Thursday, August 30, 2007

Hollywood at its Best

Destry Rides again is a near perfect old school Hollywood film. It stars two legendary actors, Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, both at the top of their game. Stewart plays the folksy-wise defender of all that is decent and wholesome, while Dietrich sings, dances, seduces, and sets aglow every scene she is in. Though it follows standard Western genre conventions -- i.e., it's about a lawless town controlled by lawless men who need to be tamed by the long arm of the law in order to prepare the way for "civilization" -- it feels more like a wedding of several genres: western, gangster film, musical, melodrama and screwball comedy all rolled into one. Western genre elements predominate, to be sure, but even so, all the bad guys belong to a business syndicate that is essentially a gang, no different from any number of gangs populating the crime films of the thirties. All gang members look "ethnic," and several have Brooklynish accents. Marlene Dietrich brings the musical element to bear with three songs and a dance number with Stewart. I might even say the memorable catfight between Frenchy (Dietrich) and a disgruntled housewife itself qualifies as musical by way of its extravagant choreography. Melodrama enters the tale through the unrequited love between the two stars, culminating in Dietrich's sacrifice of herself to save Destry in the final scenes. Finally, the witty, wacky, lightning-quick dialogue gives the whole thing the feel of a screwball comedy. Which is a way of saying that for all its western trappings, this doesn't exactly feel like a western. Yet somehow it works, wonderfully. Every gunfight, every close-up, every brawl, every musical number is bursting with life. Way to go Hollywood. Hooray.

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