better know to about hollywoods the inner circle than the inner circle if people want to bury their head in the sand so be it

  • MAK | October 3, 2011 4:42 AMReply

    Goodness, testy comments on such a minor title!

    @ Tony - Sorry, but I don't see how anyone could consider Orson Welles' comment on the Stewart/Dietrich affair a 'slur' on Stewart's character. Two adults are allowed to have a relationship . . . even in Hollywood. Stewart wasn't married at the time and Dietrich was living as if she wasn't, though I don't think she ever bothered to actually get divorced.

    The line between gossip and history is particularly thin in L.A. For example, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the son of actress Geraldine Fotzgerald, has just written about his late-in-life discovery that Orson Welles was his actual father. Something he could never get either Ms. Fitzgerald or Welles to confirm.

    He finally got the facts from Gloria Vanderbilt!

    Gossip? Or history? In Hollywood, it tends to merge . . . and Mr Bogdanovich seems to be one of the last guys around with this sort of information. I'm so glad he's willing to share some of it with his readers.

    Let's not discourage him!

  • TonyWendice | October 3, 2011 2:36 AMReply

    Sorry, I disagree with you. Most people would consider passing along that kind of spurious and unsubstantiated gossip to be a "slur" for many reasons. It's not history when it's unproven.

    I wish to encourage Mr. Bogdanovich to write about films. His insight and knowledge are very valuable but, indeed, want to discourage him from passing on "stories" he may have heard that not only are not true or proven but that add nothing to our knowledge of film and film history.

    Some may wish to revel or traffic in that sort of garbage but I doubt that most good people do. Leave the Mommie Dearest stuff to CC and the National Enquirer.

  • TonyWendice | October 2, 2011 2:24 AMReply

    I've long been a fan of this blog and usually agree with its opinions (okay, I hate Grapes of Wrath, a bloated, overly pious, bore of a film). However, I must raise an objection to citing Orson Welles' unsubstantiated slur about James Stewart. First, there is no documented evidence that it's accurate. Second, Orson Welles was known for making up stories. Third, a discussion of great films is no occasion to repeat unsubstantiated gossip. It added nothing to the discussion.

    I'm a longtime fan, Mr. Bogdanovich, but disappointed in you for this kind of thing. Shame on you. Let's stick to the facts.

  • Jesse L | September 30, 2011 4:01 AMReply

    Well I, for one, enjoy this movie greatly. Here's why: all the things you mention Peter and the fact that Mel Brooks appropriated so many of the elements of this film for Blazing Saddles. I love the stars of course but I also think the great character actors do a wonderful job here. But then, I've been in love with Una Merkle forever.

  • Blake Lucas | September 29, 2011 4:14 AMReply

    This is a very rare occasion where I disagree which just about everything you say. Where I do agree--it's certainly true studios built movies around star personas and did so in this case, and I know Sternberg advised Dietrich to take the role and having this hit did rejuvenate her career.

    But if "Jimmy" seems to fit the Stewart of this film and a number of his other prewar ones, " the book-reading, non-violent Eastern dude in the West who must learn to use a gun when necessary" better describes the hero of the later LIBERTY VALANCE than it does the role of Destry, where, however pacifist his inclinations, the hero is a sharpshooter who does not need to learn to use a gun but has good reasons for not wanting to. Further, Stewart's three Ford characters seem not so innocent to me (no one would say the other two, more cynical ones are), and even Stoddard's negotiation of the West and Western rituals
    seems to have something complex behind it--his political ambitions may not be clear even to him but they are there, and while he isn't deliberately trying to take away someone else's girl, he does it.

    Mostly, postwar Stewart is definitely "James Stewart" and I can never think of the heroes of his Anthony Mann Westerns, his Hitchcock films, ANATOMY OF A MURDER as "Jimmy." Does "Jimmy" seem to fit the persona of the actor in those movies, the ones made in the actor's maturity?

    Although I have no particular ax to grind for George Marshall, I think it's unfair to describe this film as "non-auteur"--I thought it was fairly well-known that it was he who turned DESTRY RIDES AGAIN into a comedy through myriad directorial touches during shooting and really deserves the credit for it playing as both a comedy and a Western. This is consistent with his career--he was a comedy specialist and pursued this tactic many times in his Westerns, to my mind more successfully and satisfyingly in THE SHEEPMAN (1958) than in DESTRY RIDES AGAIN. For that matter, as the 50s are the Western's own Golden Age, I really think Marshall inflected his own remake DESTRY (1955) with the lesser star power of Audie Murphy and Mari Blanchard (both excellent I hasten to add) so successfully than even though the script is very much the same it is a more satisfying film.

    Marshall also could make a good serious Western on occasion--PILLARS OF THE SKY (1956) is perhaps my own favorite of all his films that I've seen. And Marlene Dietrich made one of the greatest of all Westerns--RANCHO NOTORIOUS (1952; Fritz Lang) playing a similar kind of role but in a movie of infinitely more richness and depth and she is far more memorable in it. As for Stewart, his Mann Westerns are arguably the peak of a great career.

    I am not a fan of DESTRY RIDES AGAIN. For me it is overrated and its charms wear thin quickly and are even less on repeated viewings, even though I do love both stars (but so much more in many other movies, especially James Stewart--who is second to no movie actor for me) and feel I have some respect and appreciation for Marshall given a long, honorable career with some real personality of his own even if he is far from one of the great directors.

    OK, I know this is pretty negative. For all of us there are "classics" that we feel are less than their reputations so I guess this is one of mine. And on the other hand, their are so many movies with no classic status that we all wish we could build up.

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