I Shot Jesse James (Lippert, 1949)
Jesse James on the screen 7: Samuel Fuller
We’ve been looking recently at portrayals on the screen of Jesse James in the 1940s. The decade started with a big-studio film, Fox’s The Return of Frank James, directed by Fritz Lang and starring Henry Fonda, but most of the Jesses of the 40s were at the lower-budget end of the scale. Last time, for example, we discussed Jesse James in the Republic serials. But the pre-, during and post-war era had one more ‘important’ Jesse to offer us, and although that too was not a big-budget affair, it was still interesting.
I should probably declare an interest before I start. I am not a fan of Samuel Fuller. I know he was an interesting chap and all, I know French cinéphiles think he’s the best thing since le pain tranché, as the French don’t say, and I daresay his movies in other genres were top class, I wouldn’t know, but as far as his Westerns go, well, I just don’t like them. Forty Guns was lurid and trashy. As for Run of the Arrow the same year (1957) I don’t know which was worse, Fuller’s writing or Rod Steiger’s acting. The Baron of Arizona was hardly a Western, more a Gothic melodrama with Vincent Price (quite fun though). Fuller co-wrote the uninspired Guy Madison cavalry Western The Command. His last Western, The Deadly Trackers, wasn’t by him at all in the end, though it was trashy enough to be. It is said that Warners were so appalled at the first rushes and star Richard Harris hated Fuller's script so much that he walked out on the original production, so the studio pulled it, rewrote and recast it and got someone else to direct. So Fuller’s Western record was, let us say, mixed.
He himself said of I Shot Jesse James, “Making just another Western wasn’t going to give me a hard-on. Holdups, revolvers, leather gloves, and galloping horses didn’t do anything for me. The real aggression and violence in the film would be happening inside the head of a psychotic, delusional killer.” He meant Ford rather than James.
But by far his best picture in the genre, I Shot Jesse James was actually not only Fuller’s first Western as director, it was indeed his first helming of any film – “début d’une longue et belle carrière” as Erick Maurel says, and you may agree. Perhaps.
And in fact I Shot Jesse James is surprisingly not-too-bad. It isn’t exactly good. It’s pulp fiction, an ultra-low-budget black & white picture from cheapo studio Lippert, shot in ten days, with an unstellar cast. Furthermore, it’s complete baloney historically: written by Fuller from an American Weekly magazine story by Homer Croy (“whose facts aren’t always factual,” says Johnny Boggs in his book Jesse James and the Movies) it has Bob Ford killing Jesse because of a woman he loves; there follows a Psychology 101 study of guilt, and then Frank James comes to Creede, Colorado to get his revenge. Ford is finally killed in a Main Street showdown with the marshal. Hooey, all of it.
And yet it does grip you. In any case, the Jesse James story has been overlaid by so many layers of myth, as we have already seen, that it is not even possible to tell “the truth” about it, and merely being tosh factually is no disqualification for a Western. Some of the very greatest have been pure fiction. Look at how John Ford portrayed Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine, for instance. Of course I Shot Jesse James has zero Fordian artistry. But, largely thanks to John Ireland (as Bob Ford) it’s actually quite intense. Some of the photography (Ernest Miller, low-budget Westerns from 1923 to ’54) is good, with a big concentration on close-ups, perhaps faute de costly landscapes. And Fuller introduced a hint of noir (all the rage in the late 40s), enhanced by the monochrome so different from the Technicolor Fox pictures of ten years before.
By the end of the 1940s, the way people thought of Jesse James you’d think Bob's surname was Iscariot rather than Ford. Fuller did at least want to show the other side of the James boys, that they were murderous brigands with few saving graces. That’s good. But to do this he elevates Robert Ford into an almost noble, certainly tragic character who acts out of love, and, well, that’s just as implausible. Robert Newton Ford, the real one, 1862 to 1892, was just twenty when he killed Jesse James (as against Ireland’s 36) and he was, it appears, little more than an impressionable youth. He had admired James for some time, though only met him two years before. It is said that Robert Ford's brother Charles took part in the James-Younger gang's Blue Cut train robbery, west of Glendale, Missouri on September 7, 1881. In the movie Charley Ford is played by Tommy Noonan, who was John Ireland’s half-brother, so there was a real fraternal relationship of sorts to match the screen one.
Susan King writes, “By 1882, the James gang was a shadow of its former self on account of arrests, death and defections. The only people James felt he could trust were Charley Ford, who had been a veteran of James’ raids, and his brother Robert Ford, who was eager to prove himself.” James invited the Fords to take part in the robbery of the Platte City Bank, but the brothers had already decided not to participate; instead, they intended to collect the $10,000 bounty placed on James by Governor Thomas T Crittenden. Crittenden promised Ford a full pardon if he would kill James, who was by then the most wanted criminal in the USA.
After the killing, the Fords wired Crittenden to claim their reward. They surrendered themselves to legal authorities but were dismayed to be charged with first-degree murder. However, in only one day, the Ford brothers were indicted, pleaded guilty, sentenced to death by hanging, then two hours later granted a full pardon by Crittenden.
