Here's what inevitably happens. I share a movie with a friend or a loved one. Something I think they'll really like but probably have not seen. They love it, and I tell them "That was one of my Dad's favorite movies."

So here are some of those movies, my memories and thoughts, and what made them my Dad's favorites.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


1939 was a banner year in popular culture. “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz” top an astonishing list of admired and timeless movies from that year. Radio was at the peak of its popularity, and Batman debuted in Detective Comics # 27.

In 1939, the major Hollywood studios seemed to simultaneously decide that the western genre, long relegated to “B” movie status, was a proper vehicle for “A” list directors, stars, and budgets. Warner Brothers put James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in “The Oklahoma Kid” and Errol Flynn in “Dodge City.” Twentieth Century Fox cast Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda in “Jesse James,” and placed John Ford at the helm of “Drums Along the Mohawk,” also with Fonda. Paramount put a huge budget behind Cecil B. DeMille’s “Union Pacific,” with Barbara Stanwick and Joel McCrea, and released “Geronimo,” the inspiration for the famous mid-air paratrooper yell from World War II. RKO got into the action with “Allegheny Uprising,” and United Artists released Walter Wanger and John Ford’s production of “Stagecoach,” which would launch John Wayne into super stardom. And then, from Universal Studios, there was “Destry Rides Again,” an “A” western strong on comedy and character.

More than any of the other films of that year, “Destry Rides Again” borrows heavily from the formula of the “B” westerns. Heavy on action and stunt work, these low budget, quickly shot movies were a mainstay of young and old alike, and featured stars such as Ken Maynard, Bob Steele, William Boyd, Johnny Mack Brown, Dick Foran, Tim Holt, and singing cowboys Gene Autry and Roy Rogers as straight-laced, square-jawed heroes. They are the movies my Dad grew up on.

There is much in “Destry,” that harkens to the familiar “B” western format - the corrupt town, the land-grabbing villain, the treacherous barmaid, the comic side-kick, the musical interludes, and the hero come to clean up the town. But it’s the variations on the familiar themes that make the movie so interesting, vital and fun

The depth and density of the corruption of Bottleneck, the setting of the movie, is almost unprecedented. It’s a palpable presence in the town’s saloon, overcrowded with riotous, unsavory extras. The urbane and unctuous saloon owner (Brian Donlevy), Frenchy, the saloon singer and hostess (Marlene Dietrich) and the sleazy, tobacco-chewing judge and mayor (Samuel S. Hinds) are all in on the illegal shenanigans. The threat is heightened by the caliber of the actors portraying these villains. And there has certainly never been a duplicitous barmaid that looked or sounded anything like Marlene Dietrich.

But the real break with tradition here is the character of Thomas Jefferson Destry, the hero with a reputation and a pedigree, brought in to save the day by the ineffective town drunk the villains have appointed sheriff. Destry is anything but what his reputation and western tradition would suggest. He arrives in town and is an immediate if unflappable laughing stock, much to the sheriff’s chagrin.

Gangly, mild-mannered, folksy, avoiding confrontation, lapsing into homespun anecdotes about probably apocryphal friends, carving napkin-rings, and most astonishingly, refusing to carry guns, Destry is unlike any western hero before.

But there is a method and a philosophy to Destry’s eccentricities …

… and as played by James Stewart, a hidden strength to the character, and a dangerous edge he keeps hidden until needed, a side of his character we see more often in Stewart’s more mature performances for Anthony Mann and John Ford later in his career.

Although others may remember Marlene Dietrich famously performing “See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have,” I think it is the character of Destry that surprised and delighted my Dad, and made this one of his favorite movies. And the scene he remembered the most was not the often remembered “cat fight” between Dietrich and Una Merkle, but the aftermath when Destry incurs Frenchy’s ire.

1939 was also a big year for Stewart with five films in release. Just three years after his first film role, he begins the year as an almost unknown, recognized for his ensemble performance in Frank Capra’s “You Can’t Take It With You” the previous year, and ends it as a full fledged star, nominated for an Academy Award for his performance of Jefferson Smith in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” It is interesting to note that Stewart took second billing to his female co-stars in each of his 1939 films, and would not receive top billing until “No Time For Comedy” in 1941.

Buy Destry Rides Again at

© 2009 Edward Bowen

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© 2009 Edward Bowen