Destry Rides Again (1939)

Destry-Rides-Again-1939Destry Rides Again is integral to the tradition of comedy westerns–a storied lineage that includes the likes of Way Out West, Blazing Saddles, and Support Your Local Sheriff. It takes a bit of the long maintained western lore and gives it a screwy comic twist courtesy of classic Hollywood.

The rambunctious town carries the fitting name of Bottleneck which runs rampant with guns, beer, floozies, and more beer. The town’s mayor has a permanent seat in the local saloon playing solitary games of checkers while turning a blind eye to many clandestine activities. Meanwhile, the bar’s proprietor and local hot shot (Brian Donlevy) keeps grips on numerous shady dealings including dirty poker and murder, if you want to get technical. Though he does put on a good time with a floor show courtesy of his best girl Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) who has the whole town swooning with her knockout looks. That’s the way the world works in Bottleneck and it’s a fairly crooked operation.

After the latest sheriff is laid waste the banjo-playing drunk is christened the town’s next lawman. It certainly is a fine joke but he does something somewhat admirable. He resolves to lay off the sauce and sober up. Calling in the grown son of one of his buddies from the old days to be his deputy.

Now he’s no longer a drunk. Just a blustering old fool who no one takes seriously for one moment. Still, when Destry comes into town he believes he will have the hulking spitting image of the boy’s father, a man who will instill fear in every local troublemaker. After all, that’s how things have worked in Bottleneck as far back as anyone can remember.

But instead of a leering heavy, he finds himself face to face with gangly Tom Destry Jr. who makes a memorable first impression on the town holding a woman’s parasol and a cage of parakeets as he helps a young lady off of the stage. However, in those opening moments he does a seemingly dangerous thing, instead of exerting his dominance he seems oddly comfortable in his skin. The townsfolk think he’s a pushover and he strings them along rather well. After all, he doesn’t carry any guns. He spends a great deal of time whittling and there’s a good-natured affability to his demeanor in nearly all circumstances. Added to that he has the oddest quirk of supplying an ever-ready stream of anecdotes for any given situation.

It’s such displays that earn the glee of the local thugs and hoodlums and the ire of not only his sheriff but the folks who feel he’s aiding their enemies. And yet in certain moments, he surprises them, proving to be an incredibly humble marksman (a precursor to Atticus Finch), breaking up a vicious catfight between two women with a pail of water, and getting buddy-buddy with the town’s rebels only to turn on them.

He seeks to bring law and order to the town on his terms looking to pin a murder on Kent in order to put him away for good. Of course, he’s not about to take it lying down and the town blows up into a scatterbrained finale that equals any of the zaniness in any of its aforementioned brethren of western comedy. As the menfolk fight it out with guns, Frenchy with a new resolve gathers all the womenfolk in an assault on the opposition using all blunt instruments imaginable from rolling pins to gardening tools. It’s sheer madness.

That’s not to say that Destry does not have its share of tragedy and that might be its greatest fault. Sometimes it doesn’t quite know where to fall between the lines of comedy and drama. Still, with the two legendary icons as luminary as James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, it’s hard for this one not to be a winner though they seem so diametrically opposed to each other.

However, Cooper and Dietrich worked surprisingly well in Morocco and so Stewart and Dietrich work in a pinch here.  There’s also an abundant stock company including future stars like Brian Donlevy and Jack Carson not to mention small time funnymen like Billy Gilbert, the long-suffering bartender, and Mischa Auer, the man who unwittingly loses his pants in a poker game. Moral of the story is, don’t gamble. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Destry would come in with a story right about now.

4/5 Stars

 

Show Boat (1936)

ShowboatposterMost of what I know about riverboats can be gleaned from Mark Twain, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, and that ever beloved Snoopy incarnation The World Famous River Boat Gambler. The 1936 musical Show Boat falls into that very same rich tradition but some clarification is in order.

In truth, this is not the most remembered or even the first adaptation, for that matter, of the wildly popular stage hit of the 1920s. Those laurels go to the 1951 version starring Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel and then the original partial-talkie released in 1927. But it’s easy to go out on a limb and reckon this is the best of the lot.

James Whale noted for such reputed monster movies as Frankenstein and The Invisible Man proves an equally compelling helmsman of musicals. Here his obvious attention to period authenticity is highlighted making the riverboat world of Missippi circa the 1880s incredibly atmospheric.

The story starts exactly where its title suggests with a Show Boat and the traveling crew of performers who turn up in every town to add a little gaiety and charm into every man, woman, and child’s life. The personable mastermind of it all Cap’n Andy Hawks promises big things to the general public who turn out in droves to get a chance on the entertainment.

