1939 gave us an embarrassment of classic movie riches, and one of the gems was Destry Rides Again, a rousing, rollicking western comedy that's just as fresh today as it surely was eight decades ago. James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich sizzle in this rough-and-tumble, fast-and-furious romp about a mild-mannered deputy who tries to clean up a corrupt frontier town without a firearm, and the brassy, bawdy, beautiful saloon singer who stokes his passions and blocks his path. Criterion honors this captivating classic with a brand-new 4K restoration, superior lossless audio, and a handful of high-quality supplements. Destry Rides Again stands as one of the all-time greats, and this top-notch Blu-ray release presents it in the finest possible light. Must Own.
When the Independent Theatre Owners of America famously labeled Marlene Dietrich "box office poison" - along with other future legends like Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Fred Astaire - in 1938, the exotic German-born star took a hiatus from Hollywood and retreated to France to reevaluate her screen career. Months went by with no offers, until one day producer Joe Pasternak called and offered her a role...in a western. Reportedly, Dietrich roared with laughter and said, "Oh no! You must be crazy!"
It did seem like a hare-brained idea. I mean, really... The aloof, refined, and breathtakingly beautiful Marlene Dietrich in a down-and-dirty, rough-and-tumble western? Talk about casting against type! Yet to his everlasting credit, Pasternak persisted and finally persuaded Dietrich to shuck the woman-of-mystery image director Josef von Sternberg had so carefully constructed for her and embrace the down-to-earth character of Frenchy, a bawdy, brash, sexy, and manipulative saloon singer, in Destry Rides Again.
It was, quite possibly, the best decision Dietrich ever made. Not only did the tough, vivacious, uninhibited, outspoken Frenchy better reflect the real Marlene than the stiff, reserved women she previously played, the film - under George Marshall's assured direction - brilliantly combines action, comedy, romance, thrills, and a surprising amount of heart. Destry Rides Again is a rollicking, rootin'-tootin', rip-roaring western that never lets up for a second and keeps us blissfully entertained from start to finish.
Dietrich may get top billing and the lion's share of screen time, but without James Stewart, Destry Rides Again wouldn't be a timeless classic. Pasternak also gambled by casting the boyish, rail-thin, physically awkward actor - who hadn't yet become a full-fledged star - in the title role. Just as Dietrich would be a fish out of water in a western, so too would Stewart, who didn't seem at all to fit the square-jawed image of a macho, imposing, gun-slinging hero.
Which is actually kind of the point. Destry Rides Again is all about dichotomies and flipping a well-worn genre on its buckskin rear. The story, which focuses on a deputy who hates guns and avoids confrontations, and features a knock-down, drag-out, no-holds-barred brawl between two women is the antithesis of a typical western...and that's exactly what makes it so fresh, so enduring, and so dang much fun.
After the honest yet ineffectual sheriff of Bottleneck is gunned down in the Last Chance Saloon, the corrupt Judge Slade (Samuel S. Hinds) and his roguish henchman Kent (Brian Donlevy) name the town drunk, Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger), to be his successor. The crooked duo and their band of thugs know they can run roughshod over the green, bumbling Wash and continue swindling clueless ranchers out of cash and land in rigged backroom poker games. Kent's adoring girlfriend Frenchy (Dietrich), who charms throngs of rowdy, leering admirers with sexy songs and slinky outfits, lures the prey, helps execute the stings, and shares in the spoils.
Wash, though, doesn't want to be a patsy or a pawn. Once he sobers up, the gravity of his situation sinks in and he nobly attempts to rise to the challenge. His first task is hiring a strong deputy who "believes in law and order" and can also protect his hide, and he believes Thomas Jefferson Destry, Jr. (Stewart), whose father was one of the West's toughest sharpshooting sheriffs before he got shot in the back, is the perfect choice. When the skinny, affable, baby-faced Destry arrives, though, he hardly strikes fear in Kent and his gang, especially when they learn he doesn't even carry a gun. Destry believes speaking softly (and firmly) is better than carrying a big stick, or in this case, a couple of six-shooters, but can a pacifist deputy who drinks milk instead of whiskey really tame a lawless western town?
