I took this class, Film 134a: American Film 1930 - 1960, taught by Prof. Edward R. O'Neill in the Winter of 2002. Prof. O'Neill is, in my opinion, the greatest film professor on this planet. And I loved this class even though my TA was a first class stoopid idiot. I must have gotten a good grade on this paper. I guess. I don't know as I never got it back. Anyway, the way the class worked was that we chose a film from the time period of the class (it was a film history class) and wrote exclusively on that film. I had chosen Destry because I wrote a paper on it for the Western & Melodrama class I was taking at the same time and from the same professor incidentally. Anyway, for the final paper we had to choose a second film and use it with the first to create a thesis pertaining to the writing and material of the class. I chose Mr Smith because it was released not long after Destry, both starred James Stewart and he was singled out for attention in the reading as one of the heralds of the fall of the Hollywood Studio system. Thusly, this paper. I started it at 9pm, finished it at 4am and turned it in at 10am cuz I am hard core.
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Destry Rides Again and Mr Smith Goes to Washington: Predicting the Fall of the Hollywood Studio System
Thomas Schatz cites the 1950’s as the inevitable end of the Hollywood film studio system, with the signs appearing as early as the height of the second World War (472). However, the seeds of discontent and disintegration within the system were apparent as soon as the late 1930’s, exemplified in such films as Destry Rides Again (1939, George Marshall) and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939, Frank Capra). The production of these two films and the paths down which they led their star (James Stewart), directors (at least Frank Capra), and studios (Universal and Columbia, respectively) are evidence of the decline of the studio system. The haphazard production of Destry Rides Again and its subsequent success (financially, but not as an enduring classic film) are indicative of a system eating itself alive: so intent on the production of film after film made with almost the same crews and casts that lasting meaning had been all but completely forgotten in favor of financial success and power within the system. This also demonstrates the decline of the fascist executive order of the studios in favor of the hard work and devotion of those directly involved on the film set as well as the increasingly important role of the talent agent as the intermediary between the talent and the studios. Frank Capra’s eventually freelance auteurship, in the wake of David O. Selznick and his “independent” film productions, particularly evident in the production of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, was a notable indicator of the studios’ impending loss of power (Schatz 407). These and other independent and freelance artists (such as Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang) began to turn the tide against the studios until the artists gained money through use of the studios almost equally to the studios which gained money through the employed artists. The balance of power was thus tipped in favor of the individual filmmakers. These films also served to launch James Stewart’s career as a successful leading man (usually next to a star leading lady), particularly in the western genre (The Man From Laramie, The Naked Spur, Winchester 73), as a patriotic all-American (It’s a Wonderful Life, again with Capra), and working with and as an independent (his infamous contract with Universal and his work with Alfred Hitchcock, both in the 1950’s). Destry Rides Again and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington also raise issues regarding the value placed on dramatic and outright patriotic films in comparison to the value placed on films which serve as mere entertainment. While Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is an overtly political film, Destry Rides Again, in its own way, is highly political and both films reveal that the United States of 1939 was a politically charged nation preparing itself subconsciously to take part in a worldwide war.
