Long before the hippy slogan “Make Love, Not War”, this wildly funny western carried a pacifist message as German troops entered Poland. But you don’t need a message to fall for the story of Frenchy, a hardboiled dancehall girl in the funky and gun-crazy town of Bottleneck who falls for mild-mannered deputy sheriff Tom Destry, who never wears a gun.
When a film is so satisfyingly entertaining, one often forgets the artistry with which it was crafted. George Marshall blended what he had learned from directing Laurel & Hardy with his experience of directing Tom Mix. The latter’s first talkie from 1932 being the film on which Destry was based, even if in the process everything was drastically altered except for the title.
A healthy dose of improvisation prevailed. The script was nowhere near completion as the production proceeded at the frenetic pace of a B-movie. The result? The greatest comic western ever made. On the evidence of Destry and You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, 1939 might be the best year of Marshall’s 60-year career. He would try to repeat the success of this satire with Destry (1954), which resorts to shot-for-shot restaging in some scenes. One of the major differences between the timeless original and the stodgy remake is the sense of space and composition, particularly in the saloon scenes. Here the relation between action and place remains highly imaginative, alternating between high-angle shots of the setting and medium shots of the mayhem on the floor, with a depth of field matching another classic 1939 western, Stagecoach.
The film is exalted by the star presences of Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart – the latter a rising star; the former a troubled figure who hadn’t appeared on screen for two years. For Dietrich, it was a risk she needed to take, to shed the image of the ethereal Berliner blonde established by her collaborations with Josef von Sternberg. Long gone were the days of overhead lighting and diffusion filters. Now it was time for barroom fights!
Cast and Credits
Sog.: dal romanzo omonimo (1930) di Max Brand. Scen.: Felix Jackson, Gertrude Purcell, Henry Myers. F.: Hal Mohr. M.: Milton Carruth. Scgf.: Jack Otterson. Mus.: Frank Skinner. Int.: Marlene Dietrich (Frenchy), James Stewart (Thomas J. Destry Jr.), Mischa Auer (Boris Callahan), Charles Winninger (Washington Dimsdale), Brian Donlevy (Kent, il proprietario del saloon), Allen Jenkins (Gyp Watson), Warren Hymer (Bugs Watson), Irene Hervey (Janice Tyndall), Una Merkel (Lily Belle Callahan), Billy Gilbert (‘Loupgerou’). Prod.: Joe Pasternak per Universal Pictures Co.. DCP 4K. D.: 95’. Bn.
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