6:30PM, Thursday April 29
Randwick Ritz

Introduced by CJ Johnson

Director: George Marshall
Country: USA
Year: 1939
Runtime: 94 minutes
Rating: PG

Tickets ⟶

“…and when I die, don’t spend no money on flowers or a picture in a frame, just see what the boys in the backroom will have and tell them I’m having the same…”

1939 was Hollywood’s greatest year and also the occasion for Marlene Dietrich’s triumphant comeback after her career sputtered out at Paramount. Dietrich had the luck to appear in Destry Rides Again, the pre-eminent comedy western of the day, indeed of the era. Producer Joe Pasternak brought in talent in abundance, most notably the illustrious music team of Friedrich Hollaender and Frank Loesser who gave the star one of her most iconic songs, “The Boys in the Back Room”. James Stewart plays Destry, the sheriff who is reluctant to use a gun. Dietrich plays Frenchy the bar-room singer. The chemistry is electric. Universal’s new 4K restoration brings back one of the great movies of an amazingly fruitful year.

Presented in a new 4K Restoration by Universal Pictures in collaboration with Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation.

Film Notes by David Hare:

A George Marshall Dossier
George Marshall was born December 29, 1891 in Chicago and died February 17 1975 in Los Angeles.  His may not be a household name in auteurist circles these days but he landed in Hollywood close to the dawn of cinema, and made his first one reel short, Across the Rio Grande in 1916. His beginnings in the movies are almost accidental, like a number of other men (and a few women) who drifted into the business during and after The Great War with seemingly nowhere else to go.

Marshall’s career then took a not atypical course for those directors whose careers ran parallel with the growth of the burgeoning studio system, and after beginning with one and two reel independent comedy shorts, he drifted into the best of the comedy production outfits, the Hal Roach studio where he honed his directorial skills with Laurel and Hardy and Fatty Arbuckle movies. Over the next few decades he shifted across the studio system from Fox to Universal to Paramount and then back again. His work, like so many journeyman directors itself covers and even defines a representative spectrum of genre based American cinema. To me his specialities were two (of the three) greatest American modes, the western and comedy. His early training in shorts and then feature length action pictures gave him a mastery of control and high-precision script-shaping to concentrate and expand the narrative to pace and stage the material to maximum dramatic effect. Among his very best films are also some of the best pictures of their respective genres.

Destry Rides Again is one of the earliest major American western feature films. The Ghost Breakers, made when he moved to Paramount the following year in 1940, is the best Bob Hope comedy, with support from Paulette Godard and may be his most entertaining film. Its appeal as pure entertainment is mysteriously timeless.  His post-war 1946 The Blue Dahlia again at Paramount is the best of the Alan Ladd Noirs.  By the time his career was winding up in the mid sixties he was hooked into the big 1962 Cinerama project, How the West was Wonwhich would be the first feature film made in that cumbersome ultra-widescreen three camera process. Henry Hathaway and Ford were the other directors in the holy trinity, with Hathaway as wrangler for the project. Ford directed the two sublime Civil War sequences, and Marshall had been assigned to the “Railway” segment as the picture’s big action specialist. The rumour mill has it that by now Marshall was unwell for much of the shooting and, like Ford, he completely loathed the three camera process with its limitations of fixed focal lenses and technical intricacies which created ludicrous limitations on staging and blocking of the actors. In any case Hathaway ended up directing most if not all of Marshall’s assigned material but generously left him the screen credit.

The Film
Destry Rides Again made in early 1939 was a project from producer Joe Pasternak, one of the great Hollywood “system” producers with a hard eye for talent and innovation.  The screenplay was heavily adapted from a Max Brand novel and with it Pasternak intended to rescue Marlene Dietrich from the obscurity of the “Box Office Poison” status she had labored under after her last two Paramount films with Sternberg in 1934 and 35. It’s one of several films that seals Marshall’s reputation as a key director of the reborn western and a master of narrative control and precision, especially here in Destry in balancing the limited doses of light hearted self parody of old Western stereotypes with quite sudden turns to deadly serious dramatic intentions.   The film’s relentless juggling of tone is almost shocking now to modern audiences who are more accustomed to the one dimensional mood plays of so many contemporary movies. 