During the second half of the 1930s, Universal came under a completely new ownership. The traditional owners, the Laemmle family, lost Universal at this time after leading it up and down the mountains and valleys of success and failure. The new owner, J. Cheever Cowdin, set up Robert H. Cochrane and Charles R. Rogers in charge of Universal. They kept the company going, sometimes by thin margins, until the very end of the 1930s when they established Universal as a viable competitor once again. They achieved this end through a string of disorganized yet miraculously successful films at the tail end of the decade. Destry Rides Again was one of these films. It is also a film that rides the margins between an ‘A’ picture and a prestige picture. Its final cost was $765,000, it ran 94 minutes, featured multiple stars of varying caliber, and was based not only on a presold novel, but was a remake/revision of a 1932 film by Universal of the same name. The production of Destry Rides Again was plagued with guesswork and disorganization. It, along with its contemporary Universal success films, went into production without a definite script, shooting schedule, or budget. This caused a great deal of fluster for the company but paid off very well in the long run for Universal. As Schatz writes, “Perhaps... Destry Rides Again [wasn’t] quite up to industry-wide standards in those glory years in Hollywood, but [it was] strong enough to win Universal a piece of the first-run market” (251). When mentioned in biographic works of those involved in its creation, the film is referenced primarily as a revitalization of Marlene Dietrich’s career (Variety “Destry”; Dewey 184), the time of an ultimately negative romance with Dietrich for Stewart (Dewey 179), and one of the best films George Marshall ever directed (Maltin). Whilst Destry Rides Again was a product of the studio system, it also defied industry standards, including “Type-casting, the bane of the film industry” because it was both Dietrich and Stewart’s first venture into the western genre (Nugent, Destry). Despite these and other factors which render the film unconventional, it was received at the time and is remembered with some degree of admiration, though rarely with respect. The New York Times referred to the film as a “tightly written, capitally directed show” which is, of course, ironic, given that writing the script was an ongoing project through the film’s entire production. The traditions of the studio using the same cast or stars playing the same types of roles were broken in an integral manner: with an entertaining, December-released star vehicle and aspiring prestige production. The film even, it would seem, escaped traditional censorship. A scene involving a reference to Marlene Dietrich’s chest, while referenced in the New York Times review does not appear in the current print of the film. Variety’s remarks in their review of the film indicate a belief in the futility of the studio system, the producers and writers and thus the entire hierarchy of executives behind the film: “The plot, characterizations and humor are practically all cut from stock patterns, so that the kudos for ‘Destry’ being quite different are due to the players’ behavior”. Even in 1939 films were being thought of as successful separate from the Hollywood machine. These exceptions would later become the rule as the freedom of freelancing became more popular and more appealing, spearheaded for producers by David O. Selznick and for performers by none other than James Stewart.
David Selznick, after years at various studios, formed his own film production company in 1935. In the 1930’s it was virtually impossible for a producer to be truly independent. Large studios had to be relied on for their first-run theaters as well as for renting studio space and borrowing top-billing and high-grossing talent. However, Selznick proved that the modicum of independence provided by moving between and among studios was worth the effort through the success of his endeavors on such pictures as Gone With The Wind. He also demonstrated this through the founding of his own production company and his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock on Rebecca. Toward the end of the 1930’s Selznick was considering signing various directors, including Frank Capra He ultimately did not collaborate with him at that time but his offer was not without its effect on Capra (Schatz, 272). Capra was working with Columbia Pictures at that time, producing what Schatz has called “low-grade Capracorn”, implying the ‘corny’ nature of Capra’s films. Indeed, the blatant and unabashed massaging of the American ego seen in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington does merit this statement. The freedom offered to Capra by Selznick at this point stipulates that Capra was searching for a greater amount of creative expression for his films and to leave the “meager resources” of Columbia and thus of a studio (albeit a minor one) and to seek some form of independence (Schatz, 272). This shift of focus away from the studio caused greater emphasis to put upon filmmakers and the creative and artistic aspects of filmmaking rather than the financial and prestigious aspects. Thus stars and large budgets would become functions by which art was made and not vice versa with the large budgets put in the service of seeking large profits through the prominent stars. Although Mr. Smith Goes To Washington was a studio production from Columbia, the film is clearly the work of Frank Capra and symptomatic of his filmmaking style. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is patriotic and advocates democracy to the point of absurdity (and is suggestive of a kind of naive simplicity) and even includes a makeshift happy ending where all of the circumstances are mysteriously resolved just because of one person’s allegedly brave and daring action. However, reviewers at the time simply adored the film. They praised it as “one of the best shows of the year” (Nugent, Mr. Smith) among other similar sentiments. In terms of James Stewart’s career, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington was a vital film, arguably the most vital. It paved the way for his success in Destry Rides Again as well as his other successes prior to his induction into wartime service in World War II. This film also established his working relationship with Frank Capra who he went on to work with in projects such as It’s A Wonderful Life which today is the film he is perhaps best known for having done. Stewart is, historically, regarded as the star of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington although he is credited after Jean Arthur, the leading lady. The situation is reversed for Destry Rides Again where Stewart receives credit next to, but just before Marlene Dietrich. This is an important step in his career and also in his life as it was during the filming of Destry Rides Again that his whirlwind romance with Dietrich occurred. Thus this was the legitimate beginning of Stewart’s legacy as a Hollywood icon.
