Destry Rides Again – 1939
Director – George Marshall
Starring – Jimmy Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, and Brian Donlevy
From the early 30’s on through the late 80’s and early 90’s, when the United States needed someone to look up to, someone to stand strong against adversity, and live up to the wholesome ideals of a bygone era (often regardless of what age they were living in), the world looked to Jimmy Stewart. Perennially playing roles of such strong moral character, and unwaivering goodness, Stewart seemed to me to be a ham-fisted actor. Someone lacking the subtlety to play a real person, instead only able to embody a general sense of good and right.
While his career is one filled with good guy roles, and white hats, I may have misjudged Jimmy Stewart the actor. In Destry Rides Again, Stewart arrives in a lawless town controlled by local muscle and kept in line through temptation and booze (temptation in the form of gambling and Frenchy, a saucy burlesque performer played by Marlene Dietrich). It becomes obvious, even in my previous sentence, that he is going to at least attempt to clean things up, and save the cow-like townsfolk from their own vices. He plays Thomas Jefferson Destry, Jr., son of the town’s last good sheriff Destry, Sr.
From there you can just about guess where the story is going to go, Destry arrives, proves himself in corruptible, and is challenged until the very end by the town’s strongman, Kent, played by Brian Donlevy. Now comes the point where the predictable stuff ends… Oh, sure, Stewart is still a good guy, and he has right on his side, and he never gives up, but he does it in a subtle believable way. He doesn’t preach and condemn the actions of anyone. He simply leads through example, shedding the light of day on the depravity to which the townsfolk had grown accustomed. Rather than being smug and arrogant, he was likable and most importantly, a natural.
The other huge surprise comes in the form of the character Frenchy. From the very start of the movie Marlene Dietrich plays her as conniving, opportunistic, and self-serving. She clearly moves from town to town taking what she can and moving along when things dry up. Stewart’s Destry presents a huge obstacle to her character’s continued success, and as such it is only natural that she would, at least initially, dislike him. As the movie plays out, these two characters could easily go one of two ways. There can either be a confrontation in which one of them loses everything, or one or both of the characters will change and there will be a romance.
I won’t mention here what actually does happen, but rest assured, the movie didn’t let me down. Each of the characters was true to themselves and the only natural conclusion that could have happened did.
So, despite being composed of some ingredients that I was less than excited about, Destry Rides Again, surprised me and became far more than the sum of it’s parts. Not necessarily the best movie, nor one that deserves to definitely be on this list, but far better than I anticipated it to being when I started it. I understand why it is that generations of American’s looked to Jimmy Stewart when they needed a hero, I don’t know that the film industry has anyone like him today, possibly Tom Hanks, and we may never have anyone like him again.