Friday 9 April 2021

CINEMA REBORN - Countdown - Opening Film - David Hare writes on DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (George Marshall, USA, 1939) - Thursday 29 April at 6.30 pm

These notes also appear on the CINEMA REBORN WEBSITE 


George Marshall was born December 29, 1891 in Chicago and died February 17 1975 in Los Angeles.  His may not be a household name in auteurist circles these days but he landed in Hollywood close to the dawn of cinema, and made his first one reel short, Across the Rio Grandein 1916. His beginnings in the movies are almost accidental, like a number of other men (and a few women) who drifted into the business during and after The Great War with seemingly nowhere else to go.


George Marshall (left)

Marshall’s career then took a not atypical course for those directors whose careers ran parallel with the growth of the burgeoning studio system, and after beginning with one and two reel independent comedy shorts, he drifted into the best of the comedy production outfits, the Hal Roach studio where he honed his directorial skills with Laurel and Hardy and Fatty Arbuckle movies. Over the next few decades he shifted across the studio system from Fox to Universal to Paramount and then back again. His work, like so many journeyman directors itself covers and even defines a representative spectrum of genre based American cinema. To me his specialities were two (of the three) greatest American modes, the western and comedy. His early training in shorts and then feature length action pictures gave him a mastery of control and high-precision script-shaping to concentrate and expand the narrative to pace and stage the material to maximum dramatic effect. Among his very best films are also some of the best pictures of their respective genres. 

Destry Rides Again is one of the earliest major American western feature films. The Ghost Breakers, made when he moved to Paramount the following year in 1940, is the best Bob Hope comedy, with support from Paulette Godard and may be his most entertaining film. Its appeal as pure entertainment is mysteriously timeless.  His post-war 1946 The Blue Dahlia again at Paramount is the best of the Alan Ladd Noirs.  By the time his career was winding up in the mid sixties he was hooked into the big 1962 Cinerama project, How the West was Wonwhich would be the first feature film made in that cumbersome ultra-widescreen three camera process. Henry Hathaway and Ford were the other directors in the holy trinity, with Hathaway as wrangler for the project. Ford directed the two sublime Civil War sequences, and Marshall had been assigned to the “Railway” segment as the picture’s big action specialist. The rumour mill has it that by now Marshall was unwell for much of the shooting and, like Ford, he completely loathed the three camera process with its limitations of fixed focal lenses and technical intricacies which created ludicrous limitations on staging and blocking of the actors. In any case Hathaway ended up directing most if not all of Marshall’s assigned material but generously left him the screen credit. 

Destry Rides Again
 made in early 1939 was a project from producer Joe Pasternak, one of the great Hollywood “system” producers with a hard eye for talent and innovation.  The screenplay was heavily adapted from a Max Brand novel and with it Pasternak intended to rescue Marlene Dietrich from the obscurity of the “Box Office Poison” status she had labored under after her last two Paramount films with Sternberg in 1934 and 35. It’s one of several films that seals Marshall’s reputation as a key director of the reborn western and a master of narrative control and precision, especially here in Destry in balancing the limited doses of light hearted self parody of old Western stereotypes with quite sudden turns to deadly serious dramatic intentions.   The film’s relentless juggling of tone is almost shocking now to modern audiences who are more accustomed to the one dimensional mood plays of so many contemporary movies.  

Thus a convergence of high period Studio system talent, notably Pasternak as producer, Marshall as master director of multiple genres (including the musical numbers composed by Friedrich Hollaender for Dietrich in the picture) and the sheer tonal sophistication of the screenplay mark Destry as a both an innovator and a “classic” 

To understand Marshall further I think is to understand Destry itself, and its place in the magic firmament year of 1939, so beloved of cinephiles. This was the year the Depression was well and truly over, the “Big Four” studios (Paramount, Fox, Warners and MGM) had all pulled back from bankruptcy and technically the talking picture was at its technical and artistic peak. Among the cinephile games to play is the dreaded “1939 lists”so here goes. Internationally 1939 yielded Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu, Mizoguchi’s Zangiku Monogatari/Tale of the Last Chrysanthemum, Korda’s The Four Feathers, Carne’s Quai des Brumes, Ophuls’ Sans Lendemainand Duvivier’s La Fin du Jour.   In the USA the list is seemingly endless and includes Ford’s Stagecoach, Lubitsch’s Ninotchka, Cukor’s Zaza, Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, Leisen’s (sublime) Midnight, McCarey’s Love Affair, Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties and Marshall’s Destry Rides Again

So the year 1939 itself has much to do with what makes Destry a landmark picture in the Hollywood studio system. Prior to 1939, the western had been jointly invented by the Americans and the French, the latter in great part by the surrealist filmmaker Jean Durand in the first decades of the 20th century.  After the arrival of the early sound film, notwithstanding Raoul Walsh’s fascinating early widescreen talkie for Fox in 1930, The Big Trail, the genre fell out of favour for a variety of reasons, and ended up relegated usually to the “B” units of mostly second string studios who churned them out, serial-style for filler.  During the decade it remained for King Vidor, with The Texas Rangers in 1936, and de Mille with The Plainsman from the same year to take the genre seriously enough to reboot it, giving their movies leading actor casts and crews, including Fred MacMurray and Jack Oakie for Vidor, and Gary Cooper with Jean Arthur for de Mille. 

Both these movies re-opened the door to the western as a major American genre. And so it was in 1939 that two major directors made two key westerns which altered the direction of both their own careers and the future of the genre itself. Ford, first with his staggering, metaphysical morality play made in homage to Murnau, Stagecoach which finally revealed John Wayne as a star performer, and Marshall’s Destry Rides Again which not only re-established the immense range and appeal of the form, but also broke Dietrich’s deadly ”Box Office Poison” curse.  Destry, like Stagecoach was so commercially successful it broke BO records for Universal that year, and catapulted Dietrich back into the Hollywood system.

Watching it today in this gorgeous 35mm to 4K restoration from Universal, I hope you find Destry Rides Again as irresistible an entertainment as I do. 

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