Destry Rides Again is one of James Stewart’s most overlooked films. Perhaps it’s because 1939 was awash with spectacular films, including Stewart’s own beloved turn in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Or maybe because Stewart made so many films with some of our greatest directors—Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Mann, and John Ford.
It’s inevitable that even some great films will be forgotten in a career as long and varied as Stewart’s.
But Stewart is never more charming than as Tom Destry, Junior.
And he’s surprisingly sexy.
Our tale begins in Bottleneck, a corrupt frontier town run by saloon owner Kent (Brian Donlevy). The town is filled with drunks and gamblers, and disputes are settled with guns rather than the law. That’s the way Kent likes it, for he and his girl Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) are running crooked card games to cheat the few decent people in Bottleneck out of their homes.
Kent wants to buy up all the surrounding land so that he can make a fortune by charging cowboys herding cattle back and forth across the West.
Kent murders the local sheriff in cold blood when he tries to enforce the law, and he and the equally corrupt mayor name the town drunk as the new sheriff, confident he’ll never be sober enough to interfere with their affairs.
But the drunk, Washington Dimsdale, surprises them all by swearing off booze and attempting to clean up the town’s corruption. He remembers when Tom Destry was sheriff, the toughest man alive and the only one who could keep Bottleneck in order. Destry is long dead, shot in the back, but Dimsdale summons his son, Tom Jr., to serve as his deputy.
Dimsdale warns the town that when Destry arrives, things are going to be different.
He’s right, but not in the way he believes.
For the younger Tom Destry (Stewart) is not what anyone expects. He’s a tall, skinny string bean.
He carves napkin rings.
And he doesn’t carry a gun.
The townsfolk roar with laughter and Kent and the mayor exchange a smile—subduing this Destry character is going to be even easier than the drunken sheriff.
But there’s a method to Destry’s madness. He knows that he and the sheriff can’t shoot their way to justice against a whole saloon full of gunslingers.
He’s got his own ways of doing things—such as when Frenchy and another woman get into a catfight and he calmly pours water over them. This sends Frenchy into a rage and she tries to tear a strip of skin from Destry while he holds her at bay in one of the film’s funniest scenes.
When Dimsdale asks why Destry doesn’t carry a gun, Destry tells him that his father was the best gunslinger in the West, but that didn’t do him any good when outlaws shot him in the back.
Destry’s got a calm but calculating manner. He’s not the silly rube he wants the outlaws to believe him to be.
You’ll have to find out for yourself how he outsmarts the whole corrupt town and brings it to justice—and how he turns Frenchy’s feelings from loathing to love.
You won’t be disappointed.