I recently happened upon this film at a really awesome local video store who is known for their classics. This is perhaps one of the most unique Westerns I have ever seen, and I must not be the only one of that opinion, because it was chosen to become a part of the U.S. National Film Registry in the Library of Congress on the grounds that it was “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”
What is so interesting about this film, you may ask? Well first of all let us back track a bit 9 years before the films production to 1930. Max Brand had written a popular novel by the name of “Destry Rides Again” this story is of a man Named Harrison Destry who is accused of a crime he did not commit. Eventually some law officer takes pity on him and makes him into a deputy. Now as “the law”, Harrison brings his revenge upon the men who committed the crime and let him take the heat for it. Needless to say this was a perfect picture of western gun slinging, and survival of the fittest in the wild, wild west with lots of “killing the bad guys.” In 1932 the original “Destry Rides Again” film was made staring Tom Mix and firmly stuck to the original story of the Novel. …But in 1939 we find a completely different story…
In this film Jimmy Stewart plays the late Harrison Destry’s son, Thomas Jefferson Destry, who is called into the roughest town of “Bottleneck” to become the new deputy sheriff and rid the town of the no-good scoundrels who run “The Last Chance Saloon.” But don’t you think for a minute you are going to find your typical shoot-em-up, all around, good guy that saves the day! Stewart plays a refined man who values law and order as much as he does justice, and would rather hold a fair trial (even in the west) rather than take justice into his own hands. He is so against violence he does not even carry a gun! There are lots of laughs and jokes when the town finds this out, including when Tom is asked twice, “Are you sure your name is Destry?” to which he replies, “Folks is always asking me that.”
I find this film so unique in the way it upholds law and order (even the sheriff does not find cause to murder a murderer.) I can only judge that it is a satirical commentary on the genre itself. Think of it this way, what if the next “Die Hard” movie came out about John McClain’s son, and Johnny Jr. didn’t believe in guns? But he still was a cop who believed in law and order, and did it in pretty b.a. style? What would you think then? Would you have a little more respect for law officers in the real world? I loved this dichotomy of real justice vs. movie revenge that takes place in the film. Sadly it doesn’t last and in the end there is a giant shoot out resulting in the death of the bad guy…. Oh well, we all are still a work in progress, right?
The movie is filled with other western nuances including characters who are clearly american immigrants, and not just “evil” Mexican immigrants either. “Frenchie”, the leading female character, (played by the German actress, Marlene Dietrich) is a French show girl who has come from New Orleans to get her share of the gold rush. There is also “Boris”,(played by Russian actor, Micsha Auer) a Russian immigrant who cannot seem to remind the town enough that he is not his wife’s late husband, Callahan, but Boris Chouvonivich: the decedent of Russian nobles. There was also something peculiar I saw; a brief scene which included 3 Chinese men at the Saloon. The presence of Chinese immigrants in the west is a thing we nearly forgot in more modern westerns until Jackie Chan’s “”Shanghai Noon” in 2000.
Bu one of the most funny (and most violent) scenes in the whole film is when Frenchie and Callahan’s wife get into an all out brawl in the Saloon. This is the only film I have ever seen with two women duking it out the way they do. It looks like they are really about to kill each other! Needless to say this scene created some sensory problems in it’s original release.
“Destry Rides Again” is truly a unique Western Comedy which captures some very intriguing values and ideas for the modern world. Not to mention lots of lovely witty dialog that will keep you laughing the whole way through.