Destry Rides Again: Riding High

Whether or not you believe it is the greatest year of all for the Hollywood studio system, the wonder of 1939 is the sheer depth of its bench. On a ten-movie best-picture ballot, the Oscars found no room to nominate such worthy contenders from that year as Raoul Walsh’s live-wire gangster memorial The Roaring Twenties; George Cukor’s all-star The Women; or Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings—described even at the time as “magnificently directed” by the hard-to-please Graham Greene. And on a list of 1939’s top-grossing films, you have to go down, way down, all the way to number nineteen by some tallies, to get to Universal Pictures and its biggest smash of the year, Destry Rides Again.

Yet Destry was and remains an influential and memorable movie. Its success prompted a whole new string of semi- or entirely comic westerns from Universal, the so-called mini-major that had always made westerns a specialty, as well as from other studios eager for a new formula. It helped establish James Stewart as a true star and, in his first cowboy picture, as a believable deputy sheriff; and it gave Marlene Dietrich an enviable comeback after a career drought so severe that she’d considered retirement.

The movie was famously written on the fly, with script pages often arriving on the very day of filming, but the essence of the plot was in place from the start. The delightfully named, out-of-control town of Bottleneck is ruled by Last Chance Saloon owner Kent (Brian Donlevy), who keeps the liquor flowing and the crooked card games going with the help of his hard-boiled star Frenchy (Dietrich; the nickname was the movie’s way of explaining her inimitable German accent). After Bottleneck’s sheriff disappears, murdered by Kent and his heavies, town drunk Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger) sobers up to become the new sheriff, and Thomas Jefferson Destry Jr. (Stewart) is brought in as a deputy to get tough on crime. To the dismay of the good guys, Destry won’t wear a gun, much less use one.

“The genius of Destry Rides Again is that it weaves together its comedy with the elements of a true western.”

In the meantime, the citizens of Bottleneck either hide behind their picket fences or drink away their troubles at the Last Chance, and some of Hollywood’s finest character actors have a field day. Boris Alexandrovich Stavrogin (Mischa Auer) loses his pants to Frenchy in a card game. The saloon is busted up in several room-clearing brawls, including one between Frenchy and Boris’s wife, Lily Belle (Una Merkel). Jack Carson, near the beginning of a career spent playing big lugs who think they’re smart guys, shows up as a rancher who believes Destry is a wimp. Destry whittles napkin rings and tries everyone’s patience with fables he makes up to suit the occasion. Producer Joe Pasternak and his writers build to a climax in which Destry proves his mettle, and Bottleneck is cleaned up for good—but it isn’t all fun and games. By the end, at least three lovable characters are dead, and it is clear that Destry has good reason for hating guns. The genius of Destry Rides Again is that it weaves together its comedy with the elements of a true western.

Film after film has helped itself to one or more of the ingredients that Destry dug up and polished to a high gloss: The crack-shot hero who won’t use his guns. The drunk who reforms to help clean up the town. The saloon singer with a mysterious past and a yen for the hero. The elements work in a semiserious vein, as in San Antonio (1945)—with Errol Flynn and Alexis Smith. Or used with total sincerity in something like Wichita (1955), where a little boy is killed, and Joel McCrea’s Wyatt Earp responds by taking away the town’s guns. The plot even turns up in a surreal and farcical context in Blazing Saddles, a near remake released thirty-five years later, with Madeline Kahn doing a paralyzingly funny send-up of Dietrich as Frenchy that somehow dims Marlene’s luster not a bit.

Even Destry’s oddball feminist touches, such as the climax in which sisterhood saves the town from a possible bloodbath, would have echoes in later films such as William A. Wellman’s Westward the Women (1951). And heaven knows Destry’s most famous scene, that all-out catfight between Merkel and Dietrich, has been imitated time and again, from the MGM musical The Harvey Girls (1946) to 1971’s Les pétroleuses, where Claudia Cardinale dukes it out with Brigitte Bardot—who is playing the daughter of a (male) outlaw named, what else, Frenchie.

