THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013


# 9

JESSE JAMES (Fox, 1939)

DIRECTOR: Henry King;  PRODUCER: Darryl F. Zanuck; WRITER: Nunnally Johnson;  CAMERA: George Barnes, W.H. Greene;  SECOND UNIT DIRECTOR: Otto Brower;  STUNTS:  Cliff Lyons;  HISTORICAL DATA ASSEMBLER: Jo Frances James

CAST:  Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Nancy Kelly, Randolph Scott, Henry Hull, Slim Summerville, J. Edward Bromberg, Brian Donlevy, John Carradine, Donald Meek, John Russell, Jane Darwell, Charles Tannen, Willard Robertson, Harold Goodwin, Ernest Whitman, Eddy Waller, Paul Burns, Spencer Charters, Charles Middleton, George Chandler, Lon Chaney, Jr., Ethan Laidlaw, Tom London, Paul Sutton, Harry Holman

At this point I suppose I should address the question, "How in Sam Hill can you rank this film ahead of Ford's 'cavalry trilogy' or the Boetticher-Scott films, and for cryin' out loud, HIGH NOON? 

There is a simple answer.  This is not a ranking of "greatest" Western films.  I am not in a position to do that because I don't possess the necessary expertise.  Like any list this one is highly subjective, but more than most.  In fact, it is entirely subjective, for this is a ranking of "my favorite" Westerns and my only criterion is "Do I like this film and how well do I like it?"  And I am an expert on that subject for it is my personal opinion -- the only one I am qualified to give.

Historical Data Assembler.   
To ensure historical accuracy one of Jesse's granddaughters, Jo Frances James, was hired to serve as technical adviser on the film.  She was given the title of historical data assembler.

How did that work out?

Well, this is what she told reporters: "It seemed to me the story was fiction from beginning to end.  About the only connection it had with fact was that there was once a man named Jesse James and he did ride a horse."

It makes one wonder what a historical data assembler does.

Let's get the history out of the way.  First, to correct the historical errors in the film would necessitate far more time and energy than I have.  But let me correct three:

1). Frank and Jesse's mother is killed early in the film before the boys ever take to the outlaw trail.  In fact, Mrs. Zerelda Elizabeth Cole James Simms Samuel (she was married three times and outlived all three husbands) died of natural causes in 1911.  She was 86-years-old.  Therefore, she outlived Jesse by almost twenty years and died only four years before Frank.

2). According to the movie, it was the land-grabbing St. Louis Midland Railroad's agents that killed Mrs. Samuel, which motivated Frank and Jesse to avenge her death and declare war on the greedy railroads.  In fact, there has never been a St. Louis Midland Railroad, except in the movies.   Furthermore, at the time that railroad agents supposedly killed Mrs. Samuel in an effort to scare her into selling her land, there was no railroad anywhere near her farm and would not be for many years.

However, a railroad is tangentially connected to her demise.  She died in a pullman car while traveling from Fletcher, Oklahoma to her home near Kearney, Missouri.  She had been visiting Frank who farmed near Fletcher. 

Jane Darwell, Frank and Jesse's movie mother
Zerelda Cole James Simms Samuel, mother of Frank and Jesse

The real mother of Frank and Jesse is a very interesting and important part of the boys' life and times and it is too bad that Nunnally Johnson's script killed her off early in the story.  But matronly Jane Darwell, who portrayed her in the film, would have been the wrong person to portray the real Zerelda.

3). The James Gang in reality, at least before the Northfield debacle in 1876, should rightfully be called the James-Younger Gang.  But Cole and his brothers are absent from this film.  The only gang member, other than Frank and Jesse, that we learn anything about is Bob Ford, and most of what we learn is wrong.

Okay, that's enough historyLet's go to the movie.

ENGINEER (Harry Holman): "What you aiming to do, pardner?"

JESSE JAMES (Tyrone Power): "I ain't aiming to do nothing.  I'm doing it.  I'm holding up this train."

ENGINEER: "The whole train?"

Heroes and Villains. 
Western movies do not always reflect the times in which they are set, but they do often reflect the times in which they are filmed.  And this is very much true of JESSE JAMES. The heroes in the film are the outlaws who rob the trains and banks and the villains are the trains and banks.

