The True Story Of Jesse James

THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES—well, kinda sorta. For starters you have put up with talking doll Robert Wagner mangling an Americana icon, and wince through more bad acting from numerous other cast members. This 1957 psychologically oriented take on the legendary outlaw was directed by expressionistic stylist Nicholas Ray. *

With some flashbacks to the James brothers involvement in the Civil War, the storyline slips around covering their subsequent years of banditry with cousins the Younger Brothers, highlighted by the gang’s calamitous 1876 raid in Northfield, Minnesota. That bloody botch  splintered the group and set Jesse & Frank on their respective paths to glory. The treatment here plays better with facts than the 1939 hit Jesse James, but it’s a weaker sister pictorially, dramatically and emotionally.

Continual interference from 20th Century Fox honcho Buddy Adler neutered Ray’s conception from the get go, starting with nixing the director’s inspired idea of magnetic, region-bred Elvis Presley as Jesse for studio product cocktail schmoozer Wagner. Much reshooting was done, cutting out Ray’s intentions, and bringing Walter Newman’s script more into line as a wider-screened remake of the 1939 film. They even swiped a few of the earlier picture’s best-remembered action moments and inserted them into the new mishmash. Jesse’s granddaughter Jo Frances James was given credit as ‘historical consultant’.

Though handicapped by the shadow of Henry Fonda’s winning turn in the 1939 role, Jeffrey Hunter is okay as Frank (speaking of hard acts to follow, Ray would later cast him as Jesus for King Of Kings) and Alan Hale Jr. does decently as a hearty Cole Younger. But callow Wagner is straight from acting class trying to pose tough as Jesse, let alone trying to match 39’s Jesse, Tyrone Power, for charisma. Maybe the pony-tail crowd bought it, but anyone who played cowboys in the back yard (back when that was done) know a tenderfoot when they see one.

Though she showed promise in her debut the year before in Bus Stop, playing Jesse’s wife Zee in her second film role, 23-year-old Hope Lange is hopeless, showing none of the charm that she displayed in her very next role that same year in Peyton Place, nicking an Oscar nomination out of that hit, a different type of Americana.

Unlike the Power/Fonda version, atmosphere adorned by shooting in Missouri, this time Fox opted to go the cheaper route (again nixing the director’s hopes) and filmed in California. An expenditure of $1,585,000 brought in $4,300,000, 53rd place for the year. By comparison, eighteen years back Jesse James was 4th, behind Gone With The Wind, The Wizard Of Oz and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

The sound effects are good, always a Fox strong suit. Leigh Harline’s otherwise unmemorable score at least bangs out a dramatic start to 92 minutes worth that finds roles for Agnes Moorehead (as the boy’s ma), Alan Baxter, John Carradine (as a preacher; he’d played killer Bob Ford in the ’39 epic), Frank Overton, Barry Atwater, Barney Phillips, John Doucette, Marian Seldes, Chubby Johnson, Biff Elliot, Frank Gorshin (as Charley Ford), Bing Russell (Kurt’s dad, busy knocking back 28 bit parts in ’57) and Carleton Young.

* Ray biographer Bernard Eisenschitz, on Wagner: “expressive of nothing but Californian physical culture.

Ray, on Wagner: “An all American laughing boy…very proud of his efficiency in changing wardrobe and always knowing where the key light was…The only times he was real was when he was overcome by something at the moment and lose his self consciousness about the external appearance of it. I don’t know whether he really had anything inside that was interesting enough to reveal.”

2 thoughts on “The True Story Of Jesse James

  1. Gee, takes me long enough to be a trace of gallant and reply (Life intrudes my wan excuse). Leaving aside The Wagner Front, since you are a devout Flynnist, have you by chance added to your trove “Errol Flynn, the Illustrated Life Chronicles” by Robert Florczak? Quite fun for the wicked, wicked among us. Hope you are well, friend from afar, and hearty cheers from Mark across the pond…

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