Destry Rides Yet Again

 “You know, I don’t hold too much for first impressions. The way I figure it, the last impression is important.” -Tom Destry

By Lawrence “Mack in Texas” Hall 

(spoiler warning)

One of the satellite channels programmed a weekend of Audie Murphy cowboy movies. In my youth these were a Saturday afternoon staple down at the Palace Theatre, of happy memory, and I was pleased to revisit Destry (1954).

Dismissing Destry and other post-war shoot-‘em-ups as cheap, mass-produced, predictable entertainment would be easy, and in fact Destry features few surprises: a young, unassuming cowboy whom everyone underrates arrives in a corrupt western down to clean it up. The chief villain is an oily fancy-pants with a concealed Derringer and who surrounds himself with a crew of stupid, disposable gunslingers. There is a bad girl and a good girl (think of Grushenka and Katerina in The Brothers Karamazov), an incompetent mayor, an incompetent sheriff, a kindly old Doc, a brass-voiced old aunt, and assorted fearful townsfolk.

Destry, however, stands out because of the director, George Marshall, and an outstanding cast of some of Hollywood’s finest.

Marshall was the director of 1939’s Destry Rides Again and wanted to re-make it in color and with a larger budget. His 1954 Tom Destry is the son of James Stewart’s Destry, and so the second film could be considered a sequel rather than a remake. That the second film is not as well-known as the first is unfortunate, because it is excellent in its own way.

Audie Murphy was a great actor. He is better known for his many cowboy films, but was brilliant as a conflicted young idealist in The Quiet American. Filmed in Saigon in 1958 with some studio sequences in Rome, this controversial film was not a financial success (and author Graham Greene hated it) but Murphy is finally given a chance to portray a complex, conflicted character and carries it off wonderfully. In Destry he anticipates this complexity as a young deputy sheriff dealing with apparently impossible situations while upholding the law.

Mari Blanchard, whose career was all too short, is the brunette bad girl who chooses the right path in the end, but because she was the bad girl she must die.

Lori Nelson is the blonde good girl, generally forgettable except at the end, when she discharges two revolvers into the ceiling to get Destry’s attention.

Wonderful Mary Wickes is the brass-voice old aunt (Doc’s wife, actually, but P. G. Wodehouse would see her as an aunt).

Lyle Bettger is the Snidely Whiplash villain, cunning, cruel, and treacherous. He seems to be enjoying his role immensely.

Thomas Mitchell is the bumbling, drunken sheriff, often comical but who in the end dies tragically when shot in the back by the villains. This is the point when Destry stops being Mr. I-don’t-like-guns Nice Guy and the plot goes all Katie-bar-the-door. Best known as Scarlett O’Hara’s pa, Mitchell enjoyed a long career in Hollywood and was a closet intellectual and playwright as well as a much-honored actor.

Wallace Ford is loveable ol’ Doc. This great actor’s early life was, as many have noted, Dickensian. He was born in England as Samuel Grundy and grew up in a series of orphanages and brutal family placements in England and in Canada. Sam and another boy, named Wallace Ford, escaped to America (Danged illegal immigrants, right? Ford later served in the cavalry.) on a freight train. Wallace Ford was killed while the boys were trying to board another train, and in his honor Sam took Wallace’s name. Now there is a story worth filming.

Edgar Buchanan always played bumbling, comical old grumps, uncles, and mayors, but in a surprise turn he is in this film a determined villain and is killed trying to murder Destry.

John Doucette steals his one brief scene as a growly-voiced bully and, long before he was the Skipper Alan Hale, Jr., sails a horse as a tough trail boss impatient with the young deputy sheriff’s determination to follow the law in all things.

By the end of the film the set is littered with more bodies than the final scene in Hamlet, and yet there is no blood. Why were movie deaths so tidy in those days? Everyone in the cast and crew were survivors of the Depression and the Second World War. Some of them had been in combat in the Second World War and others in the First World War. All of them would have lost friends or relatives in the wars, and all of them knew how fearful, painful, and prolonged most deaths are. We can only speculate that, knowing hunger and death and loss for so long, the filmmakers were not going to show those horrors in their art. It sometimes seems that the brutal deaths in modern cinema are staged by filmmakers whose own lives have featured no more trauma than not making the swim team at Yale or maybe having to wait in line at a Starbucks.

But this is only speculation.

Another reality is that there is little diversity in 1950s cowboy films, although we know that the American West was peopled by all sorts of peoples from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures. But a film reflects the aesthetics of the dominant culture in the time in which it was made, not the time in which it is set, thus all those blonde Romans in Spartacus. John Ford was one of the few filmmakers trying to get things right (cf. Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn, for instance), but he is now faulted for his efforts while the other producers and directors of the time who ignored social injustice get a pass.

Well, as the man says in Slaughterhouse Five, so it goes.

And I see I have drifted away from my topic, the fine craftsmanship in Audie Murphy’s Destry. It is a good film indeed, almost Shakespearean in its individual tragedies but with the young lovers reunited at the end. We hope that they lived happily ever after.

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