THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES clipped along in 1940 for 92 good-looking, factually fanciful minutes as a rush sequel to the 1939 smash Jesse James. Directed by Fritz Lang, this begins with a clip of Jesse (Tyrone Power) being backshot by cowardly cur Bob Ford, then continues with brother Frank (Henry Fonda) seeking vengeance on Bob and his sibling snake Charley.
“There ain’t no right for us poor people than the end of a gun.”
When Frank finds out that the craven Ford’s are not only pardoned of the murder, but are rewarded as well, the elder James brother, aided by idolizing teenager ‘Clem’ (Jackie Cooper) coolly sets out to settle the score. They follow the panicking punks from Missouri to Denver, where he and Clem encounter sprightly newswoman-to-be ‘Eleanor Stone’ (Gene Tierney), who hopes to temper Frank’s desire to plug Bob. Gals…
Sam Hellman’s historically bogus script has some amusing dialogue exchanges, particularly in the concluding courtroom scene, but elsewhere you do have to endure some period stereotyping of the African-American characters, done for cheap laughs. That regrettable irritant aside, Lang’s direction moves it with flair and George Barnes cinematography gets ample Technicolor mileage out of the backdrops. Fresh air California location shooting was done in Lone Pine, Mammoth Lakes, Convict Lake, the Inyo National Forest, Sonora and Bishop. A few of the fake horse-riding shots are goofy, but the non-studio galloping is wild. The shootouts are well done, and the sense of the outdoors greatly flavors the action. The wrap-up is satisfying, to drama, if not fact. *
Fonda, 35, again does Frank to a tee, laid-back but lethal, fierce nut fair. Tierney, 19 in her debut, is pretty as a bouquet but—learning on the job—her voice comes off a mite squeaky. Henry Hull has an overactor’s heyday repeating his outrage-spoutin’ newsman, ‘Maj.Rufus Cobb’, and Carradine’s infamous assassin Bob Ford is even more evil-looking here than in the initial outing. **
“If we are ever going to have law and order in this part of the country, we got to take vipers like those Fords and that slimy railroad detective Runyon and shoot ’em down like dogs.”
Not as big a success as the first film, it still did well, with a gross of $3,700,000 placing Return‘s returns 37th among 1940’s lineup. Along with Hull and Carradine, also brought back from the first film are J. Edward Bromberg, Donald Meek, Ernest Whitman (‘Pinky’), Charles Tannen (‘Charley’) and George Chandler. Also in the cast are George Barbier, Russell Hicks and Lloyd Corrigan.
* German émigré Fritz Lang on handling westerns: “They are based on a very simple and essential ethical code….Even with Shakespeare the moral is simple. The struggle of good against evil is as old as the world.” Like many actors who worked with him, Fonda detested the autocratic Lang, having already chafed under Fritz’s dictates in You Only Live Once. Herr Fritz did the genre right again in Western Union and Rancho Notorious, and Nebraskan Hank saddled up as hero or villain in a further 14 westerns, including some of the genre’s greatest.
** Tierney, in her autobio: “For my performance in The Return of Frank James, I was honored by the Harvard Lampoon as The Worst Female Discovery of 1940….I did not feel undeserving of the award….”