The movie was made during the Great Depression and the perceived villains of that economic collapse were the large greedy corporations.  Thoroughout the 30's, Hollywood studios, especially Warner Brothers, produced gangster films and other dramatic productions that criticized the way big business had destroyed the American way of life.  JESSE JAMES just happens to be a gangster film set in the post-Civil War Midwest.

It is a whitewash all the way and has done more to perpetuate the myth of Jesse as Robin Hood than any other movie or novel. Of course, Jesse did rob the rich, for it would have been incredibly stupid to rob the poor, and Jesse wasn't stupid, but he didn't give away his ill-gotten gains to the poor either, but kept it all for himself. 

The Other Jesse James Films.  
The 1939 film was not the first, nor the last, to portray the Missouri outlaws on the screen.  But it was the first to have a big-time director, a big-time budget, and a big-time cast of stars and supporting performers.

Furthermore, even though there have been more accurate films dealing with the subject, none, including Brad Pitt's more recent THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (WB, 2007), has been more enjoyable.  JESSE JAMES is done in great style with an excellent cast, good production values, and excellent Technicolor photography. It also helped to establish a cycle of Westerns in the 40's in which actual outlaws of the Old West were whitewashed and glamorized.

Brian Garfield writes in The Western Film: A Complete Guide: "Comparing a full-bodied movie like this to the more recent GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID [Universal, 1972] or THE LONG RIDERS [UA, 1980] is like comparing a long satisfying rich novel with a short story."  It would be interesting to know his opinion of Brad Pitt's film.  

Despite the fact that the film was released in 1939, a year that saw the release of more classic films than any year in history, JESSE JAMES was a huge financial success.  Only three films -- GONE WITH THE WIND, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME -- were larger grossing films that year.

Tyrone Power, as Jesse James, is surprisingly good

Henry Fonda, as Frank James, gives the best performance in the film
The Stars.  
Tyrone Power's first starring role had been in LLOYD'S OF LONDON (1936).  The director was Henry King.  JESSE JAMES was their fourth collaboration and they would go on to make a total of eleven films together.

JESSE JAMES was Power's first Western and it would be one of only a few that he would appear in.  The others with one exception are mostly forgettable.  The exception is the generally forgotten and underrated RAWHIDE (1951, directed by Henry Hathaway, co-starring Susan Hayward).

Power isn't the best actor in JESSE JAMES, but he more than holds his own and turns in a fine performance.

JESSE JAMES was also Henry Fonda's first Western, but there would be many more in his future, several of them true classics.  He is outstanding as brother Frank and overshadows everyone else in the film.  A year later he would reprise his role as Frank in the sequel, THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES (Fox, directed by Fritz Lang), which is even more historically unreliable than its predecessor, but is nevertheless a well-made and enjoyable film.

Nancy Kelly as Jesse's faithful wife, Zee

Randolph Scott as fictitious faithful lawman friend of Frank and Jesse

The Supporting Cast. 
Nancy Kelly is acceptable as Jesse's long-suffering, but faithful wife, Zee.  Randolph Scott is good as an honest, but fictitious, lawman who attempts, but fails, to help the boys to go straight.

Comedy relief is supplied by Slim Summerville, Donald Meek, and Henry Hull.  Hull's character is loosely based on Major John Newman Edwards who rode with Confederate General Jo Shelby during the Civil War.  After the war newspaperman Edwards became a champion of and apologist for ex-Confederate guerillas such as Frank and Jesse and the Youngers and others who rode the outlaw trail.

John Carradine (L), as Bob Ford, and Tyrone Power (R), as Jesse James, have a date with destiny 
Bob Ford, "that dirty little coward"
John Carradine seems to have always given a good performance and he does not disappoint as Bob Ford, even though the real Ford was only 20-years-old when he shot Jesse and Carradine at the time was in his thirties.  Nunnally Johnson's script also departed from the historical record by presenting Ford as a member of the outlaw gang from its inception to the very end.  The real Bob Ford did not participate in a single hold-up.

Henry Fonda, Henry Hull, John Carradine, J.Edward Bromberg, and Donald Meek would repeat their roles in Fox's sequel to JESSE JAMES

Director Henry King wanted to film JESSE JAMES as much as possible in the area in which the events of the story transpired.  But after scouting the Kearney/Liberty, Missouri area, which is located near Kansas City, it was found that due to urbanization and modernization that would not be possible.

But down in the extreme southwestern corner of Missouri, they found what they were looking for.  Even though Pineville had fewer than 350 residents, it was the county seat of sparsely-settled McDonald County and thus had a red brick courthouse that was exactly the kind of structure the filmmakers were seeking.

Unfortunately, the main street had recently been paved. But that was a minor inconvenience as many loads of dirt were hauled in to cover the pavement.  False fronts were added to buildings along the courthouse square and several buildings were even constructed from scratch.

The construction, the hiring of locals as extras, and the attracting of tourists who flocked to the area to see the movie stars had the effect of injecting some badly needed cash into Pineville's Depression-era economy.  

Dabbs Greer, shown here in a much later role, made his screen debut as an extra in JESSE JAMES

Robert William "Dabbs" Greer, a native of southwest Missouri, 21-years-old at the time, made his screen debut as a $5 a day extra in the film.  He did not appear in another film for another decade, but would later appear in almost a hundred films and hundreds of TV episodes.  He became best known for recurring roles on GUNSMOKE and LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE.

Cliff Lyons, one of Hollywood's legendary stuntmen, doubled for both Power and Fonda in the film.  In one of the most spectacular, and most unfortunate, stunts ever photographed Lyons plunges his horse off a high bluff into the Lake of the Ozarks.  He survived, but the horse was killed.  

Some accounts say that two horses and riders jumped off the bluff, but in fact it was only one.  Two cameras shot the leap from two different angles and the film was cut in such a manner that it appears to be two horses and two riders.

The death of the horse led the American Humane Association to become involved in monitoring the use of animals in film productions.

Another spectacular stunt, staged by second unit director Otto Brower and beautifully shot by cinematographer George Barnes, involves the first train hold-up.  Lyons, doubling Power, races his horse behind the train on the crossties between the rails in order to catch and board the train.  The horse clearly stumbles and almost goes down.  Since there would have been no soft landing on the track, it would have been bad news for horse and rider.  You can view a clip of the stunt here on the TCM site.  The scene has to be seen on a big screen to be truly appreciated.

The Director.  
JESSE JAMES was director Henry King's first sound Western.  He only directed three, but he hit the jackpot each time.  The other two starred his favorite actor, Gregory Peck.  First came  THE GUNFIGHTER (Fox, 1950), a true classic, and then THE BRAVADOS (Fox, 1958), an excellent and underrated Western.

The Song.    
Jesse James was a lad that killed many a man, 
He robbed the Danville train.
But that dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard 
Has laid poor Jesse in his grave.

Poor Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life,
Three children, they were brave,
But the dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard
Has laid poor Jesse in his grave.

It was Robert Ford, that dirty little coward,
I wonder how he did feel,
For he ate of Jesse's bread, and he slept in Jesse's bed,
Then he laid poor Jesse in his grave.

"The movies have their truths, which rarely align with those of history....The true story of Jesse James, despite all the dime novels and B movies, remains untold, perhaps because in its savagery it really is as American as apple pie and, as such, unspeakably hard to tell." -- Manohla Dargis in The New York Times

"Jesse James, notorious train and bank bandit of the late 19th century, and an important figure in the history of the midwest frontier, gets a drastic bleaching.  Script by Nunnally Johnson is an excellent chore, nicely mixing human interest, dramatic suspense, romance and fine characterizations for swell entertainment." -- Variety 

"It is a good Western, told with astonishing sympathy for the brutal outlaws...[but] it would be interesting to know if Hollywood is just as proud of John Dillinger and Al Capone." -- New York Sun
"Henry Fonda, as the tobacco-chewing Frank James, is a beautiful characterization, but our favorite is Henry Hull, as the small-town editor and friend of the James clan, whose dictated editorials are priceless gems of frontier humor...." -- New York Times

"It is worth remarking that never can horses have been so thoroughly used as (literally) carriers of action and (symbolically) agents of movement.  They crash through plate-glass windows, ride tumultously over the terrain and even plunge over a cliff into a river, as Frank and Jesse make a particularly daring esape...." -- Clive Denton in Hollywood Professionals

"Although this is a dubious piece of historical revisionism, it is an exciting entertainment nevertheless....-- Steven H. Scheuer

Inscription Jesse's mother had engraved on his graveside monument.

In Loving Remembrance of My Beloved Son

Jesse W. James

Died April 3, 1882