DESTRY (George Marshall, 1954)

We see films in the order that we happen to come by them. For me as a boy, Tom Destry meant Audie Murphy years before I saw James Stewart in the same role in the fifteen-years-earlier Destry Rides Again. Through numerous viewings of the 1939 version, I now know that Stewart’s performance is superior to Murphy’s; indeed, it would remain one of the three or four richest performances of Stewart’s career. Nevertheless, Murphy is wonderful in the remake (actually, the remake of a remake), and I’ve retained for his Destry a full draught of affection and admiration. Although Stewart is the better actor, his persona is essentially parochial and mean-spirited; I don’t know that he ever is large-souled or generous on screen, which Murphy, by contrast, as far as I know, always is. According to repeat co-star Maureen O’Hara, Stewart was ungiving as a fellow performer. From what we see of Stewart, what we know of him from his films, who can possibly doubt her?
     The 1954 Destry replaces Marlene Dietrich in a vibrant legendary performance with Mari Blanchard, whose saloon singer, like all the film’s characters except for Tom Destry, is given a new name as if to discourage a strict comparison of casts. (The town’s name has also changed, from Bottleneck to the ironical Restful, a projective parody of the sociopolitical tumult concealed by 1950s complacency.) Blanchard is no Dietrich, and there is no discernible romantic spark between her and Murphy as there was between Dietrich and the normally sexually reticent Stewart, who were themselves lovers at the time.
     George Marshall directed both versions, the black-and-white classic and the remake in color, and did a crackerjack job on both occasions. The plot is exactly the same each time. (See my essay on the 1939 film.) On two scores the 1954 version surpasses the 1939 one: Thomas Mitchell’s Capraesque performance as the drunk-turned-serious sheriff; the shattering moment when Destry shoots out the saloon mirror to even the killing field between him and the villain: symbolically, the blasting away of the crisis of identity that had held young Destry locked in the shadow of his murdered lawman-father.

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