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This was a Cottage Classic, of course, seen with redoubtable picture-going chums ms_siobhan and planet_andy. Beforehand, we were 'treated', if that's the right word, to a 20-minute short called The Specialist, which was made in 1966 but set in the 1920s or '30s, and was all about a carpenter who decided to specialise in making outdoor privies. We saw him going about his daily business and serving a range of comic rural customers, while he went on at length about where a privy should best be placed, all the different designs he could offer for the light-hole in the door (moon, star, heart), and the advantages of beams over joists to support the seat. I think it was probably supposed to be a surreal / nostalgic comedy, but it left us all feeling very bemused.

The main feature was a western, which is not a genre I would normally pay money to see, but this one had both James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich in it, which makes rather a difference. Marlene was amazing as 'Frenchy', the sassy, sexy saloon entertainer who has cat-fights with wronged local wives and is in cahoots with the local criminal gang, but (inevitably) falls for the hero and dies to save him at the end (because obviously she is a bit naughty and independent, so can't possibly survive the film). But even she could not compete in the eye-candy stakes with the loveliness of James Stewart in his prime. I found myself declaring to ms_siobhan as we walked out of the cinema that if all men looked like him, I would be totally straight.

The story is not entirely that of your typical western, either. James Stewart's character, the eponymous Destry, plays an apparently very mild-mannered man, who is drafted in to become the town's deputy sheriff. For all that the title makes the film sound as though it might be a sequel, there is no previous film called Destry. Rather, we learn that he is the son of a previous sheriff, whose posthumous reputation has him as the great man who once kept the town in order. The son, though, likes to carve wooden napkin-rings, rambles when he talks and generally acts very much like Stewart's characters in both It's A Wonderful Life (1946) and Harvey (1950). In a town where violence and corruption rule, this soon makes him a laughing-stock, and a terrible disappointment to those who hoped he would be like his father, returned once more.

Destry Junior demonstrates pretty early on that he is in fact extremely good with a gun, but for normal business he refuses to wear one. Instead, he declares that he intends to stick to the letter of the law, locking criminals up and seeing that they are put on trial instead of dealing with them via shoot-outs. So it's basically a parable about what happens if you put an icon of the organised, consensus-based society into a wild and uncivilised context. Needless to say, after a few crises and resolutions, his way wins out in the end - but not before the town's leading criminal elements have staged a climactic shoot-out and paid the price for their own violence.

The race and gender politics are very much of their time - see my summary of Frenchy's narrative arc for an example of that. But, in fairness, the climatic shoot-out scene at the end of the film does get disrupted by an all-female pitch-fork mob, who have basically decided that they've had enough of violence and damned well aren't going to stand by and let their men shoot each other up any more. Ultimately, they aren't really demonstrating agency of their own, so much as symbolising that Destry has won them over with his case for law and order - and the fact that it's the women who take this position while the men are still slinging guns is rampant gender stereotyping of the 'fairer sex' school. But still! An all-female pitch-fork mob. You don't see that every day.

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Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
ms_siobhan
Dec. 2nd, 2013 04:52 pm (UTC)
To be fair James Stewart plays the same kind of character in more or less every film....and it could be argued that Nicholas Cage does his best James Stewart impression in every film he's in too ;-)

It was wonderful to see Ms Dietrich on a big screen - I absolutely adore her but I am still quite bemused with the film about the privvy maker.
strange_complex
Dec. 2nd, 2013 09:22 pm (UTC)
Nicholas Cage is a very poor substitute, I must say. I would not go straight for him! Or indeed go anywhere near him, for that matter.
biascut
Dec. 6th, 2013 11:13 am (UTC)
I *love* Destry Rides Again. I wrote one of my MA essays on it, analysing James Stewart's star persona and arguing that the film works to reinvigorate the Western genre by drawing on Stewart's identity as the "aw shucks", slightly dorky comedian, which is probably still one of the solidest essays I've ever written. (I think one of my earliest LJ entries is me saying, "Can I use the word exogamy? Would everyone know what that means?")

It's also just such a pleasure to watch - the songs are great, and all the acting is great. Nobody is ever still - watch the way Dietrich responds and moves when she's in shot and the men are talking, and it's just brilliant. Love it so much!
strange_complex
Dec. 7th, 2013 09:53 pm (UTC)
Oh, cool! I wish we'd known - we would have let you know it was on. I haven't actually seen any of James Stewart's films before this one, but I certainly have seen enough now to know that he basically plays the same character every time. Assuming that was already true in the 1930s, I can well see your point about how his star image helps to make the film work.

You're right about Marlene Dietrich, too. My mental image of her from the film has her permanently sashaying and shaking her skirts. I know that isn't literally true throughout the film, but it is metaphorically so.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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