Blu-ray Review: Destry Rides Again | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, May 31st, 2020  

Destry Rides Again

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Apr 07, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Released in 1939 - widely agreed upon as the keystone year of the Golden Age Hollywood studio system - Destry Rides Again is an odd nexus point, not only of genres, but of the careers of its stars. As a western, the film gets a lot of mileage out of sending up the familiar elements of an already established genre, as well as codifying others. Despite being an overt comedy, its melodramatic scenes are expertly integrated. And it even has room for several musical numbers.

The pairing of Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich seems like an odd one on paper - “aw shucks” American vs. ethereal European elegance - but the languid, easy confidence with which both stars comport themselves makes for some dynamic interplay. Both stars were tapping into aspects of their persona that were rarely called upon; Stewart’s low-key smolder and Dietrich’s sense of humor. In 1939, Stewart was on the cusp of stardom - he would be nominated for an Oscar the following year for The Philadelphia Story - and the role of Thomas Jefferson Destry makes an ideal vehicle for his signature brand of humble competence and drawling wit. A pacifist deputy who disarms his opponents with down-to-earth guile and Aesop-like anecdotes, the character almost seems like a parody of Stewart’s eventual screen persona rather than the root of it.

After becoming an international icon in the early 1930’s, a string of flops had left Marlene Dietrich primed for a comeback. Her performance as Frenchy, the decidedly not French saloon singer and gambler that vexes Tom Destry, is a far cry from the performances that made her famous. Formerly the muse of German auteur Joseph Von Sternberg, Dietrich was frequently cast as mysterious, unattainable women of the world, her icy beauty used to convey melancholy sophistication and an almost abstract sense of weary longing. Destry Rides Again plays on these expectations from the moment Frenchie is introduced, the camera panning across a crowded saloon bar to find her dramatically turning to face the camera while singing and surrounded by enthralled drunken men. Even the silliest of films can’t separate Dietrich from her innate sense of class - she’s one of the few actresses who can still look fancy while gnawing on a chicken leg - but that only makes it all the more fun and surprising to find her in a film that features a protracted catfight between her and Una Merkel.

Beyond the complimentary yin/yang of its stars, Destry Rides Again is a solid example of the old Hollywood system’s ability to crank out crowd-pleasers with remarkable precision. Directed by George Marshall, the film ably balances some wide swings in tone and a terrific supporting ensemble. Over the course of 90 minutes, the film shades in the myriad residents of the cartoonishly rowdy town of Bottleneck, which feels only one step removed from the absurdity of Rock Ridge in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. Standouts include Mischa Auer as a “misfit Cossack”, Una Merkel as his hen-pecking wife and Charles Winninger as the town drunk turned sheriff. The humor is broad, but the performances sell virtually every gag, no matter how corny.

The new Criterion Blu-ray edition of Destry Rides Again includes a feature on the film by Criterion supplements regular Imogen Sara Smith, as well as an interview with Stewart biographer Donald Dewey and a Lux Radio adaptation of the film teaming Stewart with Joan Blondell.

(www.criterion.com/films/29002-destry-rides-again)




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