Thus a convergence of high period Studio system talent, notably Pasternak as producer, Marshall as master director of multiple genres (including the musical numbers composed by Friedrich Hollaender for Dietrich in the picture) and the sheer tonal sophistication of the screenplay mark Destry as a both an innovator and a “classic”

To understand Marshall further I think is to understand Destryitself, and its place in the magic firmament year of 1939, so beloved of cinephiles. This was the year the Depression was well and truly over, the “Big Four” studios (Paramount, Fox, Warners and MGM) had all pulled back from bankruptcy and technically the talking picture was at its technical and artistic peak. Among the cinephile games to play is the dreaded “1939 lists”so here goes. Internationally 1939 yielded Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu, Mizoguchi’s Zangiku Monogatari/Tale of the Last Chrysanthemum, Korda’s The Four Feathers, Carne’s Quai des Brumes, Ophuls’ Sans Lendemainand Duvivier’s La Fin du Jour.   In the USA the list is seemingly endless and includes Ford’s Stagecoach, Lubitsch’s Ninotchka, Cukor’s Zaza, Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, Leisen’s (sublime) Midnight, McCarey’s Love Affair, Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties and Marshall’s Destry Rides Again.

So the year 1939 itself has much to do with what makes Destry a landmark picture in the Hollywood studio system. Prior to 1939, the western had been jointly invented by the Americans and the French, the latter in great part by the surrealist filmmaker Jean Durand in the first decades of the 20th century.  After the arrival of the early sound film, notwithstanding Raoul Walsh’s fascinating early widescreen talkie for Fox in 1930, The Big Trail, the genre fell out of favour for a variety of reasons, and ended up relegated usually to the “B” units of mostly second string studios who churned them out, serial-style for filler.  During the decade it remained for King Vidor, with The Texas Rangers in 1936, and de Mille with The Plainsman from the same year to take the genre seriously enough to reboot it, giving their movies leading actor casts and crews, including Fred MacMurray and Jack Oakie for Vidor, and Gary Cooper with Jean Arthur for de Mille.

Both these movies re-opened the door to the western as a major American genre. And so it was in 1939 that two major directors made two key westerns which altered the direction of both their own careers and the future of the genre itself. Ford, first with his staggering, metaphysical morality play made in homage to Murnau, Stagecoach which finally revealed John Wayne as a star performer, and Marshall’s Destry Rides Again which not only re-established the immense range and appeal of the form, but also broke Dietrich’s deadly ”Box Office Poison” curse.  Destry, like Stagecoach was so commercially successful it broke BO records for Universal that year, and catapulted Dietrich back into the Hollywood system.

Watching it today in this gorgeous 35mm to 4K restoration from Universal, I hope you find Destry Rides Again as irresistible an entertainment as I do. 

Film Notes by Adrian Danks:

George Marshall
Despite a directorial career in film and television that spread from the mid-1910s to the early 1970s, taking in a series of sustained collaborations with prominent stars and several key works in specific genres, George Marshall (1891-1975) is, for many, likely to be the least familiar name in the roster of directors featuring at this year’s Cinema Reborn. President of the Screen Directors Guild in the late 1940s, Marshall worked across a wide range of studios including Pathé, Universal, Paramount and Fox, serving his apprenticeship with figures such as Francis Ford and Harry Carey and cutting his teeth on low-budget westerns and comedies. Despite his extraordinary productivity across close to 200 films and television episodes, and intermittent critical success with key genre films such as The Ghost Breakers (1940), The Blue Dahlia (1946), and The Sheepman(1958), Marshall didn’t even receive a profile in Andrew Sarris’s seminal, “encyclopaedic”, if, at times, critically damaging The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968.