Universal had made an earlier Destry Rides Again (1932), based on a novel of the same name by Max Brand and starring the justly beloved Tom Mix. Directed by Ben Stoloff, it’s a better-than-average western about a stagecoach driver who comes back for revenge after an unjust imprisonment, the kind of B movie that was Universal’s bread and butter for many years. Fast-forward to mid-1939, and the biggest star at the studio was now silver-voiced teenager Deanna Durbin. Joe Pasternak, a Hungarian émigré to the U.S., had spent years producing films for Universal in Europe, then returned in 1936 as the Continent became increasingly dangerous for a Jewish man. He immediately made his name stateside by starring Durbin in Three Smart Girls (1936), a huge hit that put the perpetually insolvent Universal back on its feet. Three years and several Durbin vehicles later, Pasternak was looking for something different, and as he put it in his memoir, Easy the Hard Way, “Universal being a studio with a pronounced partiality for the western, or ‘hoss-opry,’ I began playing with the idea of making such a picture myself.” A budget-conscious producer always likes to dig through the back catalog of intellectual property, and so Pasternak chose the earlier Destry. He liked Mix’s quiet demeanor: he is “not your typical western hero hankerin’ for a fight, quick on the draw,” as the producer put it. Though Mix’s Destry wore guns and used them with gusto when needed, by the time Pasternak and writers Bruce Manning and Felix Jackson were through with the outline, Destry was a near pacifist, a man determined to avoid a fight if at all possible.

For Destry, Pasternak wanted James Stewart, a star but by no means a big name yet; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington wouldn’t be released until October 19. It seems impossible that Stewart didn’t make his first western until 1939, over twenty films into his Hollywood career. How could no one have realized his loose-limbed body was perfect for sitting tall in the saddle and loping down dusty streets? That Stewart’s stop-and-start drawl was exactly how a sheriff or other horse-bound hero should speak? Yet according to Pasternak, the smart money still thought Stewart a bad choice. Too soft, they said. Stewart wouldn’t star in another western until Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 in 1950, the first in a series of tough-as-nails westerns the two would make together.

With Marlene, the difficulty was the lady herself. The year before, movie exhibitor Harry Brandt’s “box office poison” advertisement had struck: an infamous list of stars whose box-office draw, according to the flamboyant Brandt, “is nil.” Some of them, like Joan Crawford and Mae West, fired back. Dietrich, for her part, knew as well as anyone how her most recent pictures—Angel, with director Ernst Lubitsch, and Knight Without Armor, made in England for producer Alexander Korda—had performed. She chose to get out of town, and by summer 1939, the last months without war that Europe would know for a long time, she was parked on the Riviera with her husband, Rudolf Sieber; teenage daughter, Maria Riva; ex-love Josef von Sternberg; and current lover, the novelist Erich Maria Remarque.

Pasternak, who had met Dietrich years before in Berlin, knew the star had serious matters on her mind. In his autobiography, he writes that during this time she never stopped trying to use her influence to get anyone she could out of Hitler’s way. En route to Europe, she had had fistfuls of her jewels confiscated by the IRS. She had little desire to return to Hollywood and the possibility of another failure, even at the urging of an old acquaintance like Pasternak. When the producer made his transatlantic call, she listened, laughed, told him she’d call back, then didn’t. Pasternak called again. “What am I going to do in a western?” asked Dietrich.

It was a reasonable question. The indefatigable Pasternak pointed out that it was his first western too. This time, Dietrich said yes. What Pasternak didn’t know was that between calls, he’d had an unexpected ally: von Sternberg. When Dietrich told her greatest director about the crazy Hungarian who wanted her to be in a cowboy picture, “Jo” told her prophetically: “I put you on a pedestal, the untouchable goddess. He wants to drag you down into the mud, very touchable. A bona fide goddess with feet of clay—very good salesmanship.” She sailed for America in late August 1939. Hitler had invaded Poland by the time her ship docked.

“George Marshall’s ease of temperament and high regard for Dietrich undoubtedly helped when script pages were arriving sometimes mere hours before he called ‘Action!’ ”

From left to right: George Marshall, Marlene Dietrich, and Joe Pasternak

According to Dietrich biographer Steven Bach, by the time the star arrived, only forty-five pages of script were completed. The eventual writing credits went to Jackson, Henry Myers, and Gertrude Purcell, with no mention of Manning. Jackson complained that Remarque, who’d followed Dietrich to Hollywood, hung around the set “and tried to rewrite things.” And years later, George Beck would testify to the House Un-AmericanActivities Committee that he’d written part of Destry too. At least the song credits remained clearly established. One of the carrots Pasternak dangled for Dietrich was the prospect of melodies by Frederick Hollander, who’d written “Falling in Love Again” for The Blue Angel; lyrics were contributed by the great Frank Loesser, who’d go on to pen Guys and Dolls. They came up with the raucous “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” and “You’ve Got That Look,” both of which would be key to Dietrich’s performances for the rest of her life.