Largely thanks to the ballad written and circulated by Billy Gashade, the Fords became bywords for treacherous cowards.
For a time Bob earned money by posing for photographs as "the man who killed Jesse James" in dime museums. He also appeared on stage with his brother Charley, reenacting the murder in a touring stage show (in The Return of Frank James Frank goes to see the show). Charles was terminally ill with tuberculosis and addicted to morphine, and he committed suicide on May 4, 1884. Soon after that, Bob Ford relocated to Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory, where he opened a saloon. According to one story, Ford had a shooting contest with Jose Chavez y Chavez, a friend of Billy the Kid's during the Lincoln County War. Ford lost the contest and left town. On the day after Christmas 1889 Ford survived an assassination attempt in Kansas City, Kansas when an assailant tried to slit his throat. Ford then moved to Colorado to take advantage of the silver strike and opened a saloon/dance hall again, first in Walsenburg, then in the boomtown of Creede. When the entire business district of Creede, including Ford's saloon, burned to the ground in a major fire, Ford opened a tent saloon until he could rebuild. Three days after the fire, though, on June 8, 1892, Edward O'Kelley (he is usually called that anyway) entered Ford's tent with a shotgun. According to witnesses, Ford's back was turned. O'Kelley said, "Hello, Bob." As Ford turned to see who it was, O'Kelley fired both barrels, killing Ford instantly. O'Kelley thus became "the man who killed Robert Ford". Little is known about O’Kelley (or Kelley or Kelly) or about his motivation for the murder. One theory is that O'Kelley had stolen Ford's diamond ring, and the dispute escalated. O'Kelley's sentence was commuted because of a 7,000-signature petition in favor of his release and a medical condition, and he was freed on October 3, 1902. O'Kelley was subsequently killed on January 13, 1904 while trying to shoot a policeman.
Ford was buried in Creede. His remains were afterwards moved and reinterred in his native Richmond in Ray County, Missouri. "The man who shot Jesse James" was inscribed on his grave marker.
Such were the facts, as far as we can tell. Some of these were used by Fuller. In the movie we have the ballad and its impact (Robin Short is ‘Troubadour’, the Gashade-figure, and a beautiful voice he has too) in a well-handled and acted scene, and we see the stage show (gripped by remorse, Bob can’t go through with the re-enactment of the shooting). We have the assassination attempt on Bob (though it’s a punk with a gun who tries to kill him). And there’s a diamond ring, the engagement ring for his beloved, which Ford accuses Kelley of stealing (he didn’t, though). We start with rather enjoyable intro titles and credits, all the names posted up on a wooden wall alongside a WANTED – DEAD OR ALIVE bill on Jesse. Actually, Fuller said, “Everything was done on the cheap. When we ran out of money at the end, we had to film the opening credits on posters tacked to a wall.”
We open with a bank job in Topeka, Kansas (which Jesse James never did rob, but never mind), Bob Ford emptying the safe while Jesse (Reed Hadley) holds a gun on a sweating bank teller. Jesse is steely-eyed and Fuller wants us to see his ruthlessness. Fuller said he thought Jesse James was a cold-blooded psychopath, and Bob Ford “did something that should have been done quite a bit earlier”. In this way his Western was quite revisionist. But curiously, he doesn’t go on with that; I could wish Fuller’s Jesse had been ‘harder’. But Jesse becomes quite gentle. When the teller manages to sound a (rather modern) alarm, gunfire erupts and the robbers flee, dropping their loot, Bob is shot, and once clear of the (unnamed) town, Jesse rather tenderly dresses his wound, then takes the youth back to his home on the outskirts of St Joseph, where he remains for the next six months.
Hadley had been Red Ryder on the radio and Zorro in Republic's serial and did 26 feature Westerns between 1938 and 1963. I always thought he was rather good. At the St Joe house, Jesse’s wife Zee (Barbara Woodell, very good actually, who would also be Zee in a later Lippert Jesse James B-movie, The Great Jesse James Raid in 1953) makes clear that she does not care for the Ford boys at all; but Jesse reassures her about Bob. “He’s a good boy.” Is Zee jealous of Bob? There is the hint of some attraction between the famous outlaw and his neophyte, bordering on the homoerotic. This was certainly taken up by Ron Hansen in his 1983 novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and in the subsequent movie of the same title in 2007, and indeed you feel that the recent movie’s bathtub scene was a sort of reference to Fuller’s, in which Jesse bathes and asks Bob to scrub his back (that back again). Bob Ford’s last words in Fuller’s film are “I loved him.” Fuller said in his autobiography, “The real Jesse James was bisexual, masquerading as a girl to hold up trains … The guy was a low-down thief, a pervert, and a sonofabitch.” I don’t know where Fuller got this historical ‘fact’ but in any case in 1949 he could only hint at it. “You couldn’t show that stuff on a screen back then.”
