Among the most entertaining of non-”auteur” star vehicles——made at a time when stars often were not only good actors but unique personalities as well——is the first pairing of America’s innocent James Stewart (as he was always billed in pictures, never Jimmy) and Europe’s worldly Marlene Dietrich, out in the Wild West of 1939’s Destry Rides Again (available on DVD).
The picture is a perfect example of what made the old studio star system in its heyday work so well: Both stars’ parts are expertly styled for what these actors can do best, and because their innate personas have such appeal and scope, the characters achieve an added dimension of mythic size which could never be attained with just good actors.
It was Stewart’s first of about two dozen Westerns——he rivaled only John Wayne for hit cowboy pictures throughout the ‘50s and early ‘60s (Wayne’s first hit western, John Ford’s Stagecoach, was also released in 1939)——and set a particular image of him that he and others exploited for the rest of his career: the book-reading, non-violent Eastern dude in the West who must learn to use a gun when necessary. Western master Ford cast Stewart in exactly that same role twenty-three years later for what would turn out to be the actor’s (and the director’s) last great Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
For Dietrich, on the other hand, Destry was a huge change of image——done with that clearly in mind: Marlene, after several successes with director-discoverer-mentor-lover Josef von Sternberg in the early ‘30s, had toward the end of the decade become “box-office poison” to exhibitors –the somewhat distant pedestal Sternberg had put her on having lost its allure with Depression audiences. Destry ripped her right off any pedestal and, interestingly, it was Sternberg himself who convinced her to take the role of a tough, brawling, saloon chanteuse/woman of easy virtue.
The extended cat-fight between Dietrich and Una Merkel is justly famous, and the novelty song Marlene sings, “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” (“And give them the poison they name…”), became a popular standard throughout the rest of her career. I saw her sing it marvelously at a concert in Denver thirty-three years later. Directed by veteran Hollywood journeyman George Marshall, the film is unadorned, straightforward, unpretentiously made and surely Marshall’s best movie of about four hundred he did.
Marlene and Jimmy had a blazing affair during the shooting and the electricity is noticeable. Dietrich told me that during one love scene Stewart’s “interest” in her became so “apparent” that director Marshall called an early lunch, at the same time wagging his index finger reproachfully at the actor, “Jimmy…” And Orson Welles mentioned once that he had taken Marlene to have an abortion after Stewart had got her pregnant. The result of their passion is a charming, extremely likeable movie, with a touching conclusion.