Directing duties went to George Marshall, a jack-of-all-trades who, in the course of a wildly diverse career, would make westerns, comedies (including Bob Hope vehicles), musicals, the first Dean Martin–Jerry Lewis film (My Friend Irma, 1949), and at least one famed film noir, The Blue Dahlia, from 1946. His ease of temperament and high regard for Dietrich undoubtedly helped when script pages were arriving sometimes mere hours before he called “Action!” The cinematographer was Hal Mohr, who had lensed such singular beauties as Henry King’s State Fair (1933) and William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), and Destry itself deserves more credit for its good looks. In 1939, it was unusual to have a movie begin with an action sequence. This film goes all out with a long, slow track alongside the sidewalks of Bottleneck, where the chief entertainment appears to be drunkenly shooting guns into the air, fistfights, and destruction of property, with a heavy emphasis on the first. (Watch for what’s obviously a prostitute rolling a customer, a Production Code no-no; maybe the Hays Office was too busy reading the credits that Universal had splashed across these scenes of mayhem.)

The two-story Last Chance Saloon set allows for a number of beautiful shots, such as the early high-flying one that glides from the dance floor to the barroom in back, as Kent strolls along the railing above to survey his rotgut kingdom. A crowd of men is arrayed along the length of the bar, lustily swinging into Hollander and Loesser’s “Little Joe, the Wrangler.” We descend from the balcony to the bar as someone throws ice at the head of Loupgerou, the bartender played by Billy Gilbert, yet another great character actor. As he gets a signal from the boss and moves down, we see a gaggle of raucous drunks, but we hear that voice—Dietrich, coming in for the chorus. At last, Frenchy turns around with a wink, one hand rolling a cigarette, and finishes: “Oh, he sure did like his likker, and it would have got his ticker but the sheriff got him quicker—eeeyahooo!

Everything about this introduction would have been startling to an audience accustomed to Marlene the Goddess: her mop of curls, like Shirley Temple gone very, very bad; her tatty costume; the cigarette rolling, a skill Pasternak insisted on. But it’s that banshee howl at the end of the chorus that truly announces the New Marlene. Who would have expected a glittering Berlin artiste to come up with a saloon-shattering yowl like that?

Prerelease hype is not just a twenty-first-century phenomenon, and even with a Civil War picture called Gone with the Wind sucking up the oxygen, Destry Rides Again got plenty of column inches. By the time the film was released, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was already establishing Stewart as a major star, and the return of what the Motion Picture Herald called “the disastrously oversold Marlene Dietrich” had stirred fan-magazine interest as well. Most anticipated of all was the Dietrich-Merkel brawl, with canny Universal even inviting reporters on set for the filming.

What the press would only hint at was something that seems obvious viewing the film now: Dietrich and Stewart were having a torrid affair. Years later, Maria Riva would write that her mother had an abortion shortly after Destry wrapped, and Peter Bogdanovich has said that Dietrich told him the same thing. Whatever happened, Stewart himself was diplomatic. “After a week’s work on the picture, I fell in love with her,” he said. Lest anyone think that was a confession, his remarks concluded with, “The director, cameraman, cast, and crew felt the same way. We all fell in love with her.”

If so, they weren’t the only ones. The New York Post editorial page lost its cool completely, declaring that “Marlene Dietrich in short skirts, singing . . . on top of a bar, is a greater work of art than the Venus de Milo.” Variety, considerably more subdued but still charmed, called her “the teeterboard from which this picture flips itself from the level of the ordinary western into a class item.” “Very good salesmanship,” as von Sternberg had told her. It was clear that Dietrich was now back to being a class item herself, and that many more goddesses with feet of clay were ahead of her, even if none could make quite the same impact. At the end of Destry Rides Again, Tom Destry is starting to tell a youngster another one of his tales when a wagon rattles by. In the back is a little girl, played by soon-to-be starlet Betta St. John. She’s almost as pretty as Frenchy, with curls like hers, too, lustily leading a chorus of “Little Joe.” Destry’s face goes misty as he remembers. Eighty years later, Frenchy still has that effect on people.