Program Notes: Destry Rides Again (1939)

Max Brand’s 1930 novel Destry Rides Again is about a short-tempered cowboy who is framed for a robbery, sent to prison, and upon his release goes gunning for the crooked jurors who put him away.

It’s pretty grim stuff.

Which is exactly the opposite of the 1939 film version directed by George Marshall and written by Felix Jackson, Gertrude Purcell, and Henry Myers.

In many regards, Destry Rides Again is a boilerplate oater. A crooked gambler (Brian Donlevy) runs the town of Bottleneck with his gang of thugs, abetted by his barroom singer girlfriend, Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich). That is, they run things until a new deputy sheriff named Tom Destry (James Stewart) arrives to set things straight.

Okay, so that’s not terribly original plotting.

Film Screening:
Destry Rides Again (1939)
Saturday, Mar. 29 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

But Destry is a hugely enjoyable film for one reason: James Stewart in the title role.

When he made this movie, Stewart was just starting to move up from the ranks of supporting actors to star status. Destry represents the first time most moviegoers had been immersed in the actor’s trademark aw-shucks comic style, and they fell hard for the lanky actor.

Without Stewart, this film would be pretty weak tea. The movie only really comes alive 30 minutes in when Destry makes his first appearance. From that point on it’s all smooth sailing.

The running gag in Destry Rides Again is that Tom Destry, Jr., son of famous lawman Tom Destry Sr., is a pacifist.

Oh, he’s an expert marksman. He can make a pair of six-shooters dance in his hands.

But Destry never actually points a gun at anyone. Instead of confronting the bad guys out on Main Street at high noon, he hems and haws and relates shaggy-dog yarns (“Did I ever tell you about this fella I knew once in Kansas City...?”), defusing tense situations with droll humor.

The townsfolk mistake his style for cowardice. The bad guys dismiss him as harmless.

Their mistake.

The first person in town to really understand and appreciate what Destry is up to is Dietrich’s Frenchy, who despite her criminal past finds herself falling for this long, tall drink of sarsaparilla.

By the way, Dietrich gets to deliver a couple of rousing dance hall numbers, including “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” and “Little Jo.”

In the wake of Destry, Stewart quickly rose in the ranks of leading men. In the following years he made classics like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Shop Around the Corner, The Philadelphia Story (for which he won an Oscar), and the Christmas favorite It’s a Wonderful Life.

Curiously, he didn’t make another Western until Winchester ’73 in 1950. That film set the pattern for Stewart’s mid-century cowboy movies, which usually found him playing tormented characters in what have been called “psychological” Westerns. Among these dark oaters are Bend of the River, Carbine Williams, The Naked Spur, and The Far Country.

In 1954 Marshall directed a remake of Destry Rides Again with real-life war hero Audie Murphy in the title role. It was an almost shot-by-shot copy of the Stewart version, though without Stewart’s impeccable sense of timing and delivery it was pretty drab.

Andy Griffith played Destry in the musical version of the story that ran on Broadway in 1959 and ’60.

Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: Westerns”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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