Before James Stewart became one of the most beloved stars in Hollywood history, he was — believe it or not — a struggling contract player at MGM. During the golden age of cinema, the small-town boy from Pennsylvania had found his way to Los Angeles, where he was churning out films as part of the studio system. It wasn't until Stewart stunned audiences with his turn as Senator Jefferson Smith in Frank Capra's 1939 comedy-drama "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" that his star seriously began to rise.
Considering how much work Stewart put into the part, the praise he received was well-deserved. Aside from breaking his rule regarding rushes for the great Capra, the actor also ingested mercury dichloride to give himself a sore throat and make his performance in the famous 24-hour filibuster scene more believable. Amazingly, after wrapping the movie, Stewart was far from "licked," as Senator Smith would say. MGM had loaned him to Columbia Pictures to make "Mr. Smith" and would immediately send him to work with Universal Pictures on a vastly different project.
With the introduction of talkies in the late 1920s, Westerns had declined in popularity among major Hollywood studios (via The New York Times Magazine). But the genre came roaring back in 1939 with the release of multiple celebrated efforts. Alongside "Jesse James," "Union Pacific," and "Dodge City" came John Ford's "Stagecoach," featuring one John Wayne in his breakthrough role.
Meanwhile, director George Marshall — then known for a series of Laurel and Hardy films — decided it was time to combine multiple genres to create something unique. That became "Destry Rides Again." This Western with a heart would feature Marlene Dietrich, one of the many Hollywood starlets unfortunate enough to be declared "box office poison" just the year before. And alongside Dietrich, Stewart would star in a role that couldn't have been farther removed from his turn as Senator Smith.
Destry Was A 'Battery Recharger'
Today, "Destry Rides Again" is remembered as one of the best Westerns of all time. That is largely thanks to its innovative approach to the genre, as it combined elements of musicals with romantic comedy while imbuing the whole thing with a real sense of heart and morality. In what was his first Western, James Stewart played Deputy Sheriff Tom Destry, a pacifist who attempts to bring order in the corrupt fictional town of Bottleneck. At first, he tries to do so through non-violent means but ultimately has to embrace the gunslinging ways of the old West to succeed.
The plot of "Destry Rides Again" made for some delightfully comedic moments, allowing Stewart to deliver an assured performance while having a great time with the character. Barely a line is said without a wry smile and a playful drawl. That reached almost self-parody levels when Destry questions Marlene Dietrich's saloon singer, Frenchy, about "taking part in crooked poker games, cheatin' folks out of their ranches."
According to Roy Pickard's 1993 biographical book "Jimmy Stewart: A Life In Film," this kind of playful persona was exactly what Stewart needed after the rigors of filming "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" with the fastidious Frank Capra. Pickard wrote that "Destry Rides Again" was "something of a battery recharger" for the actor as it was a "relatively easy film to make."
Stewart was just glad to be there: "As I was just a contract player at [MGM] it was good to be considered for the role." And while the film was well-received, Stewart got complaints from "Western picture buffs across the country," who felt the actor's mild-mannered Sheriff wasn't quite tough enough.
Not The Same Man After World War II
Later in his career, James Stewart would become known for making more serious Westerns, having returned from his service in World War II a changed man. In his 2016 book "Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe," Robert Matzen wrote (via The Chicago Tribune): "The war had changed Jim down to the molecular level […] He could never begin to articulate what those four-and-a-half years, including  months in combat, had done to him. One thing he could do was express a bit of it on-screen."
Much of that expression came through his work with Alfred Hitchcock in films such as 1954's mystery thriller "Rear Window" and 1958's noir psychological "Vertigo." But it also manifested in the much more self-serious Westerns of Anthony Mann, most notably 1953's "The Naked Spur," in which Stewart mines his emotional depths to play a rugged frontiersman. That made for some classic entries in Stewart's monumental filmography.
But there was something about "Destry Rides Again" that would never be recaptured, at least not with any other Stewart-led Western. "Destry" belongs to a unique moment in the actor's career when he had a distinct gleam in his eye as he worked his way assuredly towards historic stardom.
Stewart would pick up an Oscar the year after his first Western debuted for his performance in "The Philadelphia Story." In that pre-eminent rom-com, he displayed his playful side and almost made Cary Grant break character due to his light-hearted improvisations. While it's unfortunate that audiences lost out on his warm everyman charm following his harrowing experience in World War II, it only makes that golden age of Stewart movies even more special.
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