The Hollywood studio system of early film was a difficult industry for “so-called independents like David O. Selznick” due to its “fundamentally collaborative” nature (Schatz 407). Though by the time of the “war boom” in 1946 at least one studio, Universal, was rabidly hiring independent filmmakers (Schatz, 464). As Schatz states, “Universal had paved the way for the kind of outside deals that were becoming commonplace in Hollywood” although at the beginning of the 1950’s they began to once again rely heavily on their contract players (469). This practice ended somewhat abruptly and surprisingly when Universal cut a deal with James Stewart’s agent Lew Wasserman (of MCA) which allowed him to waive a salary prior to the film’s release in return for fifty percent of the film’s profits. This proved to be not only profitable for Stewart but afforded him a considerable break in his taxes as well as establishing him as Hollywood’s highest grossing star of the early 1950’s. Universal was therefore able, with Stewart, to create prestigious productions without having to pay in advance for the star, allowing them to invest more money into the quality of the production and advertising. This deal was “the most obvious manifestation... of the fragmentation and shifting power relations in Hollywood during the early 1950s” which put James Stewart and the path of his career in the spotlight of film history at this point (Schatz 472). This moment would never have been reached without the legacy of David O. Selznick as an ‘independent’ in the studio system or without Stewart’s previous accomplishments as a film star, especially Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Destry Rides Again as its immediate successor. This modification in concentration from the studio to not only the star and the producers and directors but the role of the talent agent highlights the importance of James Stewart’s role in film history and particularly of these two films as key moments in the progression of his career from being billed after Jean Arthur to being the top star of early 1950’s Hollywood. In addition to all this, Stewart’s work with Frank Capra, beginning with Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, instituted him as a landmark of the American ideal: the image of what a true American supposedly looked and acted like. Furthermore, the precedent set by Destry Rides Again of Stewart as a western hero lent his talents toward aiding such directors as Anthony Mann to revitalize the western film with such productions as The Naked Spur (MGM, 1952) and The Man From Laramie (Columbia, 1955). Destry Rides Again was Stewart’s first role in a western film and he clearly did a great deal for the genre, appearing in and putting his star power toward promoting these films. Finally all of these elements culminated in Stewart’s work with Alfred Hitchcock, a director who came over from England to work with David O. Selznick and ended up touring through many studios and thus was the ultimate independent in a system where independence was difficult if even possible. Through the 1950’s and beyond Stewart made several films with Hitchcock (including Rope and Vertigo) which kept his career going strong even when he was no longer the highest grossing star in Hollywood.
Finally, these films call into question the institution of values which are placed on film and the reasons why some films are valued more than others. To begin, a great deal of critical material has been written regarding the western film as an institution, but the film Destry Rides Again, more often than not, is omitted from the discourse. In readings on the major stars of the film, Destry Rides Again does not even merit its own chapter. This is surprising considering the praise it warranted from The New York Times and Variety when it was released in 1939. When applied to William Wright’s definition (48), Destry Rides Again is a classic Western film. However, many critics and writers do not recognize it as such, one even describes it as “The best known ‘comic’ Western of the 1930’s” (Nachbar 132). While it is certainly inarguable that Destry Rides Again has many comic elements in its plot, it is not simply a ‘comic’ western. Variety refers to the moments of dramatic action in the film as laughable. The New York Times praises the film as “just plain good entertainment”. While neither review is negative, both dismiss the film as a sort of mindless fluff and a good source of escapist entertainment which is often an excuse for not applying a critical analysis to a film. Kim Newman, for instance, places it in comparison with several other works to conclude that even pacifist heroes in westerns eventually use guns to enforce law and order (135). This salutation to its classic nature is valuable, but not of use if one is seeking a clear analytical reading of the film as a whole. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, however, is honored and respected as a film which upholds democracy, which in the instance of this film is simplistically equated with the state and practice of being American. The New York Times claims that Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) in the film “preserve[s] his faith, and ours, in democracy”. Variety beholds Mr. Smith Goes To Washington as “a drama that combines timeliness with current topical interest and a patriotic flavor”. So while the reviews praise both films, Destry Rides Again is dismissible as a film that can never be taken seriously but must be watched and forgotten while Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is constructed as a superior film which must be watched and remembered because it is an important and timely film and thus one of social significance which reinforces good old fashioned American values. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is perhaps taken more seriously because it is a drama with a strong male lead while Destry Rides Again is a comedic film with a strong female lead. Strong female roles are not perceived as material to be taken seriously (take for instance the stigma applied to the female melodrama film) let alone if they are found in a film which has a prevailing theme of comedy. Destry Rides Again is really seen as Marlene Dietrich’s film by the reviewers. After having pontificated for quite some time about Marlene Dietrich’s role in the film, The New York Times mentions dismissively that “James Stewart is all right. He usually is.” This is probably due to his character being, as mentioned later, “a softy.” Another aspect in which Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is indicated as having more worth than Destry Rides Again is in regard to authorship. Frank Capra is praised for Mr. Smith Goes To Washington: “For Mr. Capra is a believer in democracy as well as a stout-hearted humorist” (Nugent, Mr. Smith). In contrast, the reviews of Destry Rides Again mistakenly credit the producer Joe Pasternak with the role of director of the film while George Marshall was, in fact, the director of the film. The fact that Leonard Maltin claims that Destry Rides Again is “among [ George Marshall’s] best films” does little to alter this implication of low quality through lack of true authorship. From Schatz’ writing, it is also not clear that George Marshall did in fact direct Destry Rides Again. His writing seems to indicate that the producers were solely responsible for the film’s production. Maltin praises the film as “proof that even a supposedly ‘uninspired’ director could thrive amidst the studio system and turn out a genuinely great movie”. While it is not amiss to have the film seen in such a favorable light in this context, it does not provide a true base of knowledge as to who was in charge of the production and responsible for the end product of Destry Rides Again. In truth, Destry Rides Again is a film which advocates democracy and blind devotion to colonialist ideals just as strongly as, though with greater subtly than, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. The difference is that while Mr. Smith Goes To Washington depicts the American public (and thus, the audience of the film) as a heroic people who can band together to overcome the villains, Destry Rides Again shows the public as a confused and complacent mass partially responsible for their own problems (as with Mr. Claggett who gambles away his family ranch) and must therefore be saved by the hero. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington flatters the audience and massages the collective ego of the average middle-class white American citizen while Destry Rides Again critiques the audience. In this respect, the characters of Destry Rides Again are real characters because they have motivations and personal feelings while the characters in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington are exceedingly vague in their motives. Jefferson Smith himself talks at great length about hazy, half-formed notions of American ideology yet never gains a personal investment in his mission other than his father having died for some mysteriously patriotic and righteous cause. So because of this, Jefferson Smith sets forth to follow more mysteriously patriotic and righteous causes. In Destry Rides Again, Tom Destry (James Stewart) does not believe in carrying guns not only because his father was shot in the back but because he himself was involved in a nasty gunfight wherein he killed many people which apparently traumatized him. Tom Destry therefore, unlike Jefferson Smith, is given a personal stake in his own function within the film. So while Mr. Smith Goes To Washington can exemplify American ideals until the end of time, that is all it is capable of: signifying. Destry Rides Again offers the opportunity to identify with a (sort of) real person. Both films, though, are pro-American while ignoring indications of race and colonialism.
Ergo, the historical and political functions of these films can be seen clearly by how they relate not only to one another but their positionality in the history of the film industry, the fall of the Hollywood studio system and the rise of the independent, more flexible mode of producing films. James Stewart’s function in this process is integral to say the very least. Neither film is without its flaws though, both being blindly patriotic (overtly and covertly) and true critical analysises of the films being difficult if even possible to obtain.
“Destry Rides Again, 6 December 1939”. Variety: A Sixteen Volume Set. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc. 1983
Dewey, Donald. James Stewart: A Biography. Atlanta, Georgia: Turner Publishing, Inc. 1996:
Maltin, Leonard. Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. Signet. 1994: taken from http://us.imdb.com/Bio?Marshall,+George+(I)
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 11 October 1939”. Variety: A Sixteen Volume Set. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc. 1983
Nachbar, Jack (ed). Focus on the Western. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1974: 132
Newman, Kim. Wild West Movies or How the West was Found, Won, Lost, Lied About, Filmed and Forgotten. London: Bloomsbury. 1990: 135
Nugent, Frank S. “Destry Rides Again, 2 December 1939”. The New York Times Film Reviews. New York: The New York Times and Arno Press. 1970
Nugent, Frank S. “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, 20 October 1939”. The New York Times Film Reviews. New York: The New York Times and Arno Press. 1970
Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System. New York: Metropolitan Books. 1988: 235-251
Wright, William. Six Guns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press. 1975: 48
This page last updated July 26th, 2002
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