Marshall was integral to the development and consolidation of the screen personas of a series of major Hollywood actors and comedy teams including Glenn Ford, Betty Hutton, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Laurel and Hardy, and Bob Hope. His sustained work with Hope, produced over a period of more than 25 years, proves neatly illustrative, taking in both the comic actor’s best (The Ghost Breakers) and worst movies (1966’s aptly named Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!). But Marshall is probably most celebrated, if at all, for several films that fuse established dramatic genres with comedy, the two elements existing within an integrated whole rather than working as parody or satire of the dominant form (a key quality that defines Destry Rides Again).

Symptomatic of his highly adaptive journeyman career, Marshall’s first feature as director, Love’s Lariat (1916), was a full-blooded, self-conscious western featuring comic elements, and his last directorial credits were on several episodes of The Odd Couple TV series in 1972. In the same year he was feted by the Directors Guild of America, along with five other veterans (John Ford, King Vidor, Raoul Walsh, Henry King and Allan Dwan), as a “pioneer”. It is sign of Marshall’s unfussy but often assured direction, reported good nature and mercurial, mostly below-the radar career that he could rightly sit on this illustrious list, be the least recognisable name on it and attest to being the only active director included when it was put together.

The Film
Destry Rides Again (1939) is both the highpoint of Marshall’s career – so much so that he was persuaded to make an inferior but still highly enjoyable colour widescreen remake, Destry, with Audie Murphy in 1954 – and one of those charmed Hollywood productions that brought together a series of individuals working near the peak of their powers alongside the collaborative and synthetic affordances of a well-oiled and technologically consolidated studio system.

Produced by émigré Joe Pasternak for Universal – at that time a smaller studio here operating on a larger scale – filmed at around the time of the outbreak of the Second World War (its narrative focus on appeasement followed by reluctant, inevitable action pertinent to the time), and firing off the palpable, and reportedly consummated, sexual chemistry between its two leads, Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart, Destry Rides Again is also an important film in the history of the western. 1939 has often been discussed as a peak year in terms of the refined quality and depth of Hollywood studio production, but it was also a year that saw a significant resurgence in the “A” western.

Although many westerns were produced throughout the 1930s, after a series of sometimes not so successful large-scale examples released at the start of the decade like The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh, 1930) and Cimarron (Wesley Ruggles, 1931, and an Oscar winner for Best Picture), it was a genre largely confined to the serial, “B” feature or burgeoning “country” or musical “subgenres” for most of the decade. Symptomatic of this, John Ford, probably the most famous practitioner of the iconic form, didn’t make any westerns in the 1930s until the very end of the decade. Destry Rides Again itself, based on a story by the intriguing Max Brand, was also first made in this period (directed by Ben Stoloff in 1932, also at Universal) as a much more desultory “B” feature starring a creaky relic of the silent era, Tom Mix. But 1939 saw the release of at least four significant, large-scale westerns by major directors – Henry King’s Jesse James, John Ford’s Stagecoach, Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific and Michael Curtiz’s Dodge City– before the “crowning” achievement, Destry Rides Again, made its bow at the very end of the year. It is a sign of the streamlined qualities of Marshall’s highly energetic, exquisitely detailed and genre-wise production, that it is only Ford’s breakthrough masterpiece which beats it.

Although Destry Rides Again typically emphasises elements of set design, costuming and “atmosphere” – Universal also produced many stylish horror films throughout the 1930s and early 1940s – it is probably most discussed and remembered for its two featured stars. Stewart and Dietrich were contracted to the film at very different moments in their careers. Stewart was riding the first peak in his storied career after his breakthrough success in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939; released just after completion of Destry Rides Again and to much acclaim). In early 1939, Dietrich was “exiled” in Europe after a series of significant Hollywood box-office failures – including the sublime and supremely adult Angel (Ernst Lubitsch, 1937) – that had her, alongside Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo Joan Crawford and several others, labelled as a box-office “poisonality”.

