Few sheriffs eschew gun wielding for whittling, even fewer do it successfully, and one imagines in the Wild West it would have been particularly hazardous. And yet Tom Destry in 1939's Destry Rides Again not only pulls it off but proves to be effective in a particularly crime ridden town. The premise doesn't really function in a reasonable manner but it's still a really good movie anyway.
Marlene Dietrich stars as Frenchy, saloon performer and unofficial boss of the town who, with her boyfriend Kent, routinely cheats people at cards. Released the same year as Ninotchka, the movie that aimed to rework Greta Garbo's career, Destry Rides Again shows us an unprecedentedly fun Marlene Dietrich. The actresses whose fame in the late 1920s was based on being cool and aloof now found themselves in a landscape altered by movies like It Happened One Night and the Astaire/Rogers musicals. People wanted comedy with their romance and leading ladies willing to get into a scrap. And does Dietrich ever get into a scrap.
One of the highlights of the film is a really vicious brawl between Frenchy and Lily Belle (Una Merkel) who's angry with Frenchy for winning her husband's pants in a game of poker. It's up to Destry (Jimmy Stewart) to break up the fight by pouring a bucket of water on the two ladies.
The legendary natural affability of Stewart's seems to be his main tool of law enforcement in lieu of the guns he doesn't carry. Stewart kind of makes it work with shear presence though even he can't make a scene work where Destry borrows the pistols from a thug to show him that he, Destry, is actually a crack shot, blowing some posts off a sign at distance. Then he returns to the guns to the thug and warns him not to start any trouble. Under the unlikely scenario that a sheriff in this town would be in any way effective while not carrying guns surely it would be better not to let people know that you'd be really dangerous if you got armed one day.
One thinks of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird who avoided using guns despite being an expert marksman. The crucial difference between the two stories is that To Kill a Mockingbird is about complex, credibly rendered people while Destry is up against two dimensional movie Western villains.
The movie exists in a vague territory between real action adventure logic and comedy logic--it was still a frontier for cinema at this point. But the chemistry between Stewart and Dietrich really works. Dietrich in particular is great at being smart, sexy, and funny all at once and she has some really cool musical numbers.