However, maybe the makers of Young Jesse James in 1960 had heard this story too. They had Jesse (Ray Stricklyn) in drag at one point.
One of the reasons the film works is Ireland, whom Fuller had seen and admired in Red River the year before (where there is also a sublimated quasi-homosexual relationship, between Ireland’s Cherry Valance and Montgomery Clift’s Matt Garth). Ireland was a fine actor, actually. Later in ’49 he would be nominated for his part in All the King’s Men. Then he would be excellent in another Lippert Western, Little Big Horn. He’d started as a young Clanton in My Darling Clementine and you may remember him in The Doolins of Oklahoma with Randolph Scott, Red Mountain with Alan Ladd or in Hannah Lee: An American Primitive, which he also co-produced and co-directed. The romance is introduced early and thenceforth dominates the picture. Fuller said to Lippert, “It’s a murder story, goddamit!” but actually it isn’t, not really. It’s a love story. Bob Ford’s love is directed (though he only knows it at the end) towards Jesse but for most of the movie the object of his affections is actress Cynthy (Barbara Britton, the ‘perfect wife/mother’ of the 40s and 50s, rather prim and not quite convincing as a louche showgirl, Molly in the Joel McCrea The Virginian, leading lady to Randolph Scott in both Gunfighters and Albuquerque, Helen Chester in the Jeff Chandler version of The Spoilers). She won’t marry an outlaw who consorts with Jesse James and he decides to kill Jesse for the reward and the pardon, so that the two may live in married bliss. Actually, though, she probably won’t marry him anyway.
This is because Cynthy has another suitor, Kelley, a ‘silver king’ from Colorado, though now broke, played by top-billed Preston Foster. You probably know Foster, he-man actor, composer, songwriter, guitarist and author, No. 2 to Barbara Stanwyck in the 1935 Annie Oakley, star of the 1937 version of The Outcasts of Poker Flat, Sergeant Brett in North West Mounted Police, the colonel in Tomahawk, and so on. He’s OK in I Shot Jesse James, in fact, at least convincing as a tough guy, and his saloon brawl is really brutal. He’s less good as a convincing young lover of la Britton, in her twenties; he looks older than his 48 years. Of course he too is in Creede at the end, for dramatically Kelley must kill Bob. Bob has had good luck: in partnership with Soapy (Victor Kilian, Darby in The Ox-Bow Incident) he has struck it rich, raking in silver hand over fist (presumably well more than thirty pieces of the stuff). But Kelley has not had the luck of Ford, and is down to his last dime, so he reluctantly accepts the marshal’s badge, with the job of keeping order in the rowdy silver town. As you can see, we said earlier that little is known of the real killer of Bob Ford, and Fuller has made the most of his carte blanche to invent a backstory. It makes Kelley a strong, if not very plausible character.
In the climactic showdown, Kelley turns his back on Ford. He knows that Bob can no longer shoot a man in the back. A risky strategy, I would have thought, turning your back on an armed Bob Ford. Frank James (Tom Tyler, ex-silent movie cowboy who would rather corner the market in Frank James roles: he was Frank three times) wouldn’t do that. He walks backwards out of Ford’s saloon.
It’s a picture that was pretty well destined for low-rent movie theaters in the Bible Belt, and normally it would have died there in fairly short order, but it was ‘adopted’ as an art film by the liberal intelligentsia on the east and west coasts, then of course by the French. Jean-Luc Godard said it had “an oppressive intensity the cinema had not seen since Dreyer’s Joan of Arc.” Honestly, you couldn’t make it up, could you? Some of these French cinéastes seem to be parodying themselves. Still, plenty of sensible people think it’s a great film.
I don’t. I think it’s definitely the best Western by Samuel Fuller but then that isn’t setting the bar very high. It is, though, an 'important' Western in the history of the genre. You need to see it, at least once.
The Christian Science Monitor said quite perspicaciously, “Some of I Shot Jesse James seems factual. Some of it is obviously romanticized. The combination holds attention better than the baldness of the title might suggest.” The Los Angeles Times also liked it, noting “John Ireland is typed perfectly for the Bob Ford role and does an excellent job.” Variety said, “I Shot Jesse James is a character study of the man who felled the west’s most famous outlaw with a coward’s bullet. It’s an interesting treatment that doesn’t overlook necessary plot and action.”
The New York Times was snootier, though: “Since the character study is not particularly interesting, I Shot Jesse James is a very mild pretense at being an entertainment.”
Later critics are also mixed. Brian Garfield lauds Ireland but says the movie is “hammily acted by most of the players, unevenly written and routinely directed.” A bit harsh, maybe.
Still, it was enough of a success for Lippert to do I Shot Billy the Kid in 1950, with Robert Lowery as Pat Garrett and Don ‘Red’ Barry as Bonney, which was nothing like as good, and Ireland would also return that year in Lippert’s sequel The Return of Jesse James, ditto. But that will be for another day.
We'll take a pause now on celluloid Jesses and move on to other things. Don't want to get obsessed. But Jesse James will ride again across the screen, so keep on coming back!