Blu-ray Review: Destry Rides Again (1939) (Criterion Collection)

One of the biggest influences on Mel Brooks’ spoof Blazing Saddles, Destry Rides Again takes place in the town of Bottleneck, corrupt from the mayor on down. Marlene Dietrich plays Frenchy, the local saloon owner who quietly helps the criminals cheat and steal their way to money and power. The town has gambling, drinking, and regular shoot-outs in the streets. When the new Sheriff is killed by a cheating gangster, Kent (Brian Dunlevy) the badge is given to the town drunk Washington Dimsdale (Charles Wininger) as a joke. Surprisingly, Dimsdale sees the appointment as an opportunity to finally make something of his life. He sends for his old partner’s son, Tom Destry Jr. (James Stewart), to help him out. While his old partner was a tough as nails type, Destry doesn’t like guns. However, under Destry’s cool exterior is a tough dude who refuses to back down from anyone or anything.

Though he doesn’t carry a gun, Tom reveals himself to be an expert marksman, ready to fight when necessary. At one point, he casually picks up a pistol an hits six targets with six bullets. Tom’s non-violent approach seems like a nod toward pacifism. When Tom’s efforts to resolve things peacefully don’t work, he grabs his guns and heads off for the saloon where Kent and his men are holed up.

James Stewart doesn’t show up until half-an-hour into the film. While Destry Rides Again as his first western, Marlene Dietrich truly shines. Her first film in two years, it was a comeback of sorts for her, proving she could still thrill audiences with her sultry appeal. Frenchy became an iconic character, made even more so by the spoof/tribute performance of Madeline Khan in Blazing Saddles. As wonderful as James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich are together, the biggest laughs are generated by the unlikely coupling of Una Merkel and Mischa Auer. He’s a hen-pecked Russian cowboy and she’s his domineering wife who keeps a picture of her deceased first husband above their bed.

Charles Winninger nearly steals the movie as the town drunk turned noble. The always reliable Jack Carson provides some bravado, and it’s amusing to watch Stewart share the screen with Samuel S. Hinds as the crooked Mayor/Judge. Hinds would go on to play Pop Bailey opposite Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. The cast alone makes Destry Rides Again worth a watch for any film aficionado.

Presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Criterion’s “new 4K digital restoration by Universal Pictures in collaboration with the film foundation,” is simply dazzling from start to finish. The image is wonderfully film-like. Grain is evident, but never intrusive. Sensational clarity and contrast allow the picture to pop and showcase the fine details of Dietrich’s gowns. Inky blacks, bright whites, and varied grays heighten depth and vary contour. Shadow delineation is top notch. Only a few of the faintest scratches dot the print, and no digital anomalies were detected.

According to the liner notes, “the original monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35 mm nitrate composite fine-grain,” and the resulting LPCM transfer produces clear, balanced audio. Frank Skinner’s score and Marlene Dietrich’s saloon performances come through cleanly, and strong. Sound effects–gun shots to bar brawls sound convincing–are a highlight, and dialogue is clean, clear and concise.

Criterion’s release is an obvious upgrade from precious DVD releases, the extras are frosting on the cake:

  • NEW! Interview with Critic Imogen Sara Smith (HD, 17:18) Recorded exclusively for Criterion in 2020, critic Imogen Sara Smith discusses some of the more unique qualities of Destry Rides Again.
  • George Marshall (HD, 19:19) Illustrated audio excerpts from a 1973 interview with the director George Marshall conducted by The American Film Institute.
  • Donald Dewey (HD, 20:38) Conducted for Criterion in 2020, the author of James Stewart: A Biography discusses the actor, and his contributions to Destry Rides Again.
  • Radio Broadcast (HD, 54:03) Luxe Radio Theater adaptation of the film from 1945, featuring James Stewart and Joan Blondell.
  • Leaflet: An illustrated leaflet featuring an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme.

Destry Rides Again (1939)
Destry Rides Again (1939)

Movie title: Destry Rides Again

Country: USA

Duration: 94 min

Director(s): George Marshall

Actor(s): Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart , Mischa Auer, Charles Winninger, Brian Donlevy, Allen Jenkins

Genre: Western, Comedy

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  • Extras