James Stewart: The Western Collection (Destry Rides Again/Night Passage/The Rare Breed) Review

(Note: The James Stewart Western Collection is comprised of six films. In reviewing the set, I decided to split the number in half, allowing three films per discussion for a two-part essay. This second installment focusses on Destry Rides Again, Night Passage, and The Rare Breed. Reviews of Winchester' 73, Bend of the River, and The Far Country, which are the three films included that were directed by Anthony Mann, are available in a separate write-up.)

About as far removed from the other titles in this set as possible while remaining in the same genre, Destry Rides Again was Stewart's first western, as well as his only time saddling up until Anthony Mann's Winchester '73 in 1950. The film is frequently billed as a comedy western, or maybe even a musical comedy western since top-billed Marlene Dietrich has a couple of singing numbers that seem to be an obvious attempt at bulking up her otherwise basic role as the laughably named saloon singer Frenchy. Nationalist hairsplitting aside, the film, effectively directed by George Marshall for Universal, has a deserved reputation as a classic. The material is layered in warmly simplistic contrivances, but it's also entertaining and, especially for fans of Stewart and Dietrich, a downright good time.

A pair of scenes remain particularly essential in the respective career highlights of actor and actress. Stewart's Tom Destry, son of a legendary lawman and brought into the town of Bottleneck as a deputy, finds himself derided across the community for not carrying a gun. His methods are a little different, unorthodox but thus far effective. There's no element of fear, though, and he hasn't earned anyone's respect. When one of the cronies of Bottleneck's resident town boss Kent (Brian Donlevy) is playing with pistols in the street, Destry asks to hold the guns and, with very little effort, fires off a series of shots that knock the round knobs off a wooden wheel sign. Mission accomplished, for both film and character, and it's handled assuredly by Marshall without overstating the case. A much more (necessarily) over the top sequence occurs just a bit earlier when Dietrich's Frenchy gets caught up in a claws-out catfight with the wife of a poker adversary over a pair of missing pants. It's probably one of the great woman-on-woman knockabouts in film. Plus it serves as Destry's introduction to most of the town residents when he douses the scufflers with a bucket of water.

Afterwards, the relationship between Destry and Frenchy evolves from an embarrassed hate on her part to a mutual, flirtatious respect. Dietrich doesn't get much else to do, hence the inserted musical performances, so Stewart is left on his own for the majority of the film, despite not appearing for the first twenty minutes. His is a perfect movie star performance, rising above the defined limitations of the material to create a character the audience can enjoy even if he comes a little too close to being on the obnoxious side of confidence. Stewart was still breathing fresh leading man air at the film's release in 1939. Just two months prior, he'd nailed an establishing star role in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. With Destry, the actor had a quick confirmation of success. The next year he'd pick up an Oscar for The Philadelphia Story and star in Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner.

Stewart has gotten sidled with his fair share of complaints for playing similar characters, especially in pre-World War II films like these, but certainly this bears a strong rebuttal even just when looking at these four performances. His unflinching idealism as Jefferson Smith in the Capra film fits none of the other characters. Similarly, Tom Destry is more confident than the others, and certain in his methods and abilities. The shop worker in Lubitsch's almost dainty confection possesses a cynicism that's nearly muted, but nonetheless there, and taken further by his performance in The Philadelphia Story , which deserves its place as one of the great shining third wheels Hollywood ever accidentally produced. You don't expect to have Stewart's spirited acting as the dominant piece when he's supposed to be overshadowed by Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, but that's nonetheless how it turns out.

Thus, if his version of Destry manages to keep the character grounded just shy of becoming a grinningly cocky wimp, it shouldn't be too much of a surprise. Stewart was simply a heck of an actor and one who did whatever he could to make the viewer think he was completely comfortable regardless of the shoes he was wearing, be they cowboy boots or loafers. His transition to a western hero was impressively effortless, both here and in the more serious Anthony Mann pictures of the 1950s. Destry Rides Again isn't hardly as demanding of the actor's still unseen ruggedness, but it does contain that slight stretch required for all viable movie stars. At this point in his career, Stewart was most successful doing comedy, with Mr. Smith's added pathos, and the transition of picking up some mild western action proved to be fortuitous. His lanky frame may not have seemed natural for the genre, but he used it to his advantage by appearing to tower over his antagonists, establishing a sense of belonging as a result. Not only does he make it clear that he should be there, Stewart shows us he's also the one in charge.

