The DVD Report #669

Destry Rides Again was the name of a 1932 Tom Mix western taken from Max Brand’s serialized novel, Twelve Peers. Universal owned the title, which it used in the celebrated 1939 pacifist western that bore no resemblance to the 1932 film, which had been a run-of-the-mill shoot-em-up.

The 1939 film, given a beautiful 4K restoration by Universal, and released as a Criterion Special Edition, was designed as a spoof of the genre. It was the Blazing Saddles of its day. It was the film that solidified James Stewart’s reputation as a major star and provided Marlene Dietrich with one of the greatest comebacks in movie history.

Stewart had been under contract to MGM, which used him in mostly thankless roles in fifteen films made between 1936 and early 1938. Then came his loan-out to Columbia for Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, swiftly followed by Destry Rides Again on loan-out to Universal.

Dietrich had been one of the twelve stars infamously referred to as “box-office poison” in the May 1938 article in the Independent Film Journal. She was, in fact, no. 2 on the list behind Greta Garbo, and ahead of Mae West, Joan Crawford, Kay Francis, Norma Shearer, Luise Rainer, John Barrymore, Dolores del Rio, Katharine Hepburn, Edward Arnold, and Fred Astaire in that order.

When Dietrich was asked to make the film, she thought it was a joke and was on the verge of turning it down when either Erich Maria Remarque, the All Quiet on the Western Front author, or her former mentor Joseph von Sternberg (The Blue Angel), convinced her that the change in image would be good for her career. Sources differ as to which it was, but I like the Remarque version in which he is said to have also suggested that if successful it would bring greater emphasis on her campaign to make the world more aware of the evils of Hitler’s Germany. It did that and more.

For audiences that had become bored with Dietrich’s mannequin-like performances in such films as her last flop, 1937’s Angel, their appetite was whet with previews of the film’s most famous scene, a catfight between Dietrich and Una Merkel. The film itself opens, not with Stewart, but with Dietrich whooping it up and hollering as a dancehall hostess named Frenchy to explain her “foreign” accent. She had audiences in the palm of her from her first “yahoo” to her last breath, highlighted by the performance of one of her greatest songs, “See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have,” composed by Friedrich Hollander who wrote “Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It)” for her to sing in The Blue Angel.

In this, his first western, Stewart is the opposite of the hardboiled characters he would play in his westerns from 1950 forward, and indeed the opposite of all western heroes up to that point in that he refused to carry a gun. The actor is at the height of his charm, both with Dietrich and the film’s great supporting cast led by Mischa Auer, Charles Winninger, Brian Donlevy, and the previously mentioned Una Merkel.

When Destry Rides Again was released to critical and audience hurrahs just two months after Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, MGM finally realized what a gem it had in Stewart. In quick succession, they gave him and us The Shop Around the Corner, The Mortal Storm, and The Philadelphia Story. The latter brought Katharine Hepburn an even bigger comeback than Dietrich’s and Stewart an Oscar.

Stewart went on to become a real-life war hero, leading numerous bombing missions over Germany during World War II. His return to films in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life was the start of an even more brilliant career.

Dietrich spent so much time entertaining troops during the war that Billy Wilder (director of Dietrich’s A Foreign Affair, Witness for the Prosecution) famously said that she spent more time at the front lines than Eisenhower. Her post-war film career may not have been as impressive as Stewart’s, but like Stewart, she remained a star to her dying day, best known in her later years as a cabaret and stage performer whose repertoire always included Frenchy’s “See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have”.

George Marshall, who directed Destry Rides Again, also directed 1945’s Murder, He Says, given a brand new 4K master for its Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber.

Fred MacMurray, then at a career high following Double Indemnity, starred in the black comedy highly reminiscent of Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace. The tragic Helen Walker (Nightmare Alley) co-starred along with Porter Hall (Miracle on 34th Street) and Jean Heather (Going My Way), both of whom were with him in Double Indemnity, and Marjorie Main who would soon steal The Egg and I from MacMurray and Claudette Colbert. Peter Whitney memorably plays Main’s halfwit twin sons.

Newly released on Blu-ray from a 2K master from Kino Lorber, Time Limit was one of five highly prestigious films released by United Artists in 1957, although not nearly as well remembered as the other four: 12 Angry Men, Paths of Glory, Sweet Smell of Success, and Witness for the Prosecution.

The engrossing Korean War POW drama with its post-war investigation leading to a potential court-martial is still powerful stuff. Directed by Karl Malden, it starred Richard Widmark as the colonel investigating the guilt or innocence of Richard Basehart as a possible traitor with Rip Torn, in his first credited film role, as the key witness against Basehart who received a BAFTA nomination for his performance. Basehart lost the Best Foreign Actor award to Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men. Alec Guinness won the Best British Actor award for The Bridge on the River Kwai.

One of last year’s most underrated films, Just Mercy has been given a Blu-ray and standard DVD release by Warner Bros.

Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther) has one of his best roles as real-life civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson in Destin Daniel Cretton’s film of Stevenson’s first case in which, thanks to his efforts, his falsely convicted client (Jamie Foxx) becomes the first black man to ever be released from Alabama’s death row. The superb supporting cast is led by Oscar winners Foxx (Ray) and Brie Larson Room) whose breakthrough role was in Cretton’s Short Term 12.

This week’s new releases include the Blu-ray releases of King Creole and Love Among the Ruins.

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