But as is the case with any such narrative the true meat and potatoes is either on the stage with every song and dance or behind the curtains where people are living life and trying to get by the best they know how. Hawk’s wife is constantly nagging him and demanding that their daughter never become an actor. Instead, young Magnolia (Irene Dunne) is relegated to sit behind the piano.

Still, there is another plot thread with major implications on the contemporary constitution of race relations. I personally had no idea what was at the core of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat. I assumed it was only a musical perhaps bred in the rather sorry tradition of Gone with the Wind and other such pictures when it comes to depictions of African-Americans.

It’s true that there are some of those stereotypes present but this is a surprisingly forward-thinking narrative at first because at its core is miscegenation–in simpler terms the marriage of a white man with a woman of color. The two tragic lovers are actually depicted in a sensitive light while at the same time giving Magnolia her break with their sudden ignominious departure in the midst of the public scandal.

Still, in this small way,  it’s not unlike Ferber’s later work Giant in how it begins to dissect the hypocrisy in society. For his part, singing giant and future blacklist casualty Paul Robeson’s epic rendition of Old Man River is one of the true capstones of the film imbuing the story with even more meaning and power. For another minor instant, it seems like the point of view of the downtrodden and marginalized is, at the very least, being acknowledged and given a place of significance. as if to say even for a split second that there are dignity and worth there.

Of course, it loses all the credibility it could have in one regrettable stage number where the happy notes make the blackface feel even more abhorrent. Though I have no major qualms enjoying this movie on a whole, any discussion must come with a substantial caveat.

In its second half, Show Boat does admittedly succumb to some pacing problems hitting its peak early on and slowly dropping off from its frenzied and energetic openings to more wistful conclusions that are understandingly less diverting even purely from a tonal perspective. It seems to even acknowledge its own weaknesses by condensing decades for the sake of time and the audience’s attention span.

It all began with lively commotion, spirited passion, and young love. In the end, it settles for a sentimental reunion of two lovers torn apart by destitution and time itself. It’s a lovely feel-good conclusion but it’s not nearly as satisfying as it could have been if Show Boat had kept its steam from the starting gates.

Though this is far from being Irene Dunne’s greatest role, she still gives a winning performance that memorably showcases her vocal training opposite her romantic co-star the rich-toned tenor Allan Jones.  As a side note, she also exhibits the most unique churning dance you’ve seen rather like a caterpillar in a dress–only surpassed by Lauren Bacall’s shoulder shimmy in To Have and Have Not.

Still, Paul Robeson stands as one of the titans of this film. I hope he got the respect that he deserved for this role and if nothing else time seems to have honored him as “Old Man River” still remains one of the great musical numbers out there.

4/5 Stars

Nothing Sacred (1937)

 13094-nothingsacred2Before His Girl Friday (1940) came, there was another screwball comedy about journalism, the perfect scoop, and deception. After getting on the bad side of his boss, newsman Wally Cook (Frederic March) is demoted from the living and forced to write obituaries. It’s quite the awful setup and Cook desperately looks for another story to get him in the good graces of the Morning Star’s editor.

The perfect news flash has just come up in the form of a woman who is soon going to die of radium poisoning, and so Wally Cook goes to meet her. Heading up from New York, he ends in the one horse town in Vermont. He meets a lot of unobliging people whose vocabulary is limited to “Yup” and “Nope.” He finally comes across the crying girl who has just left an appointment with a doctor. He comforts the girl cheering her up by promising a trip to the big city where she will be treated like royalty (And he’ll get his story). So Hazel Flagg soon becomes the sweetheart of New York with public appearances at Madison Square Garden, parades, poems, articles and special honors. It’s all going according to Cook’s plan, the only thing is that Hazel is not actually ill.

That’s a wrench in the plan and soon it becomes evident that Cook will look like a cad. To make matters worse, he’s falling for her and his editor Oliver Stone is all over him. Now he must take part in Hazel’s charade, despite his annoyance. She too is annoyed and ends the game so the two lovebirds can elope. Still, the story of Hazel is given a romanticized ending that the public deserves.

Frederic March is decent as the desperate and long-suffering journalist. Carole Lombard is her typical light-headed, whimsy, high-strung, scatterbrained, sniveling self. It proves to be a volatile combination partnered with Ben Hecht’s script. The news industry loses a lot of its self-respect for the sake of laughs because nothing’s sacred. Some might be interested to know that it was shot in glorious technicolor and it was the only time Lombard would appear in a technicolor film. She would, of course, die in a tragic plane crash in 1942.

This film was quite short so the story moved quickly and there were definitely some screwy moments. I am however partial to His Girl Friday and some of the other more well-known screwballs.

3.5/5 Stars