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SPECIAL SCREENING

Marlene Dietrich in a Western? Come Now!

August 05, 1993|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes about film for The Times Orange County Edition.

"Destry Rides Again" is a peculiar movie--a pacifist Western with screwball style. James Stewart plays a sheriff who refuses to wear a gun and Marlene Dietrich is the local saloon tart with wild eyes and a very heavy accent.

George Marshall's film (screening Friday night as part of the Newport Harbor Art Museum's Dietrich retrospective) is a hoot, just because it's so incongruous. There's cowboy action--galloping horses, snake-eyed outlaws, flying bullets--but that's all broadsided by Stewart and Dietrich. This was the first time they were paired and the first Western for both, and the odd casting now seems inspired.

The 1939 picture was a reluctant choice for Dietrich. Her career was sputtering at the time and she was looking for just the right comeback vehicle. But a Western? Dietrich's mentor, Josef von Sternberg (director of "The Blue Angel" and other Dietrich classics), persuaded her to go for it. He thought that the role's strangeness would fix her again in the public's mind.

She appears as foreign as ever, in fact more so because of the all-American familiarity of her surroundings. Dietrich wears heavy makeup, does her hair in glossy ringlets and sings tunes like "See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have" in her patented dusky style. She doesn't make any sense strutting through the town of Bottleneck, and that's what's so funny.

To ease the shock of Frenchy, Dietrich's uncommon character, writers Felix Jackson, Gertrude Purcell and Henry Myers also bring in the thickly accented Mischa Auer in a supporting role as a slapstick deputy from Russia. He's a Cossack cowpoke, if you will.

If Dietrich and Auer are the movie's main peculiarities, then Stewart is its comfortingly ordinary anchor; he's the perfect counterweight to Dietrich's dangerously exotic presence. There weren't many actors who could seem grandfatherly while playing a leading man, but Stewart was one of them, maybe the best. Tom Destry is custom-made for him.

After being called in to clean up Bottleneck, a town run by the crooked Kent (Brian Donlevy, in one of his better snarl-and-smile roles), Destry surprises everybody by leaving his six-shooter at home. He hates violence and would rather out-think his enemies. Destry is good at this, and the movie reels out on the dare he's given himself.

In addition to Auer, the durable supporting cast includes Charles Winninger as Wash, the town drunk who finds himself a lawman once again. There's also Jack Carson as a temperamental cattleman, Una Merkel as a pioneer gal ready to rumble (she has a knockabout cat fight with Frenchy), and Samuel S. Hinds as Bottleneck's shifty mayor.

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