Monday, November 30, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'Destry Rides Again'

Some notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society:

Many years ago, I finally saw “Gone With the Wind” for the first time.

I saw it under the best possible conditions: with a receptive audience and in a theater that had been built in the late 1920s by the parent company of MGM and had been lovingly kept in shape.

After I saw the movie, I was glad that I had finally seen it.

But I’ve never felt the urge to watch it again.

Which is not to say that it’s a bad movie. It’s just that for me, it’s the kind of film for which the phrase “been there, done that” was coined.

I’ve also had the same feeling about a few other famous movies.

Yet there are other movies that I can watch again and again – and, in fact, do watch whenever I run into them while channel surfing. Among them are “Out of the Past,” “Double Indemnity,” “Ball of Fire,” “The Gunfighter” (a nifty but, I fear, not-too-well-known film starring Gregory Peck) and “Destry Rides Again.”

“Destry Rides Again” (Universal, 1939) is one of those movies that are so effortlessly well done as to be outright deceptive—you finish watching it, and you think you, too, could make a film just as good even though you barely know the difference between a klieg light and a kangaroo.

Which, of course, is silly. And which makes films like this all the more admirable, because the effort doesn’t show.

And when you come right down to it, there are so many ways in which this film could have been a disaster.

Consider, for example, what they did with the source material. The movie is based on a book by Max Brand—a neat name for a prolific writer of westerns, eh? Except that Max Brand—who also created Dr. Kildare—was actually a guy named Frederick Faust. (Which, in turn, sounds like a name that could have been thought up only by a guy named Max Brand, who actually was—oops, I said that already, didn’t I?)

I’ve never read the book, but I saw it in a bookstore recently and could tell that it was not supposed to be a comedy.

So here we have a studio that has the rights to a novel by a top-selling western writer, and the studio folks decide to make it into a comedy. The modern equivalent, I suppose, would be a studio buying the rights to a Stephen King novel and turning it into a rollicking comedy (with a couple of musical numbers for good measure). I don’t know what Brand/Faust thought of Universal’s idea; then again, the studio had already bought the book years ago (and made a “straight” version of it with Tom Mix in 1932), so I suspect there was nothing he could have done.

And did I mention that the producers also decided that the town dance hall girl would be played by a German actress?

I don’t know how they made this all work, but they did, and just about every element works: James Stewart in the lead role, when he was younger and his “aw shucks” persona hadn’t calcified into caricature; Marlene Dietrich (this is the only film I’ve ever enjoyed her in); and such comedy veterans as Charles Winninger, Una Merkel, Mischa Auer, Jack Carson, Billy Gilbert and Allen Jenkins.

And, to balance Fraulein Dietrich as Frenchie, an all-American-as-apple-pie miss named Irene Hervey (who was also the mother of singer Jack Jones).

Brian Donlevy plays the heavy but doesn't play him heavily.

The film’s various elements—comedy, music and some dead serious drama—are so well blended that they complement one another instead of clashing.

If the film has any flaw, it might be that the whole is a little less than the sum of its parts – but what parts! Not only the cast, but the scenes: Dietrich amiably parodying herself in the musical numbers; Stewart suddenly socking Jack Carson for mouthing off; and not one but two moving death scenes.

And did I mention the Great Marlene Dietrich-Una Merkel Hair-Pulling Contest?

What more could you ask for?

I can hardly wait to see this again sometime.

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