Marlene Dietrich – a Dance Hall Queen

In the mid 1930’s things had begun to unravel for Marlene.  In her films she had become typecast as a woman of low morals.  Then, her chance of change came in 1939 when she was cast as “Frenchy” – a Western saloon hostess in ‘Destry Rides Again’.

1939 marked an incredible year in Hollywood cinema – one that saw probably the greatest variety of landmark films in its history: Stagecoach, Gone With the Wind, Ninotchka, The Wizard of Oz, Gunga Din, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Grapes of Wrath, Wuthering Heights, are just a few. It was also a year where Westerns like John Ford’s ‘Stagecoach’ were reaching new artistic heights. Another to rise above the past was ‘Destry Rides Again’ a new kind of film which was a complex synthesis of several genres – comedy, romance, musical and Western revenge fantasy. Director George Marshall twisted these together in a unique and entertaining blend that helped redefine the genre’s sense of irony and purpose.

In the story Kent – the saloon owner and unscrupulous boss of the town of Bottleneck – has the town’s sheriff, killed when he asked one too many questions about a rigged poker game. Kent and “Frenchy”, his girlfriend and the dance hall queen, now have a stranglehold over the local cattle ranchers. The crooked town’s mayor, Hiram J. Slade, is also in collusion with Kent and appoints the town drunk, Washington Dimsdale, as the new sheriff, assuming that he will be easy to control and manipulate. But – what mayor Slade does not know is that Dimsdale was a deputy under the famous lawman Tom Destry, and is able to call upon the latter’s equally formidable son, Tom Destry, Jr. – played by James Stewart – to help him make Bottleneck a lawful, respectable town.  Destry confounds the townsfolk by refusing to strap on a gun in spite of demonstrating that he is an expert marksman. He still carries out the “letter of the law”, as deputy sheriff, and earns their respect.

A final confrontation between Destry and Kent’s gang is inevitable.  However, “Frenchy” is won over by Destry, changes sides and, when a final gunfight ensues, “Frenchy” is killed in the crossfire, and the rule of law wins the day.

This film began a new direction for Marlene because it released her from the typecasting of old.  In 1996, Destry Rides Again was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant”.



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