When I first heard that James Stewart was the lead actor in a western in the early part of his career of the 1930s, I was genuinely shocked that the wholesome every-man would play such a rough and tumble role. I was even more surprised to learn that Stewart plays a deputy sheriff who refuses to use his guns and wins the towns people over with law and order instead of barbarianism, despite everyone initially thinking he’s crazy.
In other words, Jimmy Stewart is still playing the wholesome every-man in the unlawful old west. And the strange thing is that he makes it work.
“Destry Rides Again” is set in the old west town of Bottleneck, which is run by a corrupt mayor and a power couple who run the saloon that has a vice grip on the local farmers. The attractive German dance hall queen named Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) lures in the boys, and her boyfriend Kent (Brian Donlevy) runs a rigged poker game that makes the farmers gamble away their land and property until it all belongs to Kent. The sheriff catches on to their game and gets shot in the back for his troubles. The town elects a new sheriff jokingly, the town drunk Wash Dimsdale (Charles Winninger). But much to the shock of the townsfolk (and me), Wash sets down the bottle and gives a grand speech about how he will clean up Bottleneck and make it a town worth living in.
Wash declares that he’ll do it by bringing in the son of the famous gunslinger, Destry and make him his new deputy. But, as everyone quickly finds out, Destry Jr. (Jimmy Stewart) is not like his father. He’s quiet, reserved and wants to solve every problem peacefully instead of with more violence. He walks around town without wearing any guns on him and tells lots of stories about people he knew and the kind of trouble they got into. But he shares a massive similarity to his father – he’s damn good at his job.
The more I thought about the setup for “Destry Rides Again,” the more I realize that it has a lot in common with “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” – an official is killed in an unruly region, Jimmy Stewart is praised for being the young up-and-coming and is sent in to replace the official, but his wide-eyed innocence makes everyone see him as little more than a child wearing his dad’s boots. Just replace the Senate from “Mr. Smith” with the old west and you’ve got “Destry Rides Again.” It gets even weirder when you realize both films came out the same year, and the leading female had top billing over Jimmy Stewart in each movie, mostly because Jean Arthur and Marlene Dietrich were bigger stars than Stewart at the time.
Outside of Jimmy Stewart’s lovable performance as Destry Jr., I adore this movies’ charm and atmosphere. It takes the time to flesh out everybody in this town while having a sense of humor about everything. From the odd yet quirky Boris Callahan (Mischa Auer) to the heart-broken and homeless Claggett family, there is no shortage of colorful characters here. Yet even this its great slapstick comedy and wordplay, the film still finds time to have impactful and emotional scenes, the best one being the aforementioned fiery speech from the new sheriff to rile up the townsfolk.
Overall, I was extremely surprised by how much fun I had with “Destry Rides Again.” It is a quirky western that is loaded with outstanding performances and a great atmosphere. Jimmy Stewart is his usual lovable self that never seems to grow old or tiresome and adds a great deal of heart and strength to this movie. I think the similarities to “Mr. Smith” make this film even stronger, making this one of the most memorable westerns I’ve ever seen.
Final Grade: A-