Neither Stewart or Dietrich had appeared in a western before, and each deployed highly contrastive, if equally gestural modes of performance. Amongst the greatest pleasures of Destry Rides Again is seeing these diverging styles of acting merging together. Stewart brings his characteristically digressive, stuttering, gangly, patient and self-consciously thoughtful style of performance to the role of Destry. This is emphasised by the numerous circuitous stories and parables he spins throughout the movie, as well as the very leisurely manner in which he rises to action – for instance, the town’s citizens show great disappointment when he first arrives as the long-awaited new deputy sheriff carrying the parasol and bird cage of one of his fellow stagecoach passengers. A key to what Stewart brings to this film – and many of his other roles – is the sense of a character genuinely “thinking” before acting. Loaned out by MGM for the movie, this was just another rung on his ascent to true stardom.

There was much more at stake for Dietrich. In many ways, Destry Rides Again represented a significant departure for the actress, one that has parallels with the transformation undertaken by Garbo in the same year’s Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch). Although it would be inaccurate to tag or promote this movie as “Dietrich Laughs” – as was widely used and publicised in relation to Garbo – it does feature Dietrich in a much looser, funnier and explicitly physical role than that cemented by the highly modulated, compositionally fixed, breathtakingly distilled and often imperious persona created by her and Josef von Sternberg (with significant assistance from cinematographers like Lee Garmes and Bert Glennon) in seven films across the first half of the 1930s. This emphasis on the “new” Dietrich was very deliberate and carefully staged, with the press allowed onto the set to report on the immediately “famous” extended barroom brawl between Dietrich’s Frenchy and Una Merkel’s Lily Belle. This included significant, if not completely accurate reporting on the fact that neither actor required the use of their stunt doubles. This transformation of Dietrich into a more “approachable” and earthy figure is also built into the film’s narrative, with her character transitioning from a highly sexualised and cosmetically enhanced barroom singer (famously intoning the prescient “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have”, amongst others) to a more “suitable”, and less rouged object of Stewart’s affection.

Destry Rides Again opens with a very rustic sign proclaiming “Welcome to Bottleneck” before various bottles perched on it are exploded by gunfire. Typically for the western, the journey of the film’s narrative involves the inevitable taming of a boisterous, wide-open town into a more ordered, sedate and modern settlement. The more solid sign welcoming (or farewelling) us to Bottleneck at the film’s conclusion is, in contrast, notably pristine, smoothly planed and unmarked by a single bullet. Although this is a sign of the film’s conservatism, and its necessary compliance with the production code of the era which favoured such civilising narratives and values in relation to the Old West, its sanitation or blandness also encourages us to long for the more vibrant and dangerous world and sexual chemistry found in its earlier sections. We also miss the more crowded and dynamic staging of the film’s earlier moments. This “nostalgia” is reinforced by a wagon of children buoyantly singing one of the now deceased Frenchy’s signature songs, a potent reminder of her allure, sacrifice, memory and legendary stardom. The brief pained, longing and melancholy look on Destry’s face when he hears the refrain also alerts us to the true stars of the picture: Stewart, Dietrich, the studio system and the old-fashioned western itself.

Full film details:

The Restoration
The film was restored in 4K by Universal Pictures in collaboration with Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation. The primary element used for the restoration was a 35mm nitrate composite fine grain. Restoration services were provided by NBCUniversal StudioPost, which performed a wet gate scan and was responsible for the entire 4K workflow.

USA | 1939 | 94 mins | B&W | Sound | 4K DCP (orig 35mm) | English | PG

Dir: George MARSHALL | Prod Co: Universal Pictures | Prod: Joe PASTERNAK | Scr: Felix JACKSON, Gertrude PURCELL, Henry MYERS, from a story by Max BRAND |Photo: Hal MOHR | Edit: Milton CARRUTH | Des: Jack OTTERSON, Russell A GAUSMAN, Vera WEST |  Sound: Bernard B. BROWN | Music: Friedrich HOLLAENDER, Frank LOESSER, Charles PREVIN 

Cast: James STEWART (Destry), Marlene DIETRICH (Frenchy), Mischa AUER (Savogrin), Charles WINNINGER (Sheriff), Brian DONLEVY (Kent), Allen JENKINS (Gyp), Una MERKEL (Lilly Belle)

Cinema Reborn acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land on which we live, learn and work. We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.