Friday, August 6, 2010

How to be an American

James Stewart made Destry Rides Again (1939) right after Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, confirming his new identity as the ideal American. Marlene Dietrich had just finished a long run of playing the exotic foreign temptress, and with this film began a new phase of her career, as a good old gal, always up for a good time, even if she has a Kraut accent. Director George Marshall had been working steadily, but with little distinction since his stint with Laurel & Hardy early in the decade. After Destry, he was identified as a major comedy director, working with Bob Hope, Lewis & Martin and Lucille Ball. Interestingly enough, he was rarely called on for Westerns, other than How The West Was Won. What is it about this film that made all the stars align?

A lot of those qualities are evident in the long clip I posted above, almost a whole reel long. First, you are struck with the lavish and handsome production, especially for a cheap outfit like Universal in 1939. That has to be one of the largest saloon sets this side of Warner's Errol Flynn epics. It is lit and shot with a lot of depth and variety, depth of field being used to delineate characters through the complex staging. The acting is full-throated, based in vaudeville rather than the Actor's Studio. Most of the actors are content to play simple types (especially Charles Winninger as the sheriff) so as to throw the leading roles into stronger relief. Everyone on hand is thoroughly familiar with the conventions of the genre, and rather than subvert them, as in Blazing Saddles, overplays them. This approach demonstrates a greater trust in the audience's ability to discern the contrast between the conventions of the genre and Destry's unconventional behavior (not to mention Frenchy's), as opposed to Brooks's whack-'em-on-the-head treatment.

I read on the Interwebs that the script bears no relation to the Max Brand workaday cowboy novel it is based on, so clearly the filmmakers set out to have some fun, and the producers were hoping to come up with a new brand for studio star Dietrich by borrowing Jimmy Stewart from MGM to have some of his all-Americanness rub off on her. It worked, though I suspect that this character was a lot closer to Dietrich's own off-screen personality than the oogie-boogie voodoo lady they had made her into at Paramount.

Stewart's Destry feels likes a precursor of the James Garner persona: practical, unromantic, but affable. He is, in short, like Jefferson Smith, our idealized image of ourselves as Americans. Frenchie, Marlene Dietrich's role, has absorbed some of that in her time in the States, but as can be seen in the clip above, she is still passionate and excitable, and she will pay for that passion as the story goes on. So we see that European-ness cannot survive in the West--which symbolizes the entire American experiment--while patience and a good-humored tolerance for the differences among us provide the survival tools we will need.

So while this is a "town and saloon" Western--not one set against the landscape or against the hostility of the natives, it still has something to say about who we are and what we should be, especially in this war year of 1939. Perhaps that is why it is so appropriate for Dietrich to be "Frenchie." The name, I presume, comes from the locals, who figure all Europeans are interchangeable, and that a dance-hall girl (Hollywood code for prostitute) should be French. But it is also appropriate that she bears the name of the French, who proved to be utterly unprepared for what would come in the War and suffered for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment