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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Monday, October 3, 2016


THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES is a sequel to JESSE JAMES (Fox, 1939).  You can read a review of the latter film here.

DIRECTOR: Fritz Lang;  PRODUCER: Darryl F. Zanuck; WRITER: screenplay by Sam Hellman; CINEMATOGRAPHER: George Barnes

CAST: Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney, Jackie Cooper, Henry Hull, John Carradine, J. Edward Bromberg, Donald Meek, Eddie Collins, George Barbier, Russell Hicks, Ernest Whitman, Charles Tannen, Lloyd Corrigan, Victor Killian, George Chandler, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, Milton Kibbee

Well, after all it is a movie; therefore, it is mostly fiction.  Here are the historical facts presented in the movie (this won't take long):

  • There were two outlaw brothers from Missouri named Frank and Jesse James;
  • They led a gang that held up banks and trains;
  • Jesse was assassinated in his living room in St. Joseph, Missouri by gang member Bob Ford, who was assisted by his brother, Charlie;
  • The Ford brothers were tried and convicted of murder, but were pardoned by the governor and received a reward;
  • Frank surrendered, was tried and acquitted.

The rest of the film is pure fiction, a product of the screenwriter and director's imaginations.  Since no one should go to a movie for a history lesson, if done right, the film could still be an enjoyable experience for the viewer.  It is a sequel to the classic JESSE JAMES (Fox, 1939) and although it doesn't measure up to the high standards of that film it is, for the most part, an entertaining film.

Frank (Henry Fonda) has quit the outlaw trail and has settled down to the peaceful pursuits of a farmer somewhere in the Missouri Ozarks.  Only two people know of his whereabouts: an ex-slave named Pinky (Ernest Whitman) and Clem (Jackie Cooper), the young son of a former gang member killed during a hold-up.

Then one day Frank learns that Jesse was shot and killed and that the killer was Bob Ford (John Carradine), who had help from his brother Charlie. Since the Fords were tried and convicted and sentenced to hang, Frank was satisfied that justice was being served.

Bob Ford, the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard and laid poor Jesse in his grave.

Later Frank reads in the newspaper that the Fords have not only been pardoned by the governor, but that they have received a reward for killing Jesse. This news spurs him to ride off in search of the Fords, who skedaddle farther west, eventually holding up in Denver.

Frank, Clem, and Pinky learn that justice has been denied.
In his quest to track down the Fords, Frank is assisted (hampered) by young and impetuous Clem, who idolizes Frank and has visions of following in the footsteps of both his idol and his late father.

Frank has another problem; he needs money to finance his efforts.  Consequently, he decides to rob the railroad express office since it was the railroad that provided the reward money that was paid to the Fords.  Unfortunately, Clem, who has been trailing Frank, decides to make his presence known to Frank at the time of the robbery. Everything goes haywire at that point and the watchman is accidentally killed and Frank becomes a murder suspect.

In Denver, Frank and Clem concoct a story about Frank's death in Mexico, a story that they pass on to Eleanor Stone (Gene Tierney), a gullible young female reporter working for her father's newspaper.

Gullible, but beautiful
Meanwhile, Frank and Clem are able to locate the Fords, but in a hot pursuit Bob escapes, while Charlie meets his end by falling off a cliff.

Frank makes plans to ride after Bob when Eleanor informs him that back home in Missouri Pinky has been arrested and convicted for the robbery of the railroad freight office and has been sentenced to hang.  Frank rides back to Missouri in order to save Pinky and is arrested and charged with the murder of the watchman.

Major Cobb (Henry Hull)
Frank's friend and advocate, newspaper editor Major Rufus Cobb (Henry Hull), serves as his defense counsel in the subsequent trial.  The major is able to sway the jury by making the railroad a culprit that had a history of taking advantage of small farmers -- the very kind that made up the jury.  It worked.  Just before the jury's verdict was announced, Bob Ford entered the rear of the courtroom, hoping to see the jury hand down a guilty verdict.  When the jury instead announced a not guilty verdict, Bob Ford fled from the courtroom with Frank close behind.

Outside the courtroom, and off-camera, Clem and Ford engage in a shoot-out in which both are fatally wounded.

Now that Jesse's death has been avenged, Frank can go back to his Ozark farm, but not alone.  No, traveling with him is Eleanor, his new bride.

No, just kidding, that didn't happen.

Here's why:

Fox produced four movies based on Stuart Lake's "biography" of Wyatt Earp. In making the first two the studio was plagued by threatened lawsuits by Wyatt's widow, Josephine, who was concerned about how she or her late husband might be portrayed in the films. In the first instance the studio changed Wyatt's name to Michael Wyatt and in the second they settled with her out of court -- and left her out of both films. Finally, with Josie's death, the studio was able to make the other two films without any interference from that quarter.

When the studio filmed JESSE JAMES, the screenplay mostly ignored historical fact, but it did allow for Jesse's marriage to Zerelda Mimms.  This was done even though Zee had died in 1900.  However, her son, Jesse Edwards James, who happened to be a lawyer, was very much alive.  At any rate the studio did not want to deal with lawsuits from the family that might object to any indication that Jesse had been involved with women other than Zee.

On the other hand, Frank remained a bachelor in the film, when in fact he had married Annie Ralston only a few weeks after Jesse and Zee had wed.  Annie was very much alive when the movie was filmed (she died in 1944), but apparently did not object to having been left out of the screenplay.

ITHE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES, Frank is still single and there is no doubt that he and Eleanor are infatuated with each other.  In the film's closing scenes Eleanor is heading back to her home in Denver and there is an implication that Frank might make his way there later.  But they part with a handshake and a wave.

Henry Fonda (1905-1982) was on his way to becoming one of the most highly sought after and critically acclaimed actors in the business.  He was also in the process of becoming John Ford's favorite actor, which turned out to be good news for director and actor.

In 1939, the busy actor appeared in five films, including the aforementioned JESSE JAMES, as well as YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (Fox) and DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (Fox), both directed by Ford.  

In 1940, he not only starred in THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES, but also gave what was his greatest performance (not just my opinion) in another Ford film, THE GRAPES OF WRATH (Fox).

Gene Tierney (1920-1991), on the other hand, made her screen debut in THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES.  She had done some acting on the stage but this was her first film and she probably should not have been given such an important role so early in her career.  It isn't that she was awful, but when compared with the large group of professionals appearing in the film, her novice status was apparent.

Variety went so far as to say that "the only member with whom fault can be found is Gene Tierney....[She] is plenty pretty but for oomph she just isn't." The writer went on to say that she seemed to lack what it takes to make an impression on the screen.

The Harvard Lampoon even named her "The Worst Female Discovery of 1940."  At least, they spelled her name right.

Both are harsh assessments, too harsh, and theirs was not a universal view. Some critics thought she showed promise. And Brian Garfield wrote in his book, Western Films: A Complete Guide, that Tierney was excellent in the film.  In fact, as you can read below, he liked her much more than he liked the film.

I wouldn't say she was either excellent or terrible. It was obvious that the camera loved her and that she possessed real potential.  Unfortunately, Fox didn't know what to do with her. The following year she was miscast in two films: TOBACCO ROAD and BELLE STARR. The latter was a follow-up effort to cash in on the studio's success with the two featuring the James brothers by bringing the notorious "bandit queen" to the screen.  Not only was it almost totally fictional, but it was hokey and had few redeeming qualities.

After all those false starts, the studio finally cast her in a film that was tailor made for her.  She gave her greatest performance (not just my opinion) as murder victim Laura Hunt in LAURA (Fox, 1944).  She followed that film a year later with an Oscar-nominated Best Actress performance in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (Fox).  

During her remaining career she would appear in only one more Western: THE SECRET OF CONVICT LAKE (Fox, 1951).

Gene Tierney was nominated for an Academy Award at age twenty-five and Henry Fonda was first nominated for an Oscar at age thirty-five for his performance in THE GRAPES OF WRATH.  Jackie Cooper was nominated for a Best Actor Award in 1931.  The film was SKIPPY, and he was nine-years-old.

Jackie Cooper (L) and Robert Coogan (R) in a scene from SKIPPY.
At the time of his nomination he was the youngest performer to be nominated for an Academy Award and is still the youngest to be nominated for a Best Actor Award.

Besides SKIPPY, his best known performances were in co-starring roles with Wallace Beery in THE CHAMP (1931) and TREASURE ISLAND (1934).

Like many (most?) child actors Cooper experienced difficulty in making the transition to more mature roles.  Many years later, however, he made a comeback in television as an Emmy Award winning actor/director.

By the way, Jackie Cooper first gained prominence when he became one of the most popular members of the "Our Gang" troupe in 1929-31.  Ironically, another former popular member of that gang, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, has a couple of scenes in THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES.

The supporting cast in THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES is superb and in many cases it consists of performers reprising their JESSE JAMES roles, including: Henry Hull as Major Cobb; John Carradine as Bob Ford; Charles Tannen as Charlie Ford; J. Edward Bromberg as George Runyan, railroad detective; Donald Meek as McCoy, the head of the railroad; Ernest Whitman as Pinky; and George Chandler as Roy, Major Cobb's assistant.

J. Edward Bromberg (L) as railroad detective George Runyan and Henry Hull (R) as Major Rufus Cobb

John Carradine as a worried Bob Ford
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that John Carradine, in the same year that he portrayed the despicable turncoat Bob Ford, also gave a touching and haunting performance as the preacher Casy in THE GRAPES OF WRATH.  In fact, he had become one of John Ford's favorite supporting actors. 

Friedrich Christian "Fritz" Lang (1890-1976) was an accomplished director who specialized in film noir.  Therefore, he was a surprise choice to direct THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES, since he not only had never directed a western, he had never even directed a color film.  The film is overly slow moving at times, but that may be the fault of the script as much as Lang's direction. Regardless of that criticism, the film was a winner at the box-office.

Fox, pleased with the financial success of Lang's first Western, signed him to film one the following year, and the results were even better.  If WESTERN UNION  an epic film about the stringing of the telegraph, does not achieve classic status, it comes very close.  And for sure, it provided Randolph Scott with one of his very best performances.

Lang directed only one other western, and though RANCHO NOTORIOUS (RKO, 1952) has its partisans, I confess that I am not one of them.  It isn't Lang's direction but the cast that makes it a weak film. There were just too many performers in the film who were never believable in western roles.


Frank and Clem pursue Bob and Charley with the Rocky Mountains (Sierra Nevadas) as a backdrop.    

Bob and Charley cross on a treacherously narrow bridge -- and in hot pursuit Frank and Clem will do the same.

One of the great strengths of JESSE JAMES was the lush, lavish color photography provided by George Barnes (1892-1953).  Added to the appeal of the film was the fact that much of it was shot on location in Missouri where most of the story takes place. The entire sequel was filmed in California, with the Sierra Nevadas standing in for the Colorado Rockies.

For the most part it is also beautifully photographed except for some Denver town scenes marred by obviously fake snowcaps in the background. That, however, was not Barnes' fault, but was a cost-cutting measure.

Barnes photographed his first feature in 1918 and went on to film two Rudolph Valentino films, including his final one, THE SON OF SHEIK (UA, 1926). Nominated eight times for an Academy Award, he won for his work on REBECCA (UA), released the same year as THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES


"'s not a bad picture but it doesn't have the spirited flavor of JESSE JAMES.  Lang's directorial hand was heavy and humorless....A big movie lamentably dated." -- Brian Garfield, Western Films: A Complete Guide

"Where Henry King's film [JESSE JAMES] is romantic, lush even, Lang's, despite the revenge motive which occurs so often in his work as the force behind the narrative, is almost a sentimental celebration of the Old West...The result is a slow-moving and strangely anonymous looking film. -- Phil Hardy, The Western

"Though neither one of Lang's nor the Jesse James cycle's best films, [it is] a rewarding curiosity." -- Richard Collins, The BFI Companion to the Western

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