Destry Saddled Up, Blazing the Way for Brooks

I am an unabashed fan of the movie “Blazing Saddles”. When it came out in 1974, I was a poor teenager about to go to college and I actually paid real money to see it about 15 times that summer. I’m sure I will review it at some point, but that is almost superfluous, just about everybody likes the film at least to a certain degree, if not evangelically like me.

The film spoofs many Hollywood westerns, and a whole lot of other things, and I could recite about fifty lines from it off the top of my head right now. But about twenty years after my first viewing of it, I watched “Destry Rides Again” for the first time and it almost made me appreciate “Blazing Saddles” just a little bit less, because “Destry” is the virtual template for the Mel Brooks film.

Made in 1939, it starred Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich in the story of a crooked western town and the man who cleaned it up. 1939 was one of the greatest years in film history, the 1940 Academy Award Best Picture list reflecting that. Among the ten nominees were classics like “Gone With The Wind”, “The Wizard Of Oz”, “Mister Smith Goes to Washington” (also Jimmy Stewart), “Wuthering Heights”, “Ninotchka”….well, just look up the full list, staggering.

“Ninotchka” (“Garbo Laughs!!!”) is the rarest of birds, a comedy that was nominated. Not quite making the stunning list, but one of the top grossing movies of the year, was the comic western “Destry Rides Again”, and it is very easy to see why people flocked to see it. A standard western story turned on its ear and directed by the ever reliable George Marshall, it is 95 minutes of pure delight.

In what was kind of a standard thing for the time, you have to wait a bit to see the star of the movie, in this case quite a while. The 25 minute opening scene in the saloon in the fictional town of Bottleneck probably goes on a tad bit too long, but it sets the scene and introduces us to all of the characters, excepting Stewart’s Tom Destry Jr.

The tavern, and the town, is run by the menacing Kent (Brian Dunlevy), who uses a crooked card game to take land from simple town folk who lose. He is aided by his girlfriend and dance hall queen Frenchy, perfectly played by Dietrich. She is of, course, tough and sassy in dealing with the roughnecks and drunks who inhabit the tavern.

Kent has the town’s sheriff killed when he gets too suspicious about the validity of the poker game. The sleazy, crooked mayor Hiram J. Slade (Samuel S. Hinds) then appoints the comically drunken Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger) to the post. But Dimsdale swears off the booze and sends off for Destry to become his deputy. Dimsdale had worked under legendary lawman Destry the senior.

But young Destry proves to be an initial disappointment. He emerges from the stagecoach in which he arrives in town on holding a parasol for a lady who he rode into town with, along with her husband. Destry also does not carry a gun, and promptly is ushered into the saloon, where he orders a glass of milk. Amidst much ridicule, he is handed a bucket and mop to “clean up the town”.

While he doesn’t carry a gun, he can use one, expertly, which he shows quickly when he breaks up a gang of gunmen and shows off his crack shooting, emasculating the bunch, and defusing the situation. But henceforth he returns to less conventional ways of taming the town, often with hysterical, low-key homespun tales. These are several times told while he engages in his hobby of whittling napkin rings.

Stewart was brilliant dozens of times, but never better than this. He is funny, and cool, and engaging, and appealing, and of course soon Frenchy is smitten. The chemistry between the two crackles (they had an affair during the shoot). But Destry at first is not reciprocating and she becomes furious and vows to help bring him down. Marlene Dietrich was at a down period when she took the role, which was quite different than anything she had done, and she fits the part like a glove.

Dietrich might to modern audiences seem quite an anomaly as a major star of the era. With a prominent German accent and an even more prominent speech impediment, it seems that even with her unconventional beauty it is perhaps surprising she would rise to the heights she did. As the dance hall queen she has a couple of musical numbers, now classics, including “She What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have” and “You’ve Got That Look”. She really doesn’t have much of a voice, but she damn well sure can PERFORM. (If you have seen “Blazing Saddles”, Madeline Kahn’s sendoff of Frenchy is perfection.)

The rest of the plot is no surprise. Destry gets suspicious of what happened to the previous sheriff, and the land grab card game, and we go from there. But the ride is compelling and extremely hilarious. In addition to Destry’s witty homilies, there are plenty of laughs from a brilliant supporting cast.

An aside here. If you are not really familiar with movies of this period, first of all you should be. Secondly one of the many things that make the films great are the supporting players. They were overworked, so they become familiar faces, and the great ones enliven numerous films.

Some of the best pepper this film. Among them Mischa Auer with a hysterical turn as Boris, perhaps the most henpecked man ever, who is constantly having his pants stolen by his wife (Una Merkel, always great, and here, part of one of cinemas greatest catfights with Dietrich) and others. Hind’s greasy Mayor is pitch perfect. Dunlevy makes hating him easy, Winninger is a hoot. It goes on and on.

The film looks great, shot by Hal Mohr, who had already won an Oscar and would win another. The saloon scenes are fantastic and Mohr was a favorite of Dietrich’s and you can see why she would like the way that she was captured by the brilliant cinematographer.

It is very interesting that basically Brook’s “Blazing Saddles” spoofed the western genre, but his biggest inspiration was a film that was a brilliant spoof itself. “Destry Rides Again” can be enjoyed on two levels. On its own, and as a guidepost to one of the classic comedies of a later generation. You’ll have a blast, and the song “Little Joe” will be stuck in your head for quite a while.