1939 is often considered one of the great years for the studio production system of Hollywood. This is the year of Victor Fleming‘s Gone with the Wind and Wizard of Oz, Frank Capra‘s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Edmund Goulding‘s Dark Victory, and John Ford‘s Stagecoach. Yet, even amidst all this competition, Destry Rides Again (1939)—directed by George Marshall and starring James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich—looms large in film lore. It was one of three films that year that catapulted Stewart to fame (the other two being John Cromwell‘s Made for Each Other and Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), introducing the public to his gentle, sly, and halting delivery, his boyish charm, and his inimitable sincerity.
Destry Rides Again also revived Dietrich’s career after several successive failures and having recently been castigated as “box-office poison.” Moreover, it introduced and popularized the semi-serious/semi-comic “horse opera” film, along with a host of clichés associated with the western genre at large: the “fallen” female entertainer who “makes good” owing to her love for the hero, the inclusion of various “foreign” characters for the sake of variety and sometimes comic relief, the drunk who sobers up to become sheriff, the skilled gunslinger who refuses to carry a gun.
That last cliché is the central driver of the action in the film. The town of Bottleneck is unofficially run by the saloon owner, Kent (Brian Donlevy), who runs crooked card games in the backroom, conniving gullible citizens into inadvertently signing over their properties and their homes. Meanwhile, he keeps the people of the town in line with liquor and entertainment—the latter provided by the volatile but alluring singer, Frenchy (Dietrich). When Sheriff Keogh (Joe King) attempts to interfere with Kent’s plans, he’s murdered and his body hidden. Kent and the mayor (Samuel S. Hinds) make the town drunk, Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger), the new sheriff, assuming he will offer no real resistance. Dimsdale decides to sober up and enlist the help of the son of the man for whom Dimsdale used to be deputy, Destry.
But the son, Tom Destry (Stewart), doesn’t carry a gun. He insists he doesn’t believe in them, but he does believe in law and order. “Law and order without guns?” Dimsdale guffaws. The problem, Destry insists, is that people with guns have the rather galling habit of getting shot. It happened to his father. He was shot right in the back. The gun didn’t do him much good then. Besides, Destry says, you shoot a criminal and they somehow become a legend in people’s mind. It’s better to lock them up in jail, so they appear to be just what they are: small, insignificant criminals, not larger-than-life heroes.
In this one, brief scene the film sets itself a fascinating problem. Actually, it’s the fundamental problem for the basic construction and maintenance of a society: can society function without the threat of violence? Can there be law and order if the state (or the authority representing the state, such as the sheriff) is unable or unwilling to impose the ultimate punishment—the taking of the criminal’s life?
Destry Rides Again presents itself with a formidable challenge and it fails utterly to face up to it. But you will hardly notice. The central performances are simply so charismatic, so entrancing that you easily forget this crucial concern of the plot. It gets papered over by all that emergent star power.
Dietrich often gets the most attention in critical assessments of the film. Her career was on the skids and she was in Europe considering retirement from the industry when the producer Joe Pasternak contacted her with the offer. At first, she laughed it off. What business, she asked herself, did she have playing in a western? She then sought the advice of her mentor and most famous director up to that point: Josef von Sternberg. He thought it was a marvelous bit of marketing and would resurrect her career—as indeed it did. “I made you into a Goddess,” he declared, “now show them you have feet of clay.”
The role reinvented the public’s image of Dietrich and she throws herself into it with a kind of ironic aplomb. She revels in the fun of the part and even amidst all of the campy artifice of her performance manages to communicate genuine human emotion and vulnerability.
Indeed, the film itself dramatizes Dietrich’s move toward relatability. As Frenchy finds herself reluctantly falling for Destry, she entertains him in her home. Although she claims to have just awoken (it’s late afternoon), she’s decked out in a fur nightgown, her hair carefully sculpted, her makeup exuding a carefully cultivated glamor. Frenchy and Destry argue over her complicity in Kent’s cheating at cards—she had distracted one unfortunate gambler by dumping hot coffee in his lap while another conspirator switched out his winning hand. Enraged, Frenchy throws Destry out of her home—resulting, I suppose rather predictably, in an embrace.
