The town of Bottleneck is under the thumb of land-grabbers Brian Donlevy and Marlene Dietrich. The citizens’ only hope is the arrival of the legendary town-tamer Jimmy Stewart. But this legend doesn’t even pack a gun because he might get hurt! The town’s savior is a daisy! Or is he?
This is the first great western comedy of the sound era and provides the model for all that would come after. Even BLAZING SADDLES borrows from it with Madeline Kahn’s classic send-up of Dietrich’s dance-hall singer and the marvelous I’m Tired number.
This is seamless entertainment with a clever script that remembers to provide a strong plot, high stakes real heart, and some fine suspense moments as a foundation for the comedy. See, back in this period of film making, as much attention was paid to the structure of comedies as it was to dramas. All of this is under the sure hand of the prolific and versatile director George Marshall and he gets top drawer performances from everyone.
James Stewart was just starting to build his career after his standout performance in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and here, he’s at his most laconic and assured. This film would be his first in what would be a long association with Universal starring in some of the best westerns of the era.
Marlene Dietrich is somewhat of a revelation here. If you’re familiar with her ice-cold femme fatale roles you’ll probably be surprised by her playful approach to this role and how much fun she appears to be having playing it. She’s also featured in three song interludes that are the only worthwhile scenes of their type in any western I can think of. Memorable performances of Little Joe, You’ve Got That Look and the classic See What the Boys in The Back Room Will Have are all weaved organically into the story and each is memorable for its own reasons. Every time I watch this movie my wife remarks that Dietrich can’t sing. Maybe not. But she could sure sell a song.
The rest of the cast, except for Brian Donlevy in the best heavy role of his career, is populated by comic actors at the top of their game. Charles Winninger, as the former town drunk and now mock sheriff, is fussy and energetic and endearing as Stewart’s only friend in town. Una Merkel is a fireball as Dietrich’s frontier woman foil and opponent in the wildest saloon fight ever put in film. Mischa Auer is funny as well as pathetic as a Russian immigrant who dreams of being a cowboy. And Billy Gilbert never fails to get a laugh with bits and doubletakes as the saloon’s barkeep. Jack Carson is on hand, playing his patented braggart character, as a trigger-happy rancher. And Lillian Yarbo gets off some great one-liners as Dietrich’s “gives as good as she gets” maid.
The plot, as I mentioned, could serve as the spine for a dramatic western but still plays its own riffs off the standard cowboy action flick. There’s loads of twists and surprises and, of course, the usual shoot-outs and fights. But all serves to provide a hammock for the humor to rest on. And it is mostly humor rather than comedy. This movie never strays into parody, satire or pastiche. The stakes of the drama are very real and there are tragic, even heartbreaking losses along the way.
Sparkling dialogue and a pace that never lets up propels this one along from start to finish. There’s one well-crafted scene after another and you’ll simply never see another ensemble cast that meshes as well as this one does.
It’s not hard to see why this movie, even with the stiff competition of all the other now-classic releases of 1939, was an enormous box office hit that helped establish Jimmy Stewart as a star and re-invigorated the career of Marlene Dietrich. It’s a shining example of the very best Hollywood had to offer in its golden era.