Very loosely based on a Max Brand novel, Destry Rides Again is also an almost unrecognizable remake of a 1932 Tom Mix film. Credit writer Felix Johnson for transforming the tired-and-true tale into something unique and special. The snappy, colorful script plays a huge part in the movie's success, but it's the performances by a first-class cast that really lift this comic western onto a rarefied plane. The delightful Dietrich leads the way with a free-wheeling, natural, and beguiling portrayal. Whether she's wowing a throng of smitten, inebriated cowboys with spirited renditions of "Little Joe, the Wrangler" and "See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have" (which would quickly become one of her signature songs) or trying to claw Una Merkel's eyes out while rolling around with her on the barroom floor in arguably the best and most lengthy cat fight in Hollywood history, Dietrich always commands the screen, all while displaying captivating new facets of her personality.
The brawl with Merkel was shot without stunt doubles, and the two women don't hold back. In Charles Higham's biography of Dietrich, Merkel recalls, "Neither one of us knew what we were doing but we just plunged in and punched and slapped and kicked for all we were worth!...[Dietrich] stepped on my feet with her French heels and the toenails never grew back...I was bruised from head to foot. When it was over, I looked like an old peach, green, with brown spots...She was scarcely bruised at all!" The dust-up ends with Stewart dumping a bucket of water over the writhing pair, producing an indelible image of a drenched, enraged Dietrich wildly brandishing a gun. It's a far cry - and delicious departure - from the impeccably coiffed and gowned diva of only a couple of years before, and audiences of the day lapped it up. Though she's acting in a period setting, Dietrich is dazzlingly contemporary - a tough, self-assured dame who can mix it up with the big boys while remaining alluringly feminine.
She and Stewart make a combustible pair (they reportedly combusted off screen as well), and their chemistry is another spark plug that fuels the movie's success. On his own, though, Stewart crafts a mesmerizing performance. His complete commitment to character and ability to consistently project humanity and warmth in absurd situations make his cartoon hero real, dimensional, and immensely relatable. Destry Rides Again would be released just a couple of months after Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and the one-two punch would catapult Stewart into the stratosphere of stardom.
The supporting cast is priceless. Winninger, who I recently praised to the hilt in the original version of Show Boat (also released by Criterion), is every bit as good here, exuding boundless energy and displaying remarkable versatility. Donlevy and Hinds make perfect heavies, though it's a bit jarring to see Stewart spar with the devious, tobacco-chewing Hinds, who seven years later would famously play his big-hearted, beleaguered dad in It's a Wonderful Life. The always amusing Mischa Auer steals a couple of scenes, while Allen Jenkins, Una Merkel, the priceless Billy Gilbert (who plays the quintessential western bartender to perfection), and a young Jack Carson as a blustery cattle rustler all add spirit and spice and enhance the movie's appeal.
Destry Rides Again joins Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Gunga Din, and many other films as one of the cavalcade of classics released in 1939. Its popularity inspired an almost shot-for-shot remake in 1954 with Audie Murphy (also directed by Marshall) and a successful 1959 Broadway musical with Andy Griffith and Dolores Gray. Yet the original stands apart. Destry Rides Again spoofs westerns while embracing the genre's core themes, and the masterful manner in which it strikes that delicate balance while providing terrific entertainment makes it an important, enduring, and utterly lovable film.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Destry Rides Again arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard Criterion case. A 12-page fold-out booklet featuring an essay by film writer Farran Smith Nehme, cast and crew listings, and transfer notes (but, sadly, no photos) is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Criterion consistently knocks the ball out of the park with their classic movie transfers, but this home run is more impressive than most. The liner notes state, "This new 4K digital restoration was undertaken by Universal Pictures in collaboration with The Film Foundation, with special consultation by filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. A new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution from a 35 mm nitrate composite fine-grain and a 35 mm safety composite fine-grain." That 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer dazzles the eye from start to finish, and makes me wish Scorsese and Spielberg could be involved in every classic movie restoration.
First and foremost, the image is spectacularly film-like. Grain is evident, but so beautifully resolved it rarely intrudes. Breathtaking clarity and exceptional contrast help the picture pop and showcase the fine details of Dietrich's gaudy Vera West gowns. Inky blacks, bright whites, and wonderfully varied grays heighten depth and supply subtle contours, while very good shadow delineation keeps crush at bay. Few stars work a close-up better than Dietrich, and there are plenty of stunning specimens here. Stewart's tight shots are also razor sharp, but the older actors with more weathered faces make us really appreciate the enhanced clarity of this transfer and the underrated cinematography of Hal Mohr.
Only a few faint scratches dot the pristine print, and no digital anomalies could be detected. Without question, Destry Rides Again has never looked better, making an upgrade essential for any aficionado of the film.
According to the liner notes, "the original monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35 mm nitrate composite fine-grain," and the resulting LPCM transfer produces clear, balanced, vibrant audio. A wide dynamic scale embraces Frank Skinner's rousing score, and sonic accents like gunfire and shattering glass are crisp and distinct. Dietrich's throaty vocals sound rich and full, and all the cacophonous saloon atmospherics complement the frenetic action without overwhelming it. Dialogue is well prioritized and easy to comprehend, distortion is absent, and any age-related hiss, pops, or crackle have been meticulously erased. Like musicals, westerns require high-quality audio tracks to fully immerse the audience in the cinematic environment, and because it contains elements of both genres, Destry Rides Again faces double the challenges. Thankfully, Criterion's track delivers across the board and really heightens the impact of this beloved vintage film.
A few quality extras enhance this Criterion release.
Featurette: "Imogen Sara Smith on Destry Rides Again" (HD, 17 minutes) - The film historian analyzes the "gender-bending and genre-bending" comedy-western, focusing on Dietrich's change-of-pace role, Stewart's emergence as a major star, the contributions of producer Joe Pasternak, and the European influences and pacifist themes that permeate the movie. Smith also salutes the delightful work of supporting player Mischa Auer in this breezy, informative piece.
George Marshall Oral History (19 minutes) - The director recalls his start in movies as an extra, his apprenticeship as a cameraman and assistant director, and his early silent pictures in this 1973 archival interview. (Unfortunately, Destry Rides Again only gets a passing mention.) Scads of rare photos from Marshall's films and portraits of the executives, craftsmen, and stars with whom he worked enhance this interesting first-hand reminiscence from one of Hollywood's lesser known directors.
Featurette: "Donald Dewey on James Stewart" (HD, 21 minutes) - Stewart's biographer provides an absorbing overview of the actor's life and career, beginning with his upbringing and early days in Hollywood, and following through Destry Rides Again, The Philadelphia Story, his admirable World War II service, and his darker post-war performances in movies directed by Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock. Dewey alludes to Stewart's romances with Norma Shearer, Olivia de Havilland, and Dinah Shore, and notes his fascination with Dietrich, who gave him "the single most important instruction" regarding screen acting he ever received. Film clips and photos augment this top-notch featurette that every Stewart fan will enjoy.
Vintage Radio Adaptation (54 minutes) - On November 5, 1945, James Stewart reprised the role of Destry on a Lux Radio Theater broadcast, opposite Joan Blondell as Frenchy. Unfortunately, Blondell is no Dietrich, and Stewart, who recently returned from three years of service in World War II, sounds too mature for the boyish Destry. This truncated adaptation only gives us a few bars of one song, greatly reduces Frenchy's part, and lacks the energy and much of the humor of the film. Some movies translate better than others to the audio medium, and sadly, Destry Rides Again loses a lot in the translation.
One of the all-time best western comedies, Destry Rides Again is rootin' tootin' fun from beginning to end. James Stewart shines as a mild-mannered, anti-gun deputy who tangles with Marlene Dietrich's tough, sassy saloon chanteuse while trying to root out corruption in a lawless frontier town. A snappy script, energetic direction, and colorful performances combine to create a captivating film that's just as entertaining today as it was more than 80 years ago. Laughs, thrills, and more than a little emotion distinguish this 1939 classic, which Criterion salutes with a brand-new, eye-popping 4K restoration, superior lossless audio, and a nice array of absorbing supplements. Not just the boys in the back room, but every classic movie fan will want to add this timeless gem to their collection. Must Own.