Tom Destry Jr.: Oh, I think I’ll stick around. Y’know, I had a friend once used to collect postage stamps. He always said the one good thing about a postage stamp: it always sticks to one thing ’til it gets there, y’know? I’m sorta like that too.
I’ve seen quite a few Westerns and although I like them, I wouldn’t say they were my favourite genre. This one however I really enjoyed and is probably my favourite. I love James Stewart which explains part of it, but I really liked the story, the other cast members, and how the film played out.
The corrupt town of Bottleneck is effectively run by Kent the saloon owner (Brian Donlevy) who rigs poker games and kills Keogh, the town’s sheriff when he asks too many questions. Cue the crooked mayor/judge Slade appointing the town drunk Washington “Wash” Dimsdale (Charles Winniger) as the new sheriff assuming he will be easy to control and people could get away quite literally with murder. Kent and Slade didn’t count on Dinsdale cleaning up his act, and calling on Tom Destry Jr. (James Stewart) to be his new deputy, the son of the famous lawman Tom Destry. Destry Sr. was a renowned crack shot, but although Destry Jr. is also a crack shot, his methods of law enforcement bewilder “Wash” and the other residents. Together Destry and “Wash” try to make Bottleneck respectable and law abiding. Frenchy the saloon singer (Marlene Dietrich) is Kent’s girl, and she plays a pivotal role in the story.
James Stewart is the perfect Destry Jr, as his laidback approach and his refusal to carry a gun contrasts with the violence of Kent and the other Bottleneck residents. His arrival in the town, helping a lady out of the stagecoach carrying a parasol opens him up to ridicule, as does his hobby of carving napkin rings, but he soon shows he’s a force to be reckoned with and shouldn’t be underestimated. Although he walks around unarmed with everyone doubting him, he demonstrates his skill with a gun and in enforcing the law which starts to earn him some respect from others. Destry is very likeable (in my opinion anyway) as he sticks to his beliefs in how to deal with the situation and pursues Kent’s gang to bring them to justice for the death of Sheriff Keogh. His many anecdotes about ‘fellas he once knew’ are amusing but also tell people something about Destry and why he acts like he does, and teaches them something in the process.
Dietrich is also fab as Frenchy, in the musical numbers, in the saloon with other men, with Kent in rigging poker games, and also as the softer person Destry falls for. I guess she is a ‘tart with a heart’, with her allegiance to Kent and Destry proving crucial to the story. Her fight with Mrs Callahan (Una Merkel) is one of the memorable scenes of the film, there really was no holding back from either of them! Destry ends it but he then faces the wrath of Frenchy! As her and Destry get to know each other there is a growing fondness, and Dietrich and Stewart have excellent chemistry and make it truly believable. It’s nowhere near a perfect relationship, but their last scene (SPOILER) as he holds her in his arms after she’s been shot was very poignant.
The supporting cast including Winniger, Merkel, and ‘Mr Callahan’ (Mischa Auer) added comic moments. The relationship between Destry and ‘Wash’ was particularly touching as Destry helped make “Wash” a better person and a better sheriff. Their last scene after “Wash” was (SPOILER) shot in the back like Destry’s father was very moving, as Destry sought to stop Kent and his gang once and for all. The showdown between Kent and Destry (and their respective allies) starts as a traditional shoot out, but then as the women of the town unite, it becomes much more chaotic and makes it humorous (until Frenchy dies anyway…).
The ending of the film is satisfying, despite it not being perfectly happy with Frenchy dying. Destry walking down the street with a young boy, with the boy copying Destry is heartwarming as it shows rather than being ridiculed as when he first came, Destry is now someone people look up to. There was added poignancy when a girl sings Frenchy’s song ‘Little Joe’, which for me ended the film on a perfect note.
Overall, out of all the Westerns I’ve seen this is probably my favourite. James Stewart is my favourite actor so I may be biased, but I do think it’s impossible not to like, admire, and respect his character and enjoy the film. I did think the film took a while to get going, but this set the scene for when Destry arrives so you know the massive extent of lawlessness he’s facing. The cast is super, the story engaging, and full of little twists and comedy that make this film a true pleasure to watch.