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.”
“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!’ ”
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