And, of course, there's more to the picture than simply its leading man. We have a pretty good, well-cast movie here, as well. Dietrich doesn't really belong, but she's a nice added attraction. Brian Donlevy was an excellent character actor who worked well with Preston Sturges and in Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die, though he's not given a whole lot to do as the token bad guy. The story, wherein Destry must help restore order to a lawless town by establishing the death and killer of the previous sheriff, is tight enough to withstand those musical distractions and helps the film hold up on repeated viewings. The humour, also, is there, particularly in Mischa Auer's great turn as Boris. I love his sly little line to the former Mrs. Callahan - "How can I learn to be a cowboy if you won't let me go out and gamble?" - and his repeated frustrations at trying to live up to her deceased first husband. So maybe Destry Rides Again continues to work so well because it is a combination of all these different genres, playing to fans of traditional westerns, Dietrich's special brand of musical, and well-made comedies all at the same time. In that sense, it must be one of the most successful films of its kind, and territory not really revisited by Stewart again until maybe something like The Cheyenne Social Club much later.

Where he did go, eventually, was with Anthony Mann to make a series of remarkably effective westerns, beginning with Winchester '73 in 1950. Those who regard the five westerns Stewart made with Mann as near the genre's pinnacle are especially encouraged to watch Night Passage, the 1957 film that supposedly widened the burgeoning rift between the two men and perhaps now serves as instructive in how important Mann's involvement was in their earlier collaborations. It's not that Night Passage is a very good movie. (It's passable.) However, it has nearly all the elements of the successful Mann-Stewart quintet with the notable exception of the director himself. By viewing Night Passage, one can intuit how vital Mann was to those five westerns, as his rough-edged involvement is sorely missed. Angst, uncertainty, and the unsubtle hint of danger are all glaringly absent, replaced by traditional sentimentality and an accordion.

Though he ultimately didn't direct Night Passage, Mann was originally slated to make the film and had apparently completed preproduction. His favoured writer and cinematographer from the Stewart westerns, Borden Chase and William Daniels, respectively, were on board, as well. They both emerged with screen credit, as did another Mann-Stewart staple, the character actor Jay C. Flippen, but the director removed himself from the picture. He later explained it was the result of not liking the script. Regardless, his partnership with Stewart was irreparably severed, a flame-out that had probably been building for awhile given the two men's starkly different views. His replacement was James Neilson, a television director making his feature debut who would retreat back into the small screen for another five years until excreting the Disney comedies Moon Pilot and Bon Voyage! in 1962. A handful of similar vehicles after that and he'd end up back directing television again.

Viewing Night Passage, then, is akin to the experience of witnessing a well-known rock band that's replaced its lead singer with a relative neophyte who happens to be performing songs intended for the previous front man. Without Mann at the helm, Stewart becomes far less interesting in this type of role and the film descends into predictability. Surely, too, he would have put a stop to Stewart's incessantly annoying accordion playing and singing. I have no doubt that there are those who thoroughly appreciate the odd merging of the western and musical genres that was so popular in the 1950s, but I also suspect it's almost entirely built out of nostalgia. Unless you have Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin, western characters probably shouldn't be singing if they want to maintain any semblance of psychological anxiety. It's not a matter of how catchy or enjoyable the songs are so much as it damages the narrative flow and now feels woefully awkward and archaic.

Stewart's frolics into song are too folksy for the film, but they don't completely sink it. Equally problematic is the story structure, which seems to move at wildly different speeds and fails to sell the narrative's essential conflict between Stewart's character, Grant McLaine, and the Utica Kid, played by Audie Murphy. Though it's spoiled in the film's trailer and the back of the DVD case, the central relationship between the two men isn't revealed until the final twenty minutes or so, but it's easy enough to see coming from much earlier. A somewhat similar situation was handled substantially better in Winchester '73. This film feels maudlin, fake, and bland when weighed against it. An even closer comparison might actually be with Mann's later Man of the West, which benefits from a story noticeably like Night Passage's, but accomplishes an inordinate amount more depth and nuance.

An examination of the latter hardly requires sizing it up against Mann's films, but I do think it's a fair way to recognise the potential for something better than how it turned out. If anything, it increases the curiosity factor around Night Passage since the picture would be a largely uninspiring, run of the mill 1950s western if not for Mann's spectre hovering over it. Neither Stewart nor James Neilson knew how to make a western without Mann's involvement, and the result is a very basic film with some staggeringly beautiful Colorado vistas. For ninety minutes, that's all innocuous enough. You get a movie star performance (with accordion), Daniels' cinematography, an aging Dan Duryea, and a baby-faced Audie Murphy. What you don't get, and what admirers of the films reviewed in the other half of this writing may have difficulty accepting, is Anthony Mann.

