Criterion Review: DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939) on 4K-Restored Blu-ray

The title sounds like a sequel: Destry Rides Again! And if you check the filmography of George Marshall, he does indeed have a film called Destry… but it’s a remake of this film which came out 15 years later. No, Destry Rides Again is not a sequel, nor is it related to the 1932 film of the same name, based on the Max Brand novel which also carries that title. In everything but title and the Western tropes it plays on, Destry Rides Again is a unique and original work.

When corrupt saloon boss Kent (Brian Donlevy) and his goons murder the Sheriff of the wild west town of Bottleneck, the corrupt mayor helps hide the crime and ironically appoints the town lush Wash Dimsdale (Charles Winninger) as the new lawman.

But for Wash, a former deputy, it’s the kick he needs to sober up and take charge. His former superior was legendary lawman Tom Destry, now retired, but his son, Thomas Jefferson Destry, Jr. (James Stewart), accepts the call of duty and arrives in Bottleneck — and he’s not at all what anyone expected. A gentleman who arrives holding a parasol, carries no guns, prefers milk to beer, and generally plays the part of an easy pushover — whilst slyly gathering intelligence and assessing the situation at hand.

Despite early hostilities, Destry gets close to Kent’s girlfriend Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich), the beautiful and tough-as-nails singer saloon girl who’s the self-proclaimed real boss of Bottleneck. Dietrich and Stewart have a sizzling good boy/bad girl chemistry here (which reportedly manifested off-screen as well), with each of their interactions a new and different pleasure to watch. Fans of Blazing Saddles will recognize Frenchy as the inspiration for Madeline Kahn’s character, Lilli von Shtupp.

Blazing Saddles (1974)

The film’s most famous sequence takes place in the saloon when Destry and Frenchy first meet. A vicious catfight breaks out between the Frenchy and an angry housewife and ends with Destry dousing them both with water, further enraging the humiliated Frenchy who turns into a one-woman barroom brawl with a chuckling Destry dodging a barrage of bottles and chairs.

Some other memorable scenes include Destry coolheadedly talking himself out of scrapes, surprising a gang of wild carousers with his marksmanship skills, and engaging in a checkers game with the mayor which closely parallels their real-life conflict.

Destry Rides Again is sometimes labeled as a parody or comedic western — I’m not sure I agree with such descriptions, at least from a modern viewpoint, but what’s certainly true is that the film is acknowledging and playing with expectations. Western tropes, gender roles, and ideals of heroism — all are delightfully considered and presented in memorable and novel ways.

The Package

Destry Rides Again arrives on Blu-ray 4/14 from The Criterion Collection as Spine #1024. The packaging is a Criterion-typical transparent 14mm case and a booklet insert featuring an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme and production and transfer notes. The cover and booklet feature illustrations by Marc Aspinall.

The film has a new 4K digital restoration (and remastered soundtrack) from 35mm nitrate sources, created by Universal in collaboration with The Film Foundation, with consultation from Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.

Special Features and Extras

  • “Imogen Sara Smith on Destry Rides Again” (17:17)
    An interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith, who finds the film a unique transitionary film between 30s comedy and 40s western ideals. Smith discusses the film as a comeback vehicle for Marlene Dietrich, a comedic tale that gradually turns serious, a remake of sorts of the title, and a new take on traditional gender roles.
  • Interview with Don Dewey (20:38)
    A new interview with the author of James Stewart: A Biography, contextualizing the film in Stewart’s life and career, including Stewart’s personal history and impressive military career, serious approach to acting, and successful genre-hopping into westerns and Hitchcock thrillers.
  • “George Marshall: Oral History” — audio excerpts of a 1973 AFI interview with director George Marshall, illustrated throughout with related photos, posters, and artwork
  • Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film from 1945, starring James Stewart and Joan Blondell

A/V Out.

Further reading:

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Destry Rides Again — Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.

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