This movie begins with the murder of Sheriff Keogh at the behest of a guy named Kent (Brian Donlevy). The sheriff had been getting too close to the truth about just how Kent is gaining control over the best ranches around town, you see. Kent also controls the local judge, who gets to appoint the new sheriff. The judge appoints a guy named "Wash" Dimsdale, the town drunk, which illustrates how much of a joke law and order is to these people.
Unbeknownst to them, Wash still has some self-respect left. He used to be a deputy for a famous lawman named Tom Destry, and he decides that if he's going to be the sheriff, he's going to do the job right. So he sends for his old boss's son, Tom Destry, Jr. (James Stewart). He figures the son will have all the fire and brimstone the father had, and he'll lick the bad guys into shape in no time.
Kent and his chums aren't so keen on this idea, so they plan to give Destry a warm welcome when he arrives on the stage. But he's not a big, brawling tough guy like they expect -- he's slight, soft-spoken, and drinks milk. Milk! And he has no problem with people laughing at him. Wash is thoroughly disappointed, especially when young Destry announces that he doesn't carry or use guns. So much for Wash's plan to do the job right.
Except Destry's not a coward, a milksop, or a joke. He just happens to think guns aren't the answer to every problem. He sets out to find the truth about Sheriff Keogh's death, enlisting the aid of a sad-sack Russian named Boris but called Callahan (Mischa Auer) after his wife's first husband. He also makes friends with saloon singer Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich), who happens to be Kent's girl. Frenchy likes Destry a lot, though she does more to hinder than help him for a long time.
Eventually, of course, Destry faces down Kent, but not until a couple people he cares about have been killed on Kent's orders. There aren't a lot of surprises in the plot of Destry Rides Again, but the plot isn't what makes me love this film. I chiefly love it for the characters and the humor. Because this is probably the funniest western that is not a spoof of the genre that I have ever seen. It's not actually light-hearted, but it's got lots and lots of comic moments, lines that crack me up, and some nice physical comedy here and there.
The funniest character is Boris/Callahan, who, after literally losing his pants in a card game, mournfully asks his domineering wife (Una Merkel), "How can I learn to be a cowboy if you won't let me gamble?" He gets most of my favorite lines in the whole film, and I quote him a lot.
Tom Destry, Jr. is the sort of unorthodox lawman that we see a lot in later westerns, the one who uses his head instead of his fists and guns. James Stewart is downright lovable in this role, and it's definitely one of my favorite of his movies. Destry has a humorous story for every situation, loves to carve napkin rings, and is a crack shot even though he doesn't like guns.
Marlene Dietrich had been labeled "box office poison" a couple of years earlier, after starring in a series of flops. This film turned her career around, and it's easy to see why audiences embraced her in the role. Frenchy is easy to root for -- she's independent, sassy, and intelligent. In fact, she's one of the most interesting female characters I've seen in a western.
Until this year, this was the only movie I'd ever seen Brian Donlevy in, so I really associate him with this role. He's excellent as the smirking, smarter-than-you-think (but not as smart as he thinks he is) villain, and has a good deal of charm. It's not hard to see why Frenchy stuck with him as long as she did.
Also, I forgot to mention there's a pretty young lady named Janice (Irene Hervey) who arrived on the same stage as Destry. She's sweet, but I tend to forget she's in this until she shows up. That's her with Destry at The End.
Is this movie family friendly? Yes. There's some old-fashioned western violence, with lots of shooting and punching, but no blood to speak of. The saloon girls do wear scanty clothes, and Frenchy's songs do get a little suggestive in a flirty way. There are a couple of kisses, some alcohol use, and so on, but overall it's a very mild film. I would let my kids watch it with no qualms at all.
Like I mentioned, this review is for the Celebration of Classic Hollywood at An Old-Fashioned Girl. Tune in tomorrow for the answers to the game I posted earlier for this event.