Even so, Night Passage runs laps around Andrew V. McLaglen's 1966 western The Rare Breed, a film that seems twice as long as it is and one absent any sort of narrative focus. The plot begins as an inconsequential look at mother and daughter Maureen O'Hara and Juliet Mills, who've come from England in the 1880s to auction off their Hereford bull in hopes of breeding him in the ranges of the western United States. Stewart takes up the task of delivering, along with the ladies, the hornless bull to its new owner, a Scotsman played by Brian Keith, who's in full-on Groundskeeper Willie mode. There should be adventure and excitement, with a little bit of comedy and romance thrown in for good measure. Instead, we get dullsville. Some nice landscapes and a decent, if bland, performance from Stewart are about all that hold the film together.

By this point in his career, Stewart was pretty well coasting and often doing so on a horse. He was approaching sixty years old and looked the part. When his character in the film was required to do most anything physically taxing, the camera quickly switched to a far shot of what's still pretty obviously a stand-in for the actor. It's a sloppy effect, and even now looks out of place in a film from Hollywood's transitional period. Some painfully obvious rear projection fares even worse. All in all, The Rare Breed is simply a poor film that can't withstand any sort of objectively critical eye. Mike Sutton's review on this site from a few years back outlines most of the very same problems I have with the picture, though I'll confess to finding Juliet Mills as lovely as ever here.

The Discs

It's worth reiterating that Universal's James Stewart: The Western Collection contains a total of six films, packaged in individual slimcases, and the other three (Winchester '73, Bend of the River, and The Far Country) are reviewed separately. All of these titles have been released previously, but this set does have new transfers for two of the three Anthony Mann-directed films, as well as Destry Rides Again.

I was pleasantly surprised at how cleaned-up Destry looks in this set. The previous release in R1 had abundant grain typical of a 1939 film. Universal has now sharpened everything, taking out some of the grain but still leaving a comfortable amount. Damage in the progressive transfer is minimal, though I did notice a prominent vertical line on a single occasion. Some light speckles are present, as well, but this is certainly an improvement over the earlier release. It's also on a dual-layered disc despite being identified as single-layered on the outside of the box. Marlene Dietrich's close-ups were obviously shot in softer lighting and retain that effect, but detail is otherwise pretty good and the black and white contrast isn't bad for a movie of this age either. The English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track sounds a bit distant, but doesn't exhibit any significant hiss or pops. Subtitle tracks are optional, white in colour, for French, Spanish, and English for the hearing impaired.

Even with the handicap of being the only single-layered disc among these three, Night Passage clearly looks the most impressive. Colours tend to be a tad washed out with a brownish cast at times, and it's unclear whether this is the intended scheme or a flaw in the transfer. No other real complaints, though, and the progressive 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer looks consistent, boasting strong detail. Grain is dialed down and the video overall looks mighty clean. The English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track gives no problems either, and comes through crisply without incident. Subtitles are once again provided in English for the hearing impaired, French, and Spanish, and are white in colour.

As with Night Passage, the disc included for The Rare Breed has the same 2003 transfer found on the previous R1 DVD release of the film. It's dual-layered and presents the picture in its 2.35:1 widescreen ratio, with anamorphic enhancement. There's a slightly stronger presence of digital noise than on the Night Passage disc, though, and detail may be a touch lower, if still outstanding. Strangely, some mild combing plagues the image at times, first seen during the opening titles. However, this isn't a problem for the majority of the runtime. Is it possible the transfer was done using the alchemist encoding method maybe? Regardless, the picture quality is fairly good to strong on the whole, especially in close-ups, and the colours look rather excellent. Audio is similarly fine, anchored by an English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track, but also with a French dub. Dialogue and the orchestral score are easily heard and at a consistently acceptable level of volume. White in colour subtitles are also available in English for the hearing impaired, French, and Spanish.

The only bonus features are trailers for Night Passage (2:32) and The Rare Breed (2:12).

Final Thoughts

The question here isn't really whether these films are worth having because at least four of them pretty obviously are. If you don't already own any, or maybe just one or two, the set is essential for fans of James Stewart and the western genre. Those already in possession of half or more of the films have a tougher decision that's possibly made easier by the reasonable price and the knowledge that Destry Rides Again and Winchester '73 look quite a bit better than in their former releases. The widescreen transfer on The Far Country may be another deciding factor. As a fan of these films myself, I can imagine others wanting the best versions possible and, for now, this set is the only option. Even if it means owning a copy of The Rare Breed.

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Last updated: 18/04/2018 22:48:25

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