Authors and After Words

Regarding cultural affairs, American ingenuity has contributed a number of remarkable items to the world including Jazz and other popular musical forms (such as rock and roll and the musical comedy), blue jeans (invented to serve as a durable work pant for cowboys and miners and now a major article of high fashion clothing) and, of course, the American Western film. Only one other country has developed a film language akin to the American Western, and that is Australia whose history of expansion into a vast, open continent is similar to our own. That is not to say that there are no other literary traditions which have explored expansionist themes, but the American variation is distinctly ours as it grew concurrently along with the technology with which it has been delivered.

For the next several issues, we will examine that form as an American "literature" which expresses a fundamental American myth. Like all myths, it conjures our highest hopes and our deepest fears as it tells us who we were, who we are, and who we might become. As Chuck Lauter said recently, quoting a friend of his, "A myth is a truth so important that it can only be expressed in a story." We’ll begin examining our American story with one of the small masterpieces of the Western film – Destry Rides Again.

Destry Rides Again, starring James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich is a remarkable artifact at a number of levels. It was released on December 29, 1939 which is often considered the "golden year" of Hollywood production. That year gave us Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach and Goodbye Mr. Chips, to name only a few out of a dozen or more. Earlier that year, Jimmy Stewart appeared in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and it is widely suspected that his Oscar the following year for Philadelphia Story came as compensation for not getting one for either of the two films he did in 1939. Brian Donlevey’s career as a screen villain got a significant boost from Destry, but the most important advance came to Marlene Dietrich. She had come to Hollywood as a big star from Germany in 1930 but by 1939, her career in America and England had begun to falter. She had gone to Paris to try to revitalize that career and when the part of "Frenchie" was offered her, she almost refused it outright. For an actor, however, a job is a job, and she went back to Hollywood for it. She remained unsure of the venture at first but her work in the film is seamless. In fact, it was Destry that revived her reputation both here and abroad. The three songs she sang in the film, written by Frank Loesser (words) and Frederick Hollander (music), became standards for her and she continued to sing them throughout her life.

Now, Destry is really a modest little film with mostly interior sets, back lot exteriors, and a witty but predictable script. Yet, as we know from theate by our creator with certain inalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," what will it take to secure those Rights? Actually, a Revolution. The names of the Bottleneck lawmen are significant: Washington Dimsdale – town drunk transformed into town sheriff and Thomas Jefferson Destry, the milksop Deputy turned hero. Of course, neither Washington nor Jefferson were pacifists and the good life comes with a caveat – no matter that we eschew violence, if we must fight, we will fight and fight well. Isn’t that an interesting statement to discover in a modest little Hollywood western made late in 1939?