Destry Rides Again (1939)

Destry Rides Again doesn’t take itself too seriously. Destry posterThat’s got a lot to do with the director, George Marshall, who went from making traditional Westerns during the Silent era to making comedies with Laurel and Hardy (among others) in the 1930s. Here he assembles a quirky cast, actors you wouldn’t expect to see in the same picture.

Jimmy Stewart plays himself, as always: sweet, uncomplicated, as decent as they come. You’d expect Marlene Dietrich to eat him for breakfast. The character she plays, Frenchy (those naughty Frenchwomen, even one with a German accent!), chews up the little Russian (Mischa Auer) in the first ten minutes of the film. He’s highly susceptible to her charms, and she convinces him to gamble away his pants, just for yuks. His wife is not too pleased about it, when he comes home.

Lily Belle : Hey you! Give me those pants. And from now on, leave my husband alone.

Frenchy : I don’t want your husband, Mrs. Callahan – all I want is his money. . . and his pants.

Lily Belle : And how’d you get ’em? By making eyes at him while you cheated, you gilded lily!

Frenchy : But Mrs. Callahan, you know he would rather be cheated by me than married to you.

Fresh from playing a Russian ballet master opposite Jimmy Stewart in You Can’t Take it With You (1938), Auer delivers a delightful performance here. What’s a Russian doing in the old West, alongside a “French” dance hall chanteuse? Who cares! auer stewart dietrichMarshall makes this ensemble piece sparkle. I like Jimmy Stewart’s folksy sheriff’s deputy better than the congressman he went on to play that same year in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He’s less uptight, succumbing to Frenchy, surprising himself, and you like him better for it. Supposedly the two stars had a brief romance on the set. Nobody could resist Dietrich.

Marshall directed a remake with Audie Murphy in the title role in 1954. Skip it and watch one of the eleven episodes of “I Love Lucy” he directed instead.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

A charismatic outsider with no experience in government, a hero to his juvenile followers, arrives in Washington to fill a vacant seat in the Senate. He owes his appointment to some behind-the-scenes shenanigans by corrupt politicians in his home state. They think they can control him. Boy, were they mistaken.

smith-capitolImplausible? It’s hard to believe that Jimmy Stewart’s naïve character, Jefferson Smith, made it to adulthood, let alone to Washington. He doesn’t know how laws work, he doesn’t even know the rules of order that govern the Senate. Somehow this is endearing. His cynical secretary’s (Jean Arthur) faith in humanity is restored by Smith’s straightforward ignorance. She’s more than happy to educate him.

Smith doesn’t act like a grown-up. When unflattering articles appear about him following his first press conference, he punches out the reporters. It’s shocking, but you’re meant to cheer at this.  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington paints the press as less interested in ferreting out the truth than in selling newspapers and pandering to the prurient interests of their audience. I guess they had it coming?

Jeff Smith is like a kid when he arrives in the nation’s capitol, wandering off to see the sights: statues and monuments to the founding fathers, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Awestruck, he stands in front of the copy of the Declaration of Independence in the National Archives. We know he’s awestruck because patriotic music swells up beneath images of the Liberty Bell ringing, succeeded by a flaming torch as the words “life,” “liberty,” “pursuit of happiness” (penned as they were on the document) appear in front of his eyes.dwarfed-by-lincoln

He ends up at the Lincoln Memorial, listening as a little boy reads the words of the Gettysburg Address to his grandfather. Frank Capra apparently witnessed this very scene when he was making the movie. He’d been worrying that the time might not be right for this picture.

It was 1939. Hitler had signed a nonaggression pact with Stalin to ensure that the Soviet leader would not object when he invaded Poland. “The cancerous tumor of war was growing in the body politic,” Capra wrote in his autobiography, “but our reform-happy hero wanted to call the world’s attention to the pimple of graft on its nose.”

The more seasoned senator from Smith’s state, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), knows how politics works. “You can’t rely on people voting—half the time they don’t vote,” he tells Stewart early on. He’s quite ruthless, willing to lie to preserve his power and protect the interests of the fat cats back home. He wants Smith to grow up and face the facts: “This is a man’s world, Jeff, and you’ve got to check your ideals outside the door, just like you do your rubbers.”

Rains is by far the more interesting character, complex and increasingly tormented as he watches his protégé destroyed by the very machinations he set in motion. Smith is no match for the fat cats and their minions. In the famous filibuster scene at the end, when he pulls out the Constitution and reads the entire document, his Senate colleagues are unmoved. A good many of them are asleep.

But Rains has a moment of self-reckoning. He sees himself in Smith, his younger, purer self, and is ashamed at what he’s become. He confesses to having betrayed the country and his constituents, “the people who sent me here. . .  I’m not fit to hold office,” he shouts in the Senate chamber.

Talk about implausible.