Destry rubs some of the lipstick from her mouth, proclaiming she would be far more attractive without it. Later, when running to Destry’s side, now entirely devoted to him, an isolated scene portrays her removing the lipstick with the back of her hand—becoming a woman who is no longer removed from Destry through artifice and pretense, a clear analogy for the transformation Dietrich herself is undergoing by accepting this role.
Stewart’s charm in this film is overwhelming. That lanky frame and coy compromise between a drawl and a stutter make him instantly memorable and immediately likeable. Destry makes up little parables about a “fella I once knew” on the spot to suit whatever point he’s trying to make. The citizens, even the criminals, are beguiled by his inventive mode of conciliatory yet gently admonishing rhetoric.
Stewart delivers each of these lines with a folksy, easy-going insouciance that belies the cautionary point Destry tries to drive home. Rarely does his tone become threatening. Typically, he speaks in a calming and reassuring manner. He treats ruffians as children that need consolation, need understanding, but also need a firm guiding hand.
Again, we can back out from the framework of the film to see this portrayal as a working out of the character Stewart will cultivate over the course of his entire career, a character that comes clearly into focus first in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and then in Destry Rides Again. His take on the display of masculine gender is compelling and complex. His soft tone, his willingness to be the butt of a joke, his seemingly committed non-confrontational take on law enforcement all speak against the typical representation of virile and combative masculinity often found in westerns. Indeed, when Destry first arrives in Bottleneck on a stagecoach, Dimsdale and the town mistakenly assume that the openly bellicose and literally pugilistic (he immediately punches out the driver for hitting too many bumps) Jack Tindall (Jack Carson) is Destry.
Meanwhile, Destry himself emerges from the stagecoach holding Tindall’s sister’s parasol and caged canary. The townsfolk and Dimsdale see this as a mark against the rugged machismo expected of a sheriff’s deputy. Destry doesn’t argue, doesn’t bristle at the chiding and name-calling, doesn’t object to the open emasculation to which Kent tries to subject him by demanding Destry hand over his gun. As Kent becomes more demanding and increasingly threatening, Destry gently deflates the situation, revealing he carries no gun, smiling as the patrons of the saloon declare him something of a wimp.
We are assured by his manner that he knows better, that he’s well aware of what makes one courageous and that lacking the materials of violence does nothing to unman him. All of this passes with so much actorly magnetism that the audience can’t help but believe that this is all so, that Destry is right, that the enforcement of law need not include the open threat of violence. We are so taken in by Stewart that we might well ignore or simply accept that the film cannot live up to the utopian promise of this assertion.
But look just a little more closely and it all quickly falls apart. I suppose it would have been a much harder western to write should one truly try to follow through on this conception. We intuitively assume that a circumstance will arise that will force Destry to go back on his word. Maybe some among us even root for it. To some extent, this is baked into the genre. The problem for me is that the absolute avoidance of the threat of violence as a guarantor of peace falls to the wayside so early and for so little. I’m not talking about the final showdown here. I’m talking about a much earlier, much less obviously significant, and yet (to me) much more troubling scene.
In this moment, Dimsdale and the newly arrived Destry are slowly walking through town. Dimsdale is telling his stories; Destry offers his parables. Dimsdale wants Destry to leave town for his own good but he too can’t be helped but to be charmed by Destry’s affability. Dimsdale doesn’t yet believe in Destry, but he likes him. Who wouldn’t? But then three men ride into town shooting their pistols into the air and into the ground, just shooting at nothing in particular.
Now, we know from the opening credit sequence of the film that this is simply commonplace in Bottleneck, a source of entertainment as much as a display of malice. Destry intervenes. The offenders laugh him off and claim they are just having fun. Destry then admires one of the men’s guns and asks to hold it. The man, thinking Destry soft and inconsequential, hands the gun over without objection.
Destry twirls it in his hand, tosses it in the air and catches it again. He demonstrates his thorough comfort with a gun. Then, declaring that one can have a lot of innocent fun with these kinds of “toys”, Destry proceeds to shoot off six small protuberances on a bit of ornamental woodwork on a building opposite them. The distance, the minuscule stature of the targets, and the swiftness with which Destry dispatches his shots mesmerize and frighten the onlookers. He turns to the men and, with an edge of anger in his voice, declares that they will never behave in such an irresponsible manner again. They agree and depart, cowering as they go. While the misbehavers are chastised and intimidated, Dimsdale and the upright citizens are impressed.
