Destry was shot in the back. Revered as a legendary sheriff, he died with his six-guns in their holsters. What does that tell you about awe and shock? His son Tom (James Stewart) wants to know. What does that tell you about violence in the pursuit of justice? Tom is a pacifist. He doesn’t pack a rod. He believes in diplomacy, shaggy dog stories and the rule of law.

The town of Bottleneck has everything a Western needs, from the hustling saloon owner Kent (Brian Donlevy), his feisty chanteuse and partner in crime Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich), the comic drunk Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger) who is made sheriff after the acting one “disappears” in the course of duty and citizens too wild to tame. Enter the gangly, seemingly naïve Tom D to take up the post of Wash’s deputy. Naturally, he starts off as the laughing stock, only to end up everybody’s friend.

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Destry Rides Again carries the responsibility of being a classic lightly. In 1939, the idea of an unarmed lawman was as risible as a toothless great white and yet Stewart, in his first Western, pulls it of with sack loads of charm and barrels of personality. It turns out Tom is a crack shot, which is a bit of a cheat, yet essential to enhance his reputation amongst the hard nuts (everyone with a pulse in Bottleneck), despite being selective with his deadly aim.

Modern Westerns lean towards pastiche, as if embarrassed to be serious, because there is so much in the back catalogue with which to be compared. Not so here. The pace is fast, the fun frantic, the script (Felix Jackson, Gertrude Purcell, Henry Myers) as witty as a whiplash and the performances are sublime. Dietrich sings See What The Boys In The Back Room Will Have in a surprisingly low register, like a drag artist in a Berlin night club. Frenchy is too sophisticated for this crowd, which is why she sees something different in Tom Destry, something sensitive. She’s known as the real boss of The Last Chance Saloon and plays up to it mercilessly. Kent, with his Clark Gable looks, may not even be her lover. She’s smart, while he is the product of homegrown corruption.

Stewart sparks off Dietrich and rolls with the punches. Twenty three years later he will make The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance for John Ford and you can see the similarities between Ransom Stoddard and Tom Destry. He is never quite the same and yet whoever decided to take the risk with a tall, skinny theatre actor and throw him into the American West, where brutality and anarchy ruled, did cinemagoers a considerable favour.

Reviewed on: 27 May 2008
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Destry Rides Again packshot
Pacifist lawman in the Wild West meets fiesty chanteuse in The Last Chance Saloon.
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Director: George Marshall

Writer: Felix Jackson, Gertrude Purcell, Henry Myers, based on the novel by Max Brand

Starring: James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Brian Denlevy, Mischa Auer, Charles Winninger, Samuel S Hinds, Allen Jenkins, Una Merkel, Jack Carson, Billy Gilbert, Warren Hymer

Year: 1939

Runtime: 94 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

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