DESTRY RIDES AGAIN is set in the hopelessly corrupt little town of Bottleneck, presided over as it is by the ruthless land-grabber and card shark Kent (Brian Donlevy) and his sexy partner-in-crime Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich). Sheriffs don't last long in this town, particularly since Mayor Slade (Samuel S. Hinds) is in cahoots with Kent and his flock of flunkies. After doing away with Sheriff Keyhole, Slade appoints the hapless town drunk, Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger), to be the new Sheriff. 'Wash' cleans up his act and hopes to re-enact the past glory he had under his boss Sheriff Destry, by calling in Destry's son Tom (James Stewart) to be his deputy. To his horror, Tom is a mild-mannered kind of guy, tall and gangling but with a tendency to lapse into little stories of people he knows. Even worse, Tom has an aversion to guns (his father having been shot in the back in spite of being well-known for going about guns a-blazing) and takes out his frustrations by carving, of all things, napkin rings. It doesn't seem likely that 'Wash' is going to clean up Bottleneck with a deputy like Tom, but clean it up they will, with the aid of Frenchy, who falls quickly for Tom, and henpecked comic wannabe cowboy Boris (Mischa Auer) who is appointed second deputy.
The film is truly a great ride from beginning to end, thoroughly engaging, funny, and yet touching as well. You're never quite sure what to expect, but whatever it is, you're never disappointed. First of all, you don't get stock characters--Tom Destry is as atypical a Western hero as you can get, as he wanders down the streets of Bottleneck carving napkin rings and using charm instead of guns (most of the time!) to get things done his way. Secondly, as can be expected from a hero who doesn't believe in guns, there aren't all that many scenes of gunplay. Oh sure, there's a pretty cool shoot-out at the end, but that's quickly foiled by Frenchy's clever marshalling of the women of Bottleneck, and you get the impression from the film that stock action scenes with plenty of guns and bodies falling from incredible heights just aren't the point of DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, and that's a point in its favour. Finally, there isn't a pat Hollywood ending either. There's a happy ending, of course, but it's bittersweet. I was fully expecting Frenchy and Tom to get together at the very end, cue fadeout etc. etc. They *do* get together, that goes without saying. But again, this occurs in a way that one simply doesn't expect (right until it actually happens). This film always keeps you guessing, but also continually entertained.
You really couldn't get a better or more appropriate cast than this one too... of the supporting cast, Charles Winninger plays his bumbling, half-drunk but principled character of Town Drunk/Sheriff Dimsdale perfectly. Mischa Auer, as well, is endearing as Boris, from when he loses his pants to Frenchy on a bet, through to his determination to be a great second deputy sheriff in exchange for Tom Destry's extra pants. But the two leads are fabulous as well: the top-billed Marlene Dietrich is sultry, sexy but also cute, and performs some great numbers in the saloon (the best of which would be 'The Boys In The Back Room', but the opener 'Little Joe' would be a close runner-up). Still, the one thing Dietrich will be remembered for from this film, and with good cause, is *that* bar-room catfight with Una Merkel (who plays Lily Belle). Catty, vicious and absolutely hilarious, Dietrich really goes all out in a slap-down knock-out fight with Merkel, then proceeds to throw everything imaginable in Stewart's direction with such fire and enthusiasm that you can't help laughing at and loving her at the same time.
Speaking of Stewart--he gives a fantastic performance in the role of Thomas Jefferson Destry. His laidback way of ambling across the screen, his slow assured drawl, his expressive face all combine together to bring Destry to life. It isn't any actor who can pull off the apparent humiliation Stewart's character must face, such as descending from his carriage to face the folk of Bottleneck for the first time carrying a canary cage and a parasol over his head. But just as he pulls off the comedic scenes, his dramatic scenes are effective as well, particularly his final scenes with both Washington and Frenchy. Most importantly, you can believe that Tom is a good-natured charmer, as he's meant to be, but not a simple-minded dolt.
DESTRY RIDES AGAIN isn't just an absolutely cracking Western (from its bar-room brawls and sassy ladies right down to its grand shootout finale)--it's also a sly, tongue-in-cheek homage to and spoof of the entire genre and its stock of characters, from the roguish ne'er-do-well (Kent) to the bumbling sheriff (Washington Dimsdale). It's a feel-good film with romance, comedy and action blended into a Western setting, and is most certainly one of the best films of the 1930s, and one of the best I've ever seen. A classic!