JESSE JAMES galloped into theaters in 1939 and stole away with 4th place among the year’s hits, its exuberant fictionalization of the legendary outlaw’s misdeeds showcased in Technicolor and featuring the dashing charm of the actor who exhibitors had voted the most popular draw at the box-office, as well as showcasing the skill of his arresting co-star in his breakout year.*
Jesse James, his brother Frank and their assortment of ex-Confederate malcontents made their fame robbing banks and trains in several Midwestern states in the years that followed the Civil War. Jesse was killed in 1882, age 34, shot in the back at his house by young gang member Robert Ford. Older brother Frank abandoned the life of crime, escaped punishment and lived to be 72, moving on to the big bank in the sky in 1915. The brothers and their brethren have been portrayed, with varying degrees of fancy or accuracy, in over a dozen movies, with more no doubt coming down the pike.
In this classic, directed by Henry King, with a screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, Jesse is incarnated by 24-year-old Tyrone Power, with older brother Frank re-imagined by Henry Fonda, hitting his stride at 33. The love interest is Nancy Kelly, best remembered as the mother of The Bad Seed. The Good side of the Law is represented by stalwart Randolph Scott (also playing Wyatt Earp that year in Frontier Marshal), while nasty authority rascals—the kind of scalawag the film blames for the James career—are covered by Donald Meek, Brian Donlevy (just plain “askin’ fer it”) and J. Edward Bromberg. Skulking swine Bob Ford is done by John Carradine.
Henry Hull chews up scenery in bravura fashion as ‘Maj.Rufus Cobb’, choleric newspaper editor who defends Jesse’s name against the blackguards of the railroad and those infernal bankers. He has a one-size-fits-all solution to various issues, exemplified when he barks out “Take an editorial on lawyers!” His assistant says “Liars?” To which Cobb continues: “That’ll do. We’ll begin easy. Paragraph: If we are ever to have law and order in the West, the first thing we gotta do is take out all the lawyers and shoot ’em down like dogs.” On this point, the couch-jury is unabashedly prejudiced.
The fun if decidedly whitewashing script leaves out the brothers prior nettlesome exploits in the Civil War, and conspicuously ignores their roughhouse pals, the Younger Brothers. It does sport an exciting, if fact-shy, version of the famous fiasco bank raid in Northfield, Minnesota, allowing for a popcorn-dumping, crash-your-horses-through-storefront-windows moment, followed by a wild chase through the scenic countryside.
Of glorious benefit is the extensive location filming in Missouri, in and around Pineville, Lake Of The Ozarks and Noel. Back in 1939, the locales were not much different than they’d been six decades before when it wasn’t stars and their doubles racing around, dodging bullets. Highly underrated director King and his sharp Fox crew did a top job evoking the rural atmosphere-the sound team earns extra applause. They also stage a harrowing horse & rider stunt that brought down the justifiable wrath of the American Humane Society—the panic-stricken horse drowned after a 70-foot plunge off a cliff into a river.
Power shines, Fonda quietly steals attention, Hull brings laughs, the action scenes quicken the pulse, the Missouri countryside looks grand in Technicolor. Look elsewhere for historical accuracy, this is legend lore on the hoof.**
20th Century-Fox went all-out, spending $1,600,000; producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s audience-targeting instincts shot a dead center bullseye, with a gross of $9,500,000. 106 minutes,with more colorful cast members including Slim Summerville, Jane Darwell, Ernest Whitman and Charles Halton. Camera by George Barnes and W. Howard Greene.
*Among its many glories 1939 was the breakout year for Henry Fonda, who not only drew praise for his laid-back but lethal Frank, but managed solid jobs in Let Us Live and The Story Of Alexander Graham Bell and two John Ford classics, Drums Along The Mohawk and Young Mr. Lincoln. Power scored ’39s 5th most popular film, The Rains Came, as well as headlining three other pictures.
In the background but not reaping any glory, Lon Chaney Jr. can be briefly glimpsed, minus any dialogue. His part was chopped (and given last billing) after he was injured falling off a horse, apparently soused: Fox dumped him from the studio. Fortunately for the 33-year-old Lon, after 8 years and 58 nothing parts, that same year blessed him with his breakout role as ‘Lenny’ in Of Mice And Men. His future horror alumnus John Carradine was having a merry ’39, scoring nine plum parts, including Stagecoach, Drums Along The Mohawk, The Hound Of The Baskervilles and Five Came Back. Brian Donlevy also lucked out that banner year, playing more bad guys in Union Pacific, Allegheny Uprising, Destry Rides Again, and meanest of all, in Beau Geste.
** A troublesome person can be dispatched readily enough but vanquishing a legend is a fight you’re not going to win. The success of Jesse James prompted Fox to bring Fonda back the following year for The Return Of Frank James, entertaining and equally fanciful, directed by Fritz Lang, with a debuting vision named Gene Tierney and many of the original’s cast members. They even re-used some of the footage in 1957s The True Story Of Jesse James (no, it wasn’t, either). I’ve got an old-timer’s sentimental spot for the rousing Power-Fonda saga, but am more keen on 1980s The Long Riders and appear to be one of the relative few who appreciate the 2007 telling The Assassination Of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.