There are several things to consider here. First, Destry has just behaved in as irresponsible a manner as the men he chastises. He is firing shots across a busy street into an occupied building. Who’s to say that the bullets won’t penetrate the façade and kill someone inside? Who’s to say that Destry won’t miss and shoot a passerby because the man tries to wrest control over his gun or some other unforeseen possibility? These aren’t idle questions and they aren’t meant to “spoil the fun” of the scene. The point of the scene is clear. We are meant to see that Destry doesn’t forego carrying a gun because he’s a coward or because he has no skills with the weapon. He refuses to carry as a choice and as an emblem of his bravery. When he has a gun in his possession he is as good, nay better, than any other gunslinger nearby.
But that point contradicts the point Destry made to Dimsdale earlier. Destry’s earlier concern was with the notion that violence is the activity of a small person, that it did very little to ensure social harmony, that it was not the path to law and order. Rather, law and order, in that speech, seemed to gainsay the use of guns—not just on the part of criminals but also on the part of the enforcers of the law.
Second, and as a consequence of the first point, Destry is not attempting to create respect for law and order as such. He has just demonstrated the threat underlying such law and order. He need not carry a gun on a regular basis to suggest effectively that should he need a gun he can use it with deadly force. In fact, there creeps in here a possibility that Destry’s charisma belies—that it’s all just a confidence trick of a sort.
By not carrying a gun, he lowers the temperature of immediate confrontation with these gunslingers and with Kent. But by opening demonstrating his expert ability with the gun, he reveals that the threat of death remains. Suddenly that vaunted charm becomes less disarming and more of a cynical veneer covering over the ever-looming presence of violence and retribution. Destry doesn’t bring a new model of law enforcement to Bottleneck, he just creates a new method of its application.
If Destry’s earlier speech to Dimsdale suggests that law and order rely upon just punishment and the instillment of pride in upright citizenship, then Destry’s gun show suggests that this view of law and order is misguided and incomplete at best or downright dishonest and cynical at worst. Order, in this scene, can only be vouchsafed by the threat of imminent death.
To be clear, this isn’t a condemnation of the film. Destry Rides Again is one of the great accomplishments in film in a year of outlandish accomplishment. Moreover, the film set itself a nearly impossible (perhaps entirely impossible) task. To truly portray an attempt to instill law and order as opposed to enforcing it through the threat of bodily harm would have required a reinvention of the western genre that would have outpaced even the wonderful innovations that suffuse Destry. And yet, I can’t help myself from being disappointed in the film’s failure to attempt to live up to the challenge it establishes for itself. I’m less bothered by the climax grounded in vengeance. That feels almost entirely pre-ordained and, given the impossibility of shifting views concerning citizenship in such a brief amount of time, perhaps even necessary.
It’s that little scene in which Destry confronts the three men with a display of gunmanship that sits uncomfortably in my thoughts. That threat of violence seems entirely gratuitous to me. It’s redolent of the notion that there’s “just no talking to some people”, so they have to be threatened, they have to be violently confronted. Maybe that’s so. I’m in no position to say one way or the other. But it’s a pretty damning view of humanity. And if it’s true, if the only way to guarantee social harmony is through the threat of violence, and since threats require demonstration of force and those demonstrations require someone to suffer the violence (whether we consider that person deserving of such punishment or not), well, that doesn’t bode well for humankind’s development and longevity.
Violence is effective because it eradicates a problem, not because it solves it. The only peace available through violence is a Carthaginian peace. But that’s not peace so much as elimination, total destruction, and death. Perhaps that’s the only peace we think we deserve. If so, we are certain to get it.
Criterion Collection has released a fantastic Blu-ray edition of Destry Rides Again. The restoration is absolutely stunning, and it reminds long-time fans of the film just how innovative and gorgeous the camerawork is. The edition comes with several extras including an overview of the early career of the director George Marshall, conducted as an interview coupled with a slideshow; an interview with film scholar Imogen Sara Smith, another interview with Stewart biographer Donald Dewey, and a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film for radio.