Release Date(s)1939 (April 14, 2020)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Criterion – Spine #1024)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B
1939 was one of the best years for Hollywood. It saw the release of The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Ninotchka, The Women, and a little picture called Gone With the Wind. This grouping also included the comedy action western Destry Rides Again.
Bottleneck is a wild frontier town whose saloon owner, Kent (Brian Donlevy), specializes in crooked card games to cheat local landowners out of their ranches. He’s assisted by the saloon’s entertainer, Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich). When the town sheriff mysteriously disappears, the crooked mayor appoints the town drunk Wash Dimsdale (Charles Winninger) to the job. Kent assumes he will be able to continue his dirty dealings unhampered. But Dimsdale unexpectedly takes his new job seriously, sobers up, and sends for Tom Destry (James Stewart), son of a legendary lawman, to be his deputy.
When Destry arrives, his low-key manner and refusal to carry a gun elicit scorn and laughter from Kent and his men. Nevertheless, he is dedicated to making sure Bottleneck observes law and order. Meanwhile, Frenchy doesn’t know what to make of this man who doesn’t immediately fall under her spell.
Director George Marshall benefited tremendously from the screen chemistry between Dietrich and Stewart. Her brash, ferocious performance contrasts with his calm, thoughtful portrayal. While she is an emotional creature given to impulse, he prefers to tell stories to illustrate a point, whittle on a piece of wood, and size up situations and personalities before acting.
Dietrich, who hadn’t made a film in two years, is excellent as the shady dance hall songstress with a hidden sense of decency. Though the role draws on a stereotype, she gives the part both sex appeal and humor. The camera is extremely flattering to her and she’s not afraid to take on the physical requirements of the part.
Dietrich sings two songs, You’ve Got that Look and the more famous See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have, the latter parodied by Madeline Kahn 35 years later in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. Never a great singer, Dietrich had a deep voice and a unique delivery, often dripping with subtext.
Director Marshall blends action, drama, comedy, and music in this atypical western, which was both a critical and a popular hit when first released. Stewart is perfectly cast as Destry and makes his character believable. The film has a running gag about a henpecked husband (Mischa Auer) who loses his pants in a card game and spends the rest of the film trying to retrieve them. Early scenes treat Dimsdale with all the clichés about the happy drunk. But the screenplay also has some sharp dialogue and repartee between Destry and Frenchy that sparkles.
Criterion’s Blu-ray release, featuring 1080p resolution, is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.35:1. The new 4K digital restoration was undertaken by Universal Pictures in collaboration with The Film Foundation, with input by filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. A new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution from a 35-millimeter nitrate composite fine-grain and a 35-millimeter safety composite fine-grain. The picture has a lustrous look with deep, rich blacks and nice gradations of grey. There were three or four points at which the picture froze for a second, which was a bit distracting, but not to the point of ruining enjoyment. Hal Mohr’s cinematography is especially notable in the smoke-filled barroom, a bumpy stagecoach ride (filmed against back screen projection), and during Dietrich’s two songs. In the first, You’ve Got That Look, the camera tracks Frenchy as she sashays from the stage to the barroom floor, moving seductively among the rough and boisterous cowboys. In the second, See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have, she performs from the stage, wearing a glamorous cowgirl outfit with cocked Stetson, studded skirt and vest, and wide-sleeved blouse. Dietrich’s close-ups are carefully composed to make her look beautiful and alluring, with a soft key light illuminating her expressive face.
The soundtrack is English mono LPCM. Optional English subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear and precise throughout, whether it is tipsy Dimsdale’s slurred speech, Dietrich’s slight German accent, or Stewart’s low-key, folksy delivery. In barroom scenes, the mix of cowboy chatter, music, and dialogue convey the unbridled wildness of a lawless town. A key scene in which Frenchy and an angry wife do battle contains the sounds of pummeling, crashing into tables, and bodies hitting the ground. Dietrich’s pre-recorded songs are sharp and stand out from the live microphone pick-ups. Frank Skinner’s score adds excitement to action scenes and enhances suspenseful moments. Some parts of Skinner’s score are reminiscent of his music for Universal’s horror films.
Bonus materials include an interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith; an interview with Donald Dewey, author of James Stewart: A Biography; illustrated audio excerpts from a 1973 oral-history with director George Marshall, conducted by the American Film Institute; a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film; and an insert booklet.
Interview with Imogen Sara Smith – Ms. Smith discusses the blend of genres in Destry Rides Again as well as the unconventional gender roles for James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich.
Interview with George Marshall – The director discusses his early career in motion pictures. He began at Universal in 1913 as an extra, appearing in serials, and serving as property master, assistant cameraman, and director of 2 and 3-reelers until he moved up to directing features. As Marshall speaks, photos of the individuals, scene stills, and posters of the films he mentions are shown, adding a welcome visual element to the audio-only interview.
Interview with Donald Dewey – This is a very interesting overview of James Stewart’s career. The actor was always billed as “James,” not “Jimmy,” because he took acting very seriously. In most of his films, Stewart has at least one monologue. Stewart felt that a monologue was a gift to the actor and a valuable assist in developing a character. Growing up in a small Pennsylvania town, he attended Princeton University to study architecture. After becoming involved with the school’s theater group, he decided to pursue a career in acting, and both of his parents encouraged him. Margaret Sullavan was instrumental in getting Stewart two important film roles, The Mortal Storm and The Shop Around the Corner. He was signed by MGM but was lent out to other studios because MGM didn’t quite know how to feature him. Frank Capra made Stewart prominent in the industry with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Destry Rides Again was originally meant to be a satire of the career of Tom Mix. During World War II, Stewart was part of the Army Air Force, flew 25 missions in Germany, and was once put in charge of 1,000 planes in a bombing mission. After the war, he made 9 westerns with Anthony Mann, which made him a very rich man. Stewart’s characters in these films were violent. He also did several films with Alfred Hitchcock, including Vertigo and Rear Window. Later films in Stewart’s career included The Flight of the Phoenix, Shenandoah, and Firecreek.
Lux Radio Theatre Program – In this episode from November 5, 1945, William Keighley is introduced as the new regular host of the program. James Stewart stars as Tom Destry and Joan Blondell stars as Frenchy. The radio drama contains music, sound effects, and opening narration by Keighley.
Booklet – This accordion-style booklet contains a critical essay by Farran Smith Nehme, a cast list, key behind-the-scenes credits, and details about the digital transfer of the film.
– Dennis Seuling