Monday, January 16, 2017

George Marshall | Destry Rides Again

the end of evil
by Douglas Messerli

Felix Jackson, Henry Myers, and Gertrude Purcell (screenplay, based on the novel by Max Brand), George Marshall (director) Destry Rides Again / 1939

The western town of Bottleneck is a corrupt town, ruled over by saloon owner Kent (Brian Donlevy), his lover, singer and swindler Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich), and the tobacco-chewing mayor, Judge Slade (Samuel S. Hinds). 
     Forget the fact that the former New Orleans-born “Frenchy” speaks with Dietrich’s heavy German accent and sings songs such as “See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have” (with wonderful lyrics by Frank Loesser) that might be more at home in a cabaret skit, or that Kent’s huge saloon is, as film critic Daniel Eagan describes it, “filled with more customers than most frontier towns had as residents”; forget that one of the regular gamblers is a henpecked Russian named Boris Callahan (Mischa Auer), or that the Sheriff (Joe King) disappears “on vacation” immediately after his very first scene. The evil trio is right out of the kind of two-reelers (including episodes of The Perils of Pauline) that director George Marshall had filmed in the past, and this is a 1939 feature that was intended, in part, to save Dietrich’s career: it wasn’t ever intended to be “believable.”
     And what a lark the mythical movie tale truly is, although it begins with a serious swindle, wherein, by spilling coffee over a winning gambler, Dietrich helps to make sure he loses, granting Kent the rights to a farm through which all nearly all the cattleman and their cows must cross. Kent plans to charge a fee for every head and make a fortune. Drinks are on the house!
     To replace Sherriff Keogh, the Mayor appoints the town drunk, “Wash” Dimsdale (Charles Winninger), believing that by simply threatening to withhold a shot of whiskey, they can control him.
     What he doesn’t know is that Dimsdale used to be the deputy for the noted gunman Destry, and when the drunk wakes up to the fact that he has actually been named the new sheriff, he immediately goes sober without a tremor, calling in Destry’s son, Thomas Jefferson Destry (James Stewart) to be his assistant.
         It takes nearly half the movie for Destry’s coach to reach Bottleneck, and in the meantime Marshall and his writers show off Dietrich’s singing and yodeling talents and create a number of backstories, including the Claggett’s standoff with Kent and his gang and the strange relationship between Callahan and Lily Belle (Una Merkel), his wife, who, after Callahan loses his pants by gambling, has a down-and-out dirty cat fight with Frenchy.

         By the time the coach reaches this isolated village, Destry has already won us over with this easy story-telling and aphorisms, and Stewart waltzes into his genial role with all the ease of his later character Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey. Although he’s evidently a master gun shooter, it turns the new deputy is also a pacifist (how I wish he might have been married to the Quaker wife of the High Noon sheriff played by Gary Cooper), and the townsfolk first glimpse of him is with a parasol and birdcage as he helps visitor Janice Tyndall (Irene Hervey) alight [the accompanying picture is of Andy Griffith in the 1959 Broadway musical version of the film]. 
     At the saloon later that afternoon he even has the temerity to order up a glass of milk! If you’ve seen that comic trope before, this is where it all began.
       Yet, hardly a day has passed and Destry has out-talked and out-witted half of the town, promised real justice to the Claggetts (having secretly called in a district judge instead of the local mayor to hear their case), and peaked the romantic interest of Frenchy by half-complementing her face: “I'll bet you've got kind of a lovely face under all that paint, huh? Why don't you wipe it off someday and have a good look—and figure out how you can live up to it.” As Frenchy’s black maid comments, “That man has personality.” 
     Told to get out town, Destry blithely responds:

                  Tom Destry Jr.: Oh, I think I'll stick around. Y'know, 
                      I had a friend once used to collect postage stamps. He 
                      always said the one good thing about a postage stamp: 
                      it always sticks to one thing 'til it gets there, y'know? 
                      I'm sorta like that too.

       Of course, we all know it’s not going to be quite that easy, and when, enlisting the help of Callahan, they track down Keogh’s dead body, Kent and his gang threaten to endanger nearly all of the town’s citizens. And we just know that Destry will be forced to put on his holster and pop out those guns. 
       In the inevitable shootout with the bad guys, Frenchy gets killed in the crossfire, dying in the arms of her new would-be lover. Yet order has been maintained, and the audience can go home knowing that like Tombstone, Bottleneck has now been civilized—even if we wince a little on our way with the knowledge that, without those gilded saloon hall and its  singing wonder, it will be an awfully boring place.
       What Marshall’s comic treatment of the Western on the verge of World War II reveals— particularly by his so delaying his “tonic”—is that good and civilized men and women really have very little to do with the genre. The real excitement of Westerns has everything to do with the evil geniuses and their lusty women as they plot their way to rake in the money or just plain bollix up the plans of those who might desire equality and fairness. High Noon’s Hadleyville would never have been heard of if the evil gunman Frank Miller hadn’t been determined to kill those good folk’s sheriff. 
     Destry may certainly be said to have personality, but I fear, if he truly sticks to this community, he may end a bit like Andy Griffith’s Mayberry sheriff, mostly fishing and whittling. This wonderful film did, in fact, revert Dietrich’s “poison pill” reputation, and she went on to perform in numerous films, whereas the far more romantic and ethereal Greta Garbo, disappeared from the screen forever. The same year as Destry James Stewart went on to Washington. Perhaps, given the predilections of our new national leaders, even Westerns will suddenly come back into vogue, just as film musicals have.

Los Angeles, January 16, 2017

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