Destry Rides Again was James Stewart’s first western, a genre he did not return to again for over a decade. In 1950 he stared in Broken Arrow and Winchester ‘73, which sparked a series of westerns with Anthony Mann that changed Stewart’s image to something a bit darker and more psychological, paving the way for his later roles in films like Vertigo.
Destry Rides Again is an OK western, but a bit too comedic and silly for its own good. It came out the same year as Stagecoach, which is a much better film. Stewart plays a sort of non-violent official who comes to this town to bring law and order, but doesn’t carry a gun. Through the course of the film he has to become violent. By the end it’s trying to be a more serious western, but the 70 minutes before the third act has a lot of comedic stuff and some musical numbers by Marlene Dietrich—tonally, it’s all over the place and never quite gels.
That said, both Stewart and Dietrich are great in it, as you would expect. She plays the dancehall queen from the local saloon, and is more or less the co-lead. Dietrich’s Hollywood career was on the rocks at this point. She had done a much of films with Josef von Sternberg, who had discovered her, but the last couple were not successful. Destry Rides Again was kind of a comeback film for her. Apparently she took it quite seriously, even learning how to roll cigarettes the way they did back then.
You can tell that at this point Stewart was not yet comfortable in this genre. At the time, he was still doing screwball comedies and stuff in between screwball and serious like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It’s easy to see why he waited to return to westerns until much later.
Destry Rides Again doesn’t have the depth or poetic quality of a John Ford movie, but it’s well-shot and enjoyable, especially in this new 4K restoration. I wouldn’t recommend it as your first western or anything like that, but as it’s a Criterion, there are quite a few interesting extras. First off, there are new interviews with critic Imogen Sara Smith and Stewart biographer Donald Dewey, plus an essay by critic FarranSmith Nehme. A Lux Radio Theatre version, also with Stewart but with John Blondell in the salon-girl role and illustrated audio excepts from a 1973 interview with director George Marshall